Elijah Winnington has powered to his first global gold while the all-conquering 4x100m relay women won again to give Australia the perfect flying start to the world swimming championships.
Winnington earned redemption after his Olympic disappointment, speeding to an emphatic victory in the 400m freestyle, the first final of the entire week-long programme in Budapest, on Saturday.
Inspired by his lead, sprint freestylers Mollie O’Callaghan, Madi Wilson, Meg Harris and Shayna Jack maintained Australia’s recent dominance in the event, winning the last race of the day with the fifth fastest time in history, 3 minutes 30.95 seconds.
A superb launchpad for the Dolphins also saw Kyle Chalmers deliver an anchor leg masterpiece in the men’s 4x100m, enabling his teammates William Yang, Matthew Temple and Jack Cartwright to celebrate the most unlikely silver behind a dominant US quartet.
The 22-year-old Gold Coast freestyler Winnington kicked it all off after the opening ceremony, swimming the race of his life and even flirting with the world record for much of his 400m final.
He eventually settled for a new lifetime best of 3:41.22 as he demolished the field at the Duna Arena in the Hungarian capital by over one-and-a-half seconds and became the fifth fastest ever at the distance.
Ian Thorpe is the only Australian to have gone quicker than his mark, the fastest in the world this year.
“It’s incredible. I was really relaxed, I’m just trying to enjoy this experience and that definitely helps,” the ecstatic Winnington said. “In the call room, I’ve heard the noise, the MC’s voice and it was a total boost for me. I haven’t had this feeling for a long time.”
Last year Winnington, who has suffered from nerves before, was left crestfallen after going into the Olympics with high hopes but finishing only seventh in the final. But this time, he set off operating inside German world record holder Paul Biedermann’s mark of 3:40.07 set 13 years ago, admitting that he hadn’t realised.
2016 Olympic champ Mack Horton had just missed out on making the final from the morning prelims but Winnington took it to No 1-ranked German Lukas Martens (3:42.85) from the start.
Winnington led through the first half of the race before Martens controlled the next two lengths, which only prompted a blistering finish from the Aussie who powered down the final stretch in just 26.5 seconds while the German faded badly.
Even without three of the quartet who blitzed the world record en route to Olympic gold in Tokyo, the 4×100 women were way too good for the rest with O’Callaghan (52.70sec), Wilson (52.60), Harris (53.00) and Jack finishing with 52.65 on her global return after a two-year doping ban.
In the equivalent men’s event, Chalmers, the Rio Olympic champion, recorded the seventh fastest 100m relay leg ever as he picked up over a second on the last leg to edge out Italian Lorenzo Zazzeri and snatch the silver by just 0.15sec.
In the women’s 400, Australian Lani Pallister just missed out on a medal in fourth, just 0.08sec outside the medals, as Katie Ledecky reclaimed her crown but failed to grab back her world record off Ariarne Titmus.
In the absence of Australian Titmus, who pipped the great freestyler to the title in 2019 and took her world record in 3:56.40 last month, the American legend clocked 3:58.15 for her fourth world 400m free title.
Wollongong’s Brendon Smith was fifth in the 400m IM (4:11.36) which was won by the brilliant French allrounder Leon Marchand, who threatened Michael Phelps’ venerable world record of 4:03.84 before settling for the second fastest ever (4:04.28).