Daniel Wiffen makes history with gold medal for Ireland at World Championships

Armagh swimmer wins first medal for Irish person at long course championships in 800m freestyle

After turning for the last time Daniel Wiffen had nothing only 50 metres of clear water ahead of him, his chance to go where no Irish swimmer had gone before, and the gold medal already in his mind.

By the finish it could not have been any more convincing, Wiffen stretching two seconds and a full body length clear of his last remaining rival to win a thrilling 800 metres freestyle final inside the Aspire Dome in Doha.

Another small step for the 22-year-old from Armagh, another giant leap for Irish swimming.

Because coming just two months after Wiffen became the first Irish swimmer to break a world record, his winning of a first Irish medal at the World Aquatics Championships, and a gold one at that, unquestionably represents another paradigm shift in the sport. No turning back now.


That it comes just over five months before the Paris Olympics, which begin a week after he turns 23, also makes clear his medal prospects on that stage. Wiffen, from the small village of Magheralin on the Armagh side of the county border with Down, has already been promising that for some time.

Just because you’re a world record holder doesn’t mean you’re having it all your own way, and Wiffen was certainly made work for his gold over the 16 closely fought lengths. In the end his winning time of 7:40.94 was a full two seconds clear of Australia’s Elijah Winnington, second in 7:42.95, with Italy’s Gregorio Paltrinieri winning bronze in 7:42.98.

His race effort was immaculately timed, and executed even better, Wiffen hitting the front for the first time with about 75m left to swim.

“That was the goal coming into this meet, to win a world medal, and be on the top of the podium for Ireland, a first medal at World Championship level,” he said. “That’s really cool to say, and I’m ecstatic about that.

“It was just about building the confidence in myself, execute my own race plan, which is exactly what I did. I knew exactly how the race was going to pan out, and it really was just to get to the 400m, then start grinding, and push on again the last 50m. And I knew I was going to win from say the last 100m.”

Wiffen was clearly tuned in too, making a dialled-in gesture with his right hand on entering the arena, then promptly repeating on completing the race.

Winnington, the 400m champion in 2022, had set off at world record pace in lane eight, and was still in front at halfway, passed in 3:48.66; in second then was Paltrinieri, swimming in lane one, the now 29-year-old Italian who won this event back in 2019, and the Olympic 1500m champion from Rio 2016.

Wiffen, however, was biding his time in third, and after Paltrinieri moved into the front, Wiffen passed Winnington with ease.

With 100m to swim, Wiffen was just .31 of a second behind Paltrinieri, then moved up another gear, promptly opening up that winning advantage, with Winnington closing fast again to grab silver.

His winning margin was further notable given the eight finalists were separated by just over a second in the semi-finals on Tuesday morning. Tellingly, none of the four swimmers who finished ahead of Wiffen in Fukuoka last year were in the final showdown, defending champion Ahmed Hafnaoui from Tunisia failing to qualify from his semi-final, ranked 18th overall.

Wiffen’s motivation was also clear, stemming from his fourth place in both the 800m and 1500m freestyle events at last year’s World Championships in Fukuoka. He also finished fifth in Sunday’s final of the 400m freestyle, and he’s back in the pool in Doha at the weekend for the 1500m freestyle, looking to make it a distance gold-medal double.

Irish swimmers have previously won three medals at the World Short Course (25m pool) Championships, in Shane Ryan (2018 bronze), Ellen Walshe (2021 silver) and Mona McSharry (2021 bronze), but never in the standard Olympic-sized 50m pool.

His parents Rachel and Jonathan were in Doha to witness his historic feat, along with his twin brother Nathan, also still in contention to qualify for Paris. Wiffen has made little secret that his gentle sibling rivalry with Nathan provided much of the motivation in his early swimming years.

Wiffen broke that world record at the climax of the European Short Course Championships in December, on the outskirts of Bucharest, when winning his third gold medal of the week, in the 800m freestyle. His time there of 7:20.46 (short course being faster, given the benefit of extra turns) took a full three seconds off the previous mark set by Australian Grant Hackett, set back in 2007.

“Ever since I was younger, my aim has been to break a world record,” Wiffen said of that feat. “I’ve always loved swimming, have watched everything since I was 12, 13, always looked up to the world record holders.

“Maybe when I was younger that was very unrealistic. You can ask any of the pathway coaches in Ireland, they wouldn’t even say I’d be good nationally when I was younger, but I just had the determination.”

A final year computer science student in Loughborough University, Wiffen’s progress there over the last four years has been deftly guided by his coach, Andi Manley, and greatly aided by the world-class swimming company he trains with daily.

He was still a 19-year-old rookie when he qualified for the Tokyo Games in 2021, finishing 14th in the 800m in a then national record of 7:51.65, his promise laid bare, now fast being realised.

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Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan is an Irish Times sports journalist writing on athletics