10 World Records That Could Go Down At U.S. Olympic Trials

2021 U.S. OLYMPIC SWIMMING TRIALS

Widely regarded as the most pressure-packed meet on Earth, the U.S. Olympic Trials have one purpose and one purpose only: get on the Olympic team.

As the cliché goes, times don’t matter, it’s all about racing. With four (or in this case, five) years worth of work on the line, those in contention for the team won’t find solace in the fact that they set a best time if it was only good enough for third or fourth place.

Nonetheless, with so much at stake, and given the wealth of talent in the United States, you’d expect to see a few world records go down at each and every Trials. But recently, that hasn’t been the case.

The last time a world record was set at the Trials came in 2008, when the now-banned polyurethane suits were just beginning to take off, with nine world marks being broken across seven events. At the 2004 Trials in Long Beach, six events were won in world record-breaking fashion.

But over the last two Trials, we’ve only seen a combined five American Records fall, and zero world records.

It seems as though the truly elite swimmers who expect to challenge for multiple gold medals at the Games, such as Katie Ledecky, are able to find that sweet spot where they can safely qualify for the team but still leave the full taper for the actual Olympics.

But with so many events incredibly competitive for the top-two spots this year, there may be a chance we see one or two all-time marks fall in Omaha. Here’s a look at the 10 events where we could see a new world record (from least to most likely):

Honorable Mention: Women’s 200 Free – 1:52.98, Federica Pellegrini (2009)

This one might seem a little bit out there, seeing as Federica Pellegrini‘s super-suited record is just one of two long course individual marks on the women’s side that has survived from 2009.

Of Ledecky’s four individual events, this is the only one where she’s not a lock for gold at the Olympics even if she shows up in prime form, but at Trials, the race is seemingly for second place. At April’s Pro Swim Series stop in Mission Viejo, Ledecky swam the second-fastest time of her career, 1:54.40, which only trails her Olympic-winning 1:53.73 from Rio.

While that still leaves her almost a second and a half off the world record, it’s easy to imagine a half-tapered Ledecky venturing into the 1:53s in Omaha given that in-season time, and with her finishing ability, anything is possible.

10. Women’s 50 Free – 23.67, Sarah Sjostrom (2017)

This one also comes a little out of left field, but it’s largely a byproduct of the recent performance from 16-year-old stud Claire Curzan.

Simone Manuel won Olympic silver five years ago in the women’s 50 free in a time of 24.09, became the first American under 24 seconds in 2017 (23.97), and then won the World title two years ago in Gwangju in 24.05.

Manuel, who has only raced a handful of times this year, has been under 24.3 eight times in her career, and probably figured that’s all it would take to easily qualify for the team this year. But, Curzan dropped a blazing-fast 24.17 last month, which should keep Manuel on her toes and push her to a faster time than what we might’ve seen had second-place been decided in the 24.4 range.

Is this underestimating how much three tenths of a second is in a 50m race? Yes. Sarah Sjostrom‘s world record of 23.67 is out there. But, Manuel has kept her cards close to her chest these last few years, and she’s certainly got a knack for surprising everyone on the biggest stage.

9. Women’s 400 free – 3:56.46, Katie Ledecky (2016)

Like she did in 2016, Ledecky will no doubt be saving her best for the Olympics this year rather than Trials, but with the 400 free being the first event on her program, no one would be shocked to see her unleash something in the event.

Five years ago, Ledecky won the Trials in 3:58.98, just over six-tenths slower than her 2014 world record of 3:58.37, before slaughtering that mark in Rio (3:56.46). She hasn’t seriously approached that world record since—who knows what she would’ve been capable of at the 2019 World Championships had she not been sick—but if she’s feeling good and wants to open her meet with a bang, it’s certainly in play.

8. Women’s 800 free – 8:04.79, Katie Ledecky (2016)

Another Ledecky race, sorry.

Just like the 400, Ledecky slammed down a massive world record of 8:04.79 in the 800 in Rio, one she hasn’t taken a serious run at since. In 2016, Ledecky cruised to the Trials win by almost 10 seconds in 8:10.32, having set the world record earlier that year in-season (8:06.68).

This year, the 24-year-old went 8:13.64 in March and 8:14.48 in May. She’s going to win this one easily, and that record is certainly way out there, but after winning the 2019 World title amid illness in 8:13.5, she may be getting impatient and want to throw down a nasty time.

7. Men’s 100 free – 46.91, Cesar Cielo (2009)

Like the women’s 200 freestyle, the men’s 100 free world record has been on the books for 12 years, so it may seem silly to suggest that the mark could go down in Omaha, especially when the man most equipped to break it likely won’t be fully tapered.

However, there are several factors that could add up to this being a historically fast race.

First off, Caeleb Dressel narrowly missed the record by five one-hundredths at the 2019 World Championships in 46.96, and this should be the most rested he’s been for a long course meet since then.

Then, we have to look at how competitive this event is in the country. Behind Dressel, four others are seeded under 48 seconds, and that doesn’t even include Nathan Adrian, who has won back-to-back individual Olympic medals in this event. There are also numerous others lower on the psych sheets with 47-second relay splits under their belt.

Essentially, Dressel won’t have much margin for error with likes of Ryan HeldZach AppleBlake PieroniMaxime Rooney, Adrian, and whoever else in the mix.

Does that mean he’ll set a best time? Not necessarily, but it’s certainly possible, especially considering this could very well be his first final of the meet (if he doesn’t pursue the 200 free for all three rounds, and scratches the 200 fly, which is expected).

In 2017, Dressel and coach Gregg Troy perfected the semi-taper/full-taper from World Trials to the World Championships, but we haven’t really seen it since. Will Dressel find the sweet spot in the 47.2 range, or will he send shockwaves through the swimming community by popping off a 46.8?

6. Women’s 100 Breast – 1:04.13, Lilly King (2017)

If there’s one thing we know about Lilly King, it’s that she hates losing. And while the times she actually loses a race are few and far between, she did have her 50 breaststroke world record snatched away by Italian youngster Benedetta Pilato in May.

King won’t get the chance to race that event in Omaha, but you know she’d love to make a statement to remind everyone who the best female breaststroker on the planet is. Her 100 breast record has stood at 1:04.13 since 2017, and her fastest showing since then has only been 1:04.93.

Now re-focused after admittedly having her motivation wan leading into the now-postponed 2020 Games, King is looking to stamp her authority as the best female breaststroker of all-time, and this summer will be a huge part of that story.

Like the other big stars, she’s going to save her best for the Olympics. But it feels like this record has stood for too long.

5. Women’s 200 Back – 2:03.35, Regan Smith (2019)

Regan Smith turned up at the 2019 World Championships and absolutely blew everyone out of the water in the women’s 200 backstroke, smashing Missy Franklin‘s world record in the semi-finals in a time of 2:03.35. Smith went on to win the gold medal by over two and a half seconds in 2:03.69, and no one in the United States will be able to come close to her if she’s at her best in Omaha.

With such a competitive field lined up in the 100 back (more on that later), Smith won’t really have the luxury of only semi-tapering to the same extent someone like Ledecky could. This is the lone race on her four-event program where she seems like a proverbial lock to make the team, so by coming in ready to make things happen in her other events, her form might just be so on point that she can’t stop herself from going under her world record here.

The 200 back will also be her last event of the meet, so no sense is holding anything back.

4. Men’s 100 Fly – 49.50, Caeleb Dressel (2019)

The only world record that Dressel owns in the long course pool is the 100 fly, where he’s now eclipsed the 50-second barrier more times (three) than everyone else in history combined (twice).

Unlike the last two World Championships, this event won’t have the same conflicting schedule with the 50 free this summer, with the two only falling on the same session once (100 fly final, followed by 50 free semi much later that night).

This race is one where Dressel will have no problem winning—he could add a full second to his world record time of 49.50 and would likely still stand atop the podium. But, we have seen him drop some incredibly fast times in this event when he didn’t need to.

At the 2017 World Championships, Dressel appeared to cruise to a time of 50.08 in the prelims, a mind-boggling performance at the time considering his PB coming in was 50.87.

At this point, a 50-low swim seems almost automatic for him, and somewhere in the 49-high range is more likely than a full-on world record. But like Smith, he may be performing so well it just happens.

As for Dressel’s other primary event, the 50 free, it comes on the final night of competition. And while he’s only .13 off the world record, he’s got a big enough gap on the field (.58) that he likely won’t be pushed all the way into the 20.9s.

3. Men’s 100 Back – 51.85, Ryan Murphy (2016)

Ryan Murphy was the world’s best backstroker in 2016, and seems to be hell-bent on proving that to be true once again in 2021.

Murphy overcame the loaded field in Omaha five years ago to win the men’s 100 backstroke in 52.26, topping David Plummer and then-defending Olympic champ Matt Grevers, and then won Olympic gold (51.97) and lowered the world record (51.85) leading off the 400 medley relay in Rio.

Murphy was impeccable at Trials in 2016, and while he may not have the same level of challenge to qualify for the team this year, I think we all expect him to make some sort of statement, especially after seeing what Russians Evgeny Rylov and Kliment Kolesnikov have done earlier this year.

2. Women’s 1500 Free – 15:20.48, Katie Ledecky (2018)

The 1500 freestyle has been raced so infrequently on the women’s program over the course of Ledecky’s career that it’s hard not to place it so high.

In 2018, she destroyed the world record by five seconds at a Pro Swim Series meet in 15:20.48, and it looked like her next big opportunity to take that record down would be at the 2019 Worlds before she withdrew.

The 1500 final will fall during the same session as the 200 free final, not that it should have much effect on Ledecky. She could probably cruise to an Olympic berth in this race easier than anyone ever has, but it’s probably more likely she gives it some gas and challenges the record.

After the record, her second and third-fastest performances ever came way back at the 2015 World Championships. It seems like she’s due for something big in this race.

1. Women’s 100 Back – 57.57, Regan Smith (2019)

The women’s 100 back is one of the most highly anticipated events of the meet, and for good reason.

Here’s a crazy stat: the sixth seed at Trials, Claire Curzan, is entered with a time that would’ve won silver at the 2019 World Championships.

Now, that would’ve been bumped to bronze had Regan Smith been in the final, but the point stands. The race is crazy loaded.

After her phenomenal 200 back showing in Gwangju, Smith got the nod to lead-off the women’s 400 medley relay at the tail-end of the meet (despite not swimming the 100 back individually) and came through with a world record performance of 57.57, becoming the first woman sub-58 in history.

Behind her, the field also includes former world record holder Kathleen Baker, 2016 Trials winner Olivia Smoliga, and Rhyan WhitePhoebe Bacon and Curzan.

Similar to the men’s 100 free, there’s going to be no margin for error for Smith at the front, and given what we’ve seen from some of these women this season, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see someone join her under 58 seconds.

Smith will have gotten her feet wet at the meet with the 100 fly, where she has a great chance to qualify for the team as well, and should be firing on all cylinders by the time the 100 back final rolls around.

Given her talent, and that we haven’t seen her fully rested over a two-year period where swimmers often make great leaps (age 17-19), if one record was going to go down, it would be this one.

Also, Australian Kaylee McKeown has fired off a pair of 57-second swims this season. Here’s Smith’s chance for a response before the eventual showdown.

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Old Man Chalmers
10 days ago

no 11 mens 50 fly.
dressel opens the semis in 22.26, coming home in a 28.1 to claim the top seed for the final in 50.36

USA
Reply to  Old Man Chalmers
10 days ago

Or Andrew opens up his 200 IM in 22.1 with a 34 free at the end

Melissa
10 days ago

None – zero – nadda. These aren’t going down this week.

Snarky
Reply to  Melissa
9 days ago

I agree. Trials is not a “records” meet. It’s a racing meet. Too much pressure. I think we’ll see some US Open and American records but no world records. If any world record is broken I’m thinking men’s 100 back.

PFA
10 days ago

We’re about to see Kathleen become the first women ever to go sub 58 in a walking boot.

GATOR CHOMP 🐊
Reply to  PFA
10 days ago

The shaine casas effect

Snarky
Reply to  PFA
9 days ago

Very unlikely.

About James Sutherland

James Sutherland

James swam five years at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario, specializing in the 200 free, back and IM. He finished up his collegiate swimming career in 2018, graduating with a bachelor's degree in economics. In 2019 he completed his graduate degree in sports journalism. Prior to going to Laurentian, James swam …

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