Seebohm and McKeown into final but gold drought goes on
ON A night of near-misses for the Australian team at the world championships, Emily Seebohm was a shining light as she equalled her national record to qualify fastest for the 200m backstroke final.
Seebohm, the reigning world champion, has improved through the week in Budapest and produced her most impressive performance to date to win her semi-final in 2min 5.81sec.
The last time she swam that fast was to win the world title in Kazan two years ago.
It confirmed she has made a complete recovery from the health issues that undermined her Olympic campaign last year.
Her time was faster than the winning time at last year's Rio Olympics.
The new world 100m backstroke champion Kylie Masse was the second fastest qualifier (2:05.97), just ahead of American contender Kathleen Baker (2:06.66).
Rookie Australian Kaylee McKeown, just 16, set a huge personal best of 2:07.40 to qualify for her first world championship final in sixth place, just ahead of Olympic silver medallist Katinka Hosszu (2:07.51).
Seebohm swam a perfectly controlled race, roaring home to win a contest she once hated.
"I feel like the 200 is my favourite now because you can play around with it a bit more than the 100," she said.
"It's interesting, times change."
Seebohm, 25 and competing at her sixth world championships, stressed that being the top qualifier did not guarantee her anything in the final
"It will be interesting to see what will happen tomorrow night, but anything can happen and we saw that in the 100m free tonight (where Olympic champion Simone Manuel upset new world record-holder Sarah Sjostrom)," she said.
"Just because someone's in lane four and has the fastest time doesn't mean they are going to win. I'm just going to go out and enjoy it. If I can do a little bit faster than tonight I'll be happy because that's a PB and that's all I can do."
She said the disappointment in Rio had taught her that "getting the best out of myself is that's way more important to me than getting a medal."
McKeown said reaching the final made her "so happy and proud".
For the second year in a row in the women's 100m freestyle final, American Simone Manuel downed the new world record-holder to claim the title.
Last year Australia's Cate Campbell could not deliver on her proven speed, and this year Sjostrom suffered the same fate after setting an astonishing world record of 51.71 sec earlier this week.
Manuel mowed the Swede down over the last 30m to win in a personal best of 52.27sec. Sjostrom was second in 52.31sec with Denmark's Olympic 50m champion Pernille Blue third (52.69sec).
Australia's former world champion Bronte Campbell, who came into the meet under an injury cloud, finished seventh in 53.18sec, one place ahead of Emma McKeon (53.21sec), whose mammoth workload this week has started to tell.
Campbell said she felt both "underdone and overcooked" after a terrible final preparation disrupted by shoulder injuries and illness.
"If you look at the time and the place, you would probably think I would be upset with that but. that was exactly what my race plan was," Campbell said.
"There was just a little bit of power and energy lacking at the end, which is pretty much an indication of where I'm at. I feel very lucky to be racing so everything this week is a bonus."
Commonwealth champion Taylor McKeown, older sister of Kaylee, went into the 200m breaststroke final with a shot of a medal but misjudged her race and finished seventh (2:23.06sec). Even her qualifying time would have earned her fourth place as controversial Russian Yuliya Efimova took the gold medal in 2:19.64.
McKeown, 22, was furious with herself for repeating the same mistake she made in last year's Olympic final.
"I'm a bit devastated, I should have raced better than that," she said.
"That's such a disappointing time. It's not through lack of training, my training has been awesome. It's just lack of focus in setting up my race right. It's just so frustrating but I have eight months to get it right for Commonwealth Games."
Australia's top male breaststroker Matt Wilson, 18, made his first appearance in a world final but could not repeat his personal best from the semi-final and finished eighth.
The youthful men's 4x200m freestyle relay team, aged between 18 and 22, finished one place out of the medals in a promising performance for the future.
The British team retained the world title (7:01.70) from Russia (7:02.68) and the United States (7:03.18).
The Australian quartet of Clyde Lewis, 19 (1:46.81), Mack Horton, 21 (1:46.25), Alex Graham, 22 (1:46.58) and Jack Cartwright, 18 (1:46.33) finished in 7:05.98.
In semi-finals, butterflyer Grant Irvine, 26, was delighted to reach his first major final at his third world titles, after setting a personal best time of 51.31 sec, the fastest ever by an Australian in a textile swimsuit.
Both Cameron McEvoy (50m freestyle) and Holly Barratt (50m butterfly) fell one place short of making their respective finals.
It was a great night for the Russian Federation, which has not had much to celebrate since the McLaren Report revealed evidence of rampant institutional doping across its sports system last year.
Russian swimmers won three gold medals - Evgeny Rylov in the 200m backstroke, Yuliya Efimova in the women's 200m breaststroke and Anton Chupkov in the men's 200m breaststroke.
Efimova is a particularly divisive figure in international swimming because she has twice failed drug tests and has served one doping suspension.