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World Aquatics Championships begin in Doha, but many top swimmers are staying home

With all eyes on the Paris Olympics, the World Aquatics Championships feel more like a nuisance than the second-most important event on the swimming calendar.

Given the unusual timing — a lingering fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic — many of the biggest names have decided to skip the meet in Doha, Qatar.

“I don't really care, to be honest,” American breaststroke star Lilly King said. “It's not that big a deal for me.”

The biennial world championships — which also feature diving, water polo, artistic swimming, open water and high diving — are usually held in odd-numbered years to avoid conflicting with the Olympics. But the pandemic threw the schedule all of whack, beginning with the Tokyo Olympics being postponed until 2021.

That forced World Aquatics, the international governing body, to push back its championships scheduled for Fukuoka from ‘21 to ’22.

With efforts to combat COVID-19 still a top priority, Japanese officials weren't willing to hold the meet a year later, either. A replacement was hastily scheduled in Budapest, while the Fukuoka championships were delayed again to 2023 — the slot that was supposed to go to Qatar, the first Middle East nation to host the worlds.

So, the Doha meet was squeezed into the schedule less than six months ahead of the Paris Games, the first time the championships — which began in 1973 — are being held in the same calendar year as the Olympics.

The 17-day competition begins Friday with a pair of diving events.

The swimming days are set for the back half of the meet, but most of the world's top nations are sending what amounts to their B-teams.

For the powerhouse Americans, that means no Katie Ledecky, no Caeleb Dressel, no Ryan Murphy. Australia, which won a leading 13 swimming gold medals last summer in Fukuoka, won't have Kaylee McKeown, Ariarne Titmus or Mollie O’Callaghan.

French star Léon Marchand, who has drawn comparisons to Michael Phelps, is sitting this one out, too. Ditto for Canadian prodigy Summer McIntosh, along with Chinese stalwarts Qin Haiyang and Zhang Yufei.

Of the 22 individual swimming gold medalists at last summer's world championships, only seven are entered for Doha.

King, a five-time Olympic medalist who captured 11 golds and two silvers at the last three world championships, never seriously considered trying to add to her haul.

She is focused solely on being at her best for the U.S. Olympic trials in June and, of course, the biggest meet of all in Paris.

“I don’t want to find out that three eight-day meets in six months is too many on Day 5 of the Olympics," King said. “But for everyone going, I hope they have fun.”

Jack Alexy, who emerged in Fukuoka as one of America's rising sprint stars, decided to concentrate on the NCAA championships in March.

Next to a successful Olympics, his biggest goal this year is helping Cal win its third straight men's national championship.

“I think bypassing the 2024 worlds and focusing on NCAAs and this summer will help put me and my team in the best position,” Alexy said, adding that the worlds is "just too much racing in six months.”

While the U.S. and Australia are sending scaled-back teams, the meet in Doha will feature some compelling storylines.

The British team, for example, picked a squad that included nine medalists from Fukuoka, as well as world-record holder Adam Peaty.

“This is a great racing opportunity on the world stage and will be a serious test of our swimmers’ preparations and work over the winter months as they will still be in heavy training throughout the meet,” said Chris Spice, performance director for British Swimming.

After an extended break to deal with mental health issues, Peaty is eager to regain his status as the sport's most dominant breaststroker.

American Nic Fink, who grabbed a pair of individual silver medals in Fukuoka, looks forward to racing the British star. In fact, all three Olympic medalists from the 100-meter butterfly in Tokyo are set to compete in Doha.

“Not everyone's going to be there, but it will be pretty competitive," Fink said. “That's kind of why I agreed to go. I had a feeling there was still going to be some awesome racing.”

Kate Douglass is the only American individual gold medalist from Fukuoka who will be defending her title. With so many big names sitting out, the 22-year-old has a chance to lead a youthful U.S. team.

“It’ll be a good group of young swimmers,” said Douglass, who won the 200-meter individual medley last summer. “It'll be fun to kind of be a leader in that group, be one of the older ones. I think that will be a good experience for me."

DIVING

China, this sport's longtime superpower, has entered many of the same athletes who hoarded 12 of 13 golds and 19 medals overall in Fukuoka.

Reigning individual world champions Wang Zongyuan, Chen Yiwen and Chen Yuxi were all scheduled to dive in Doha.

Australia's Cassiel Rousseau, who prevented a Chinese sweep last summer with a stunning upset on the men's 10-meter platform, decided not to defend his individual title. He'll focus on the synchronized event.

WATER POLO

Hungary is the defending men's champion, while the Netherlands will look to capture another women's title.

ARTISTIC SWIMMING

Russia, a one-time powerhouse in the sport formerly known as synchronized swimming, hasn't competed at worlds since taking nine of 10 gold medals at the 2019 championships.

The country has been a pariah on the international sports scene since its invasion of Ukraine. The Russian artistic swimmers will be sitting out again at Doha, passing on the chance to enter as neutral athletes.

OPEN WATER

Germany's Florian Wellbrock and Leonie Beck, who swept the individual races in Fukuoka, were set to defend their titles in this rough-and-tumble event that will be held at the Old Doha Port.

HIGH DIVING

The Old Port will also be the site of this non-Olympic event, in which the men fling themselves off a 27-meter (89-foot) tower and the women leap from 20 meters (66 feet).

Defending men's champion Constantin Popovici of Romania and reigning women's champ Rhiannan Iffland of Australia were both scheduled to compete.

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AP sports: https://apnews.com/sports