Daiya Seto Holds Off Fast-Charging Jay Litherland for 400 IM Crown

World Swimming Championships (Daiya Seto)

Gwangju 2019, Day 8 finals

Photo Courtesy: Patrick B. Kraemer

Men’s 400 Individual Medley

On the road to the World Championships, Japan’s Daiya Seto put together a flurry of superb performances over several different events. But there is no arguing that the 400 individual medley was the one in which he looked most dominant, and Seto certainly delivered in that discipline on Sunday night at the Nambu University Aquatics Center.

The 25-year-old, already with a personal-best time from last month in Rome, led wire-to-wire and touched for the gold medal in 4:08.95. The victory handed Seto a sweep of the medley events, and complemented a silver medal in the 200 butterfly. Based on Japan’s qualifying system for the Olympic Games, as a world champion, Seto will receive automatic berths to Tokyo 2020 in both medleys.

Adding to world titles he claimed in 2013 and 2015, Seto went through the butterfly leg in 55.73 and turned at the midway point in 1:58.82. A strong breaststroke leg allowed Seto to move through the 300-meter mark in 3:08.89, and gave him enough of a cushion to hold off fast-charging American Jay Litherland. Posting a career best of 4:09.22, Litherland reeled in Seto with every stroke on the freestyle leg, just coming up shy of a major upset. Litherland split 56.99 over freestyle, compared to the 1:00.06 of Seto.

The bronze medal went to New Zealand’s Lewis Clareburt in 4:12.07, with Spain’s Joanllu Pons finishing fourth in 4:13.30.

“I was lucky to win gold,” Seto said. “I saw him (Litherland). I thought by building up such a big lead, I could overcome any challenge. That I didn’t swim that well at the end is an area for improvement next year (ahead of the Olympics).”

While Seto captured another world title, there was a missing element to the final. American Chase Kalisz, the defending champion, was expected to duel with Seto in the latest chapter of their years-long rivalry. But Kalisz had a disastrous preliminary performance, his time of 4:15.62 leaving him in 10th place and two spots shy of the final. The bronze medalist in the 200 medley earlier in the meet, Kalisz did not stop to speak to reporters about his failure to advance in the 400 IM, his frustration clearly evident.

The other glaring omission from the final was Seto’s countryman Kosuke Hagino, the reigning Olympic champion. In the leadup to the World Champs, Hagino announced he was taking a break from the sport to deal with depression and a lack of motivation. After a few months out of the water, Hagino revealed the spark to compete had returned, and he was dedicating himself to qualifying for the 2020 Olympic Games in his homeland. Between Kalisz’s World Champs outcome and Hagino’s comeback, the 400 medley in Tokyo will feature some intriguing storylines.

Before Hagino embarked on his brief hiatus from the sport, Seto found himself largely in the shadow of his countryman, despite the fact that he owned multiple world titles. But Seto has emerged as his country’s headliner this year, thanks to his consistency over the medley events and 200 fly. Seto, too, has proven himself to be a world-class performer in the 200 breaststroke. For good reason, he’ll be one of those most-hyped athletes in Japan as the Olympics approach in the Land of the Rising Sun.

“I had a good meet,” Seto said. “But I want to be the Olympic champion next year.”

Photo Courtesy: PATRICK B. KRAEMER

For Litherland, his gutsy performance was a major breakthrough and will no doubt serve as a major confidence boost for the Olympic campaign. After notching fifth-place efforts in the 400 medley at the 2016 Olympics and the 2017 World Champs, Litherland moved up to fourth in the event at last summer’s Pan Pacific Championships. He used Gwangju as an opportunity to stand on a major international podium for the first time.

Known for his closing speed on the freestyle leg, Litherland was a freight train over the last two lengths. By reaching the podium, the University of Georgia product extended the United States’ streak of medals in the 400 IM at the World Champs to seven. His effort in Gwangju made him the 11th-fastest performer in history and marked his second time under the 4:10 barrier.

“Toward the flags in, I was like ‘ahh come on!’ but it’s ok,” Litherland said of his late charge. “He’s a fierce competitor and I learned a lot from this meet. I kind of finally know how to taper things through and it’s the last event of the meet, so moving on for sure. (Seto) said he thought I was going to catch him. He was dying. He was hurting a little bit but almost.”

The fifth seed heading into the final, Clareburt moved up two spots and was never out of a podium position. Sitting in second through the first three laps, Clareburt settled into third at the 200-meter point and remained there through the finish. He is the first New Zealand male medalist at the World Championships since Danyon Loader won three medals in 1994 in Rome.

“That was awesome for me,” Clareburt said. “To touch the wall and see the bronze medal, it’s indescribable. I don’t know if I will ever get that feeling ever again.”


1. Daiya Seto, Japan 4:08.95
2. Jay Litherland, United States 4:09.22
3. Lewis Clareburt, New Zealand 4:12.07
4. Joanllu Pons, Spain 4:13.30
5. Peter Bernek, Hungary 4:13.83
6. Maksym Shemberev, Azerbaijan 4:14.10
7. Max Litchfield, Great Britain 4:14.75
8. Arjan Knipping, Netherlands 4:17.06

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