Swimming: Youngster Popovici, veteran Ledecky take glory in world championships

Romania's David Popovici (centre) celebrates on the podium with South Korea's Hwang Sun-Woo (left) and Britain's Tom Dean (right). PHOTO: REUTERS

BUDAPEST (AFP) - Monday in Budapest was a great evening for Italians and Romanians, a superb evening for teenagers and, as so often at the World Swimming Championships, a good evening for experienced Americans.

Thomas Ceccon broke the first world record of the championships as he won the 100m backstroke. It was a second Italian gold of the competition after Nicolo Martinenghi took the 100m breaststroke title the night before.

In barely an hour, Italy had a third gold as Benedetta Pilato won the women's 100m breaststroke. Pilato was also the second 17-year-old to win on Monday and the third to take a medal.

David Popovici, a 17-year-old Romanian, had seized the men's 200m freestyle title. Katie Ledecky, at 25 the oldest winner of the evening by three years, reclaimed the 1500m freestyle title. Her 20-year-old compatriot Regan Smith retained her 100m backstroke title.

Ceccon shaved a quarter of a second off the 100m backstroke world record as he won in 51.60sec. "Today nobody could beat me! What a sensational time: 51.6," said Ceccon. Ceccon took the world record off American Ryan Murphy, who had a close-up view, finishing 0.37sec behind in second.

In a sport in which most competitors obsessively shave body hair, Ceccon has drawn comments for his moustache. Asked if it was now a lucky charm, he shrugged. "It's just a moustache," he said. Ceccon is 21 and Martinenghi who was back in the pool on Monday dominating 50m breaststroke qualifying is 22.

Yet in comparison the 17-year-old Pilato is a battle-hardened veteran. She already has a world record, set last year, and a world championship medal, from 2019, both in the 50m breaststroke.

"Before the race I was crying with joy for Thomas, who made me relive the sensations I felt when I set the world record and now, here I am with gold around my neck," she said. Pilato edged German Anna Elendt by 0.05sec with Lithuanian Ruta Meilutyte at 0.09sec.

Popovici took the 200m freestyle in 1min 43.21sec to break the world junior record he set in qualifying. "We just love swimming we are just ordinary people doing amazing things, I think," he said. Popovici overhauled Olympic champion Tom Dean in the third 50m-lap.

Another teenager, 19-year-old South Korean Hwang Sunwoo, grabbed second. Dean held on for third.

'Chaos is going to ensue'

Popovici became the first Romanian man to win a world swimming title and said he was looking forward to making the short trip home. "At the airport chaos is going to ensue," he said in fluent English. "We saw that when I came from Tokyo, where I had fourth place. I'm ready for it and for a little celebration."

Even at 17 Pilato and Popovici talked mental preparation for races. "I can't really sleep during the day," said Popovici. "Sleeping is not the most important thing. What is important is deconnecting yourself from the world... from social media, your phone...anything that gets in the way of achieving my goals." Pilato struggled at the Tokyo Olympics. "I have also overcome the anxiety, and learned to take things calmly," she said.

Ledecky cruised to victory in the 1500m freestyle in 15:30.15. Fellow American Katie Grimes finished 14.74sec behind. Ledecky had won three straight 1500m world titles before illness forced her to withdraw from the 2019 final in Gwangju, South Korea. She rebounded to win gold in the Tokyo Olympics.

Smith won the 2019 100m women's backstroke world title but was third in last year's Olympics. She made the most of the absence of Tokyo gold medallist Australian Kaylee McKeown and took revenge on the silver medallist, Canadian Kylie Masse, who was second this time. Continuing the evening's trend of 17-year-old medallists American Claire Curzan took bronze.

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