The Surprising Missing Piece On Pieter van den Hoogenband's Swimming Resume

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Pieter van den Hoogenband is widely regarded as one of the greatest male freestylers in swimming history.

Many fondly remember his exploits at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, where the Dutchman upset home crowd favorite Ian Thorpe in the final of the men’s 200 freestyle, first breaking Thorpe’s world record in the semis before matching that to win the final.

van den Hoogenband went on to win gold in the 100 free (also breaking the world record in the semis) in Sydney, becoming the first to complete the 100/200 double since Mark Spitz in 1972.

In 2004, van den Hoogenband won a repeat title in the 100 free, and showed impressive longevity by taking fifth in the event at the 2008 Games in Beijing, finishing just eight one-hundredths shy of a third straight trip to the podium.

But amid his vast international success that spanned well over a decade, van den Hoogenband has one shocking accolade missing from his resume: a long course World Championship title.

Given the success the now 44-year-old experienced at the pinnacle of the sport, the Olympic Games, it’s hard to fathom that he never came out on top at the World Championships.

During his 10 years atop the sport, having really come into his own in 1998, van den Hoogenband had the opportunity to compete in five editions of LC Worlds, and raced in four of them. In 2005, he pulled out of the competition after undergoing a hernia operation.

More often than not, it was Thorpe standing in van den Hoogenband’s way of World Championship success.

1998 World Championships

Only 19 at the time, van den Hoogenband continued the momentum he created after breaking out on the international scene at the 1996 Olympics, picking up a pair of medals at the 1998 World Championships in Perth, Australia.

He snagged an individual bronze in the 200 free, trailing Michael Klim (1:47.41) and Massimiliano Rosolino (1:48.30), in a time of 1:48.65, and added a silver on the 800 free relay.

van den Hoogenband led off the Netherlands’ relay in a time of 1:48.36, with the team ultimately winning the silver medal, more than four seconds back of the Australian quartet that included Klim and Thorpe.

van den Hoogenband also finished fourth in the 100 free, six one-hundredths shy of the podium, and showed a sign of things to come when he had the fastest split in the entire field on the 400 free relay (48.38).

LC Worlds Medal Count: 1 Silver, 1 Bronze

2001 World Championships

After his monumental performance at the 2000 Olympics, 2001 figured to be the time when van den Hoogenband had ascended to the top of the sport and was ready to get his hands on a world title.

But it wasn’t to be, as he earned three silver medals in the 50, 100 and 200 free, and added a fourth in the 400 free relay for good measure.

He placed second to Anthony Ervin by a combined 17 one-hundredths in the 50 and 100 free, and then was a distant runner-up to Thorpe in the 200 free, with the Aussie setting a new world record that would stand for almost six years.

In the 400 free relay, van den Hoogenband anchored the Dutch team in 47.02, more than 1.4 seconds faster than his time in the individual 100 free (48.43), making up eight-tenths on Thorpe, but the Australians still won by .46.

LC Worlds Medal Count: 5 Silvers, 1 Bronze

2003 World Championships

After a standout showing at the 2002 European Championships in Berlin, which included a career-best 1:44.89 in the 200 free, van den Hoogenband once again got on the podium in the 50/100/200 free at the 2003 World Championships. And once again, no gold.

He placed second to Alexander Popov in the 100 free, second to Thrope in the 200 free, and also placed third in the 50 free.

While he was within .26 of Popov in the 100, van den Hoogenband was well over a second back of Thorpe in the 200 in Barcelona.

But while his individual swims were a little bit off the form he showed the year prior at Euros, van den Hoogenband did reel off the fastest relay split in history (at the time) on the 400 medley relay, anchoring the Dutch to fifth with a 46.70 leg. The split was 1.35 seconds quicker than Popov on the relay, but alas, in the individual event, the Russian legend got the better of the Dutchman.

LC Worlds Medal Count: 7 Silvers, 2 Bronze

2007 World Championships

A lot happened in van den Hoogenband’s career between the 2003 and 2007 World Championships.

Despite dealing with a hernia, he had a successful performance at the 2004 Olympics, defending his title in the 100 free, winning silver in the 200 in the “Race of the Century” behind Thorpe and ahead of Michael Phelps, and also produced a memorable split on the 400 free relay.

With the South Africans well ahead en route to gold and a new world record, van den Hoogenband anchored the Dutch team home in a scintillating 46.79 to run down Jason Lezak and earn the Netherlands the silver medal ahead of the Americans.

“I was in my best shape ever, in Athens, but I was racing with a hernia,” van den Hoogenband told NBC Olympics in 2015. “So I had big problems in my lower back. So every race I did, I was in less form than I was at the start. I knew I could swim a fast 100. So I told my teammates, to get me close to Lezak, because I know maybe I can do something special and we can win a medal.”

After sitting out of the 2005 Worlds to deal with the hernia and winning the 200 free at the 2006 Euros, van den Hoogenband took on the 2007 World Championships in Melbourne, which ended up being the last Worlds of his career.

In the 200 free, Phelps delivered a memorable performance, winning gold and breaking Thorpe’s 2001 world record in a time of 1:43.86. van den Hoogenband, nearly two and a half seconds back for the silver medal, essentially decided then and there that he would not race the event at the 2008 Olympics due to Phelps’ dominance.

“Phelps really killed me in Melbourne in 2007, because he really analyzed the race in Athens, what happened, and he brought the 200m freestyle to the next level,” van den Hoogenband said seven years ago.

In the 100 free, van den Hoogeband placed sixth in a time of 48.63. Despite being well off his career best, his time was still only two-tenths shy of the gold medal, which was shared by Italy’s Filippo Magnini and Canada’s Brent Hayden.

LC Worlds Medal Count: 8 Silvers, 2 Bronze

FINAL LC WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP MEDAL COUNT

  • 1998 – Silver, 4×200 free relay
  • 1998 – Bronze, 200 free
  • 2001 – Silver, 50 free
  • 2001 – Silver, 100 free
  • 2001 – Silver, 200 free
  • 2001 – Silver, 4×100 free relay
  • 2003 – Silver, 100 free
  • 2003 – Silver, 200 free
  • 2003 – Bronze, 50 free
  • 2007 – Silver, 200 free

2008 & Retirement

After placing fifth in the 100 free in 2008, van den Hoogenband retired from the sport. In that 2015 interview with NBC, he said he never considered making an attempt at a comeback, despite his deep LOVE for the sport.

“It was my biggest passion, but always when I make a choice, that’s it,” he said. “I knew I gave everything to win the 100 freestyle in Beijing. I finished fifth. I knew, OK, I’m not the best anymore. So now I have to focus on different things and do something else.”

Despite having so many near misses at the LC World Championships, van den Hoogenband does own one SC World Championship gold medal from the 1999 men’s 800 free relay. He’s also a 10-time LC European champion and eight-time SC European champion in addition to his massive Olympic success.

But, despite owning 10 medals across four appearances at the LC World Championships, none of them are gold. This says nothing about van den Hoogenband’s ability to compete when the stakes are high—one Olympic gold medal alone takes care of that, and he has three individual (and seven total medals).

It’s more of a strange oddity, where one of the best swimmers of his generation ran into some of the other stars of the era (Thorpe, Popov, Phelps) at Worlds, resulting in some near-misses, and clearly prioritized showing up at the Olympics in optimal form rather than the World Championships.


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