Americans Curzan, Armstrong claim the spotlight at the World Aquatics Championships

DOHA, Qatar (AP) — With some of America’s biggest stars deciding to stay home, Claire Curzan and Hunter Armstrong claimed the spotlight at the World Aquatics Championships on Tuesday.

Curzan won gold in the women’s 100-meter backstroke at the Aspire Dome, while Armstrong followed just a few minutes later with a victory in the men’s 100 back.

The U.S. leads the swimming medal table with four golds and eight medals overall through the first three days of competition in Doha.

Also Tuesday, Simona Quadarella of Italy romped to another world title in the women’s 1,500 freestyle, Hwang Sun-woo gave South Korea its second individual gold of the championships with a victory in the men’s 200 freestyle, and Tang Qianting of China won the women’s 100 breaststroke.

The 19-year-old Curzan, who competes at the University of Virginia, claimed the first individual world title of her burgeoning career. She benefitted from the absence of reigning champion Kaylee McKeown of Australia and American stalwart Regan Smith, both of whom skipped these COVID-delayed worlds to focus on the Paris Olympics.

Curzan won in 58.29 seconds — significantly slower than McKeown’s winning time of 57.53 last summer at the worlds in Fukuoka. The silver went to Australia’s Iona Anderson (59.12) and Canada’s Ingrid Wilm (59.18) grabbed the bronze.

“I can’t really believe it yet,” Curzan said. “Really excited.”

Armstrong bounced back from a mix-up in the semifinals, where he swam in the wrong lane, to win his race in 52.68. After settling for bronze in the 100 back at the last two world championships, the Ohio native now has a gold.

“No meet is ever going to go perfectly like you want it to,” Armstrong said. “We just have to learn to mentally get over it.”

Armstrong held off Spain’s Hugo Gonzalez, his training partner at Cal. The two embraced after Gonzalez claimed the silver at 52.70. The bronze went to Greece’s Apostolos Christou at 53.36.

“It was a good race,” Armstrong said. “That was a fight for every meter.”

The defending world champion, American Ryan Murphy, was another star who skipped the Doha worlds. His winning time last summer was 52.22.

In the grueling 1,500 free, Quadarella began to pull away from the field around the 500-meter mark and finished nearly a half-lap ahead in 15:46.99.

“I tried to start slowly,” Quadarella said, “then tried to build my speed.”

Katie Ledecky, the U.S. star who has dominated the freestyle distance races over the past decade, had won five of the last six world titles in the 1,500. But she, too, decided to skip the trip to Doha.

Quadarella also took the 1,500 title in 2019 when Ledecky scratched because of an illness. But the 25-year-old Italian will have to go much faster to have any chance for gold in Paris.

Ledecky, the reigning Olympic gold medalist, won the world championship last summer in Fukuoka at 15:26.27 — more than 17 seconds ahead of Quadarella in the runner-up spot.

Li Bingjie of China took the silver in 15:56.62, just ahead of bronze medalist Isabel Gose of Germany at 15:57.55.

Hwang pushed the pace through the first two laps before American Luke Hobson grabbed the top spot with 50 meters to go. But Hwang powered back to the front on the final lap, holding off fast-charging Danas Rapsys to win in 1:44.75.

Rapsys, the top qualifier out of the semifinals, settled for silver in 1:45.05. The bronze went to Hobson at 1:45.26.

The 20-year-old Hwang, a two-time short course world champion, earned the biggest victory of his career in the big pool.

“I don’t have a long-course gold medal,” Hwang said. “But I did it today, so I’m very happy.”

Hwang’s victory came on the heels of countryman Kim Woo-min winning the 400 freestyle.

Hobson, part of a scaled-back team for these world championships, gave himself a big boost with the Paris Olympics just five months away.

“I’m super excited for this summer,” said Hobson, a Nevada native who competes for the University of Texas. “I think that’s a promising result for what’s to come, so I can’t wait.”

Tang went out strong in the 100 breast and was never seriously challenged on the return lap, winning with a time of 1:05.27 to give China its second gold of the meet.

The silver went to Tes Schouten of the Netherlands (1:05.82) and Hong Kong’s Siobhan Haughey grabbed a surprising bronze (1:05.92).

Haughey posted the second-fast time in the 200 free semifinals less than an hour earlier.

“I was not expecting this,” she said. “I was just swimming the 100 breast for fun. I surprised myself.”

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