2020 Swammy Awards: Top 10 Swims of the Year

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Top 10 Swims of the Year: 2020

Welcome 2021! The past year was interesting, to say the least. This Swammy Award will recognize what we consider to be the top 10 swims of the year that was 2020.

When the NCAA announced that it would not proceed with National Championships in the spring due to the global coronavirus pandemic, we were devastated. When the IOC announced that the Olympics would be postponed one year, we came to accept that perhaps all the fast swimming 2020 had to offer was behind us. Thankfully, we were wrong.

The world has not returned to normal yet, but in so many ways we are “back on our feet.” Though we did not get NCAAs, U.S. Olympic Trials, or the Tokyo Olympic Games in 2020, we were still fortunate to see some blazing fast swims in February only to then endure a long absence from the pool. It did not take long after facilities were allowed to reopen to see competitions taking place, even if just in the form of time trials. A 2020-2021 NCAA season looked dubious at first but we are now half-way through it.

The 2nd season of the International Swimming League (ISL) was greatly modified from its original multi-continent competition schedule, but the “compromise” to buckle-down in Budapest allowed swimmers to accomplish amazing things in October and November.

In the final weeks of 2020 swimmers from all over the world have re-written the record books of their federations and National Age Group (NAG) Records have been trounced in the United States. Here, we will count down the 10 greatest swims of 2020. Considering how bleak 2020 looked in its early months, we are delighted to say that this list was difficult to compile and pare-down because there were so many brilliant performances this year.

#10: Custer Crushes the 15-16 Boy’s 1650 NAG Record

  • Swimmer: Liam Custer (Sarasota Sharks)
  • Event: 1650 Freestyle (SCY)
  • Time: 14:37.86
  • Meet: 2020 18 & Under Virtual Championships – Sarasota (Dec. 13)
  • SwimSwam Recap

Liam Custer earned his place on this list when he smashed Sean Grieshop‘s 2014 NAG Record in the 15-16 boys’ 1650 yard freestyle in December. Custer’s final time of 14:37.86 lowered Grieshop’s 6-year-old mark by nearly 8 seconds and makes him the 7th-fastest performer in the 1650 in 2020, beating out dozens of NCAA athletes who competed at both conference championships in February and mid-season invitationals in November and December.

Custer’s new mark in the 1650 was nearly a minute faster than his previous lifetime set in 2019 and capped off his sweep of the distance events at the Sarasota site’s installment of the 2020 18 & Under Virtual Championships. Custer’s 14:37.86 was the fastest time of all 18 & Under swimmers competing in the virtual event by 25 seconds. In Sarasota, Custer also won the 500 freestyle in a new LSC record time of 4:18.49 to earn 2nd overall just behind James Plage (4:18.33), the 200 freestyle in 1:36.22 placing 5th nationally, and the 400 IM in 3:48.97 placing 7th nationally. See full results here.

What makes this swim special is partially that it was so unexpected, and partially that Custer was the poster child that fast swims were again possible even after quarantines. He swam 13-straight lifetime bests in his return-to-racing.

#9: Kieran Smith Surges at SECs

  • Swimmer: Kieran Smith (USA/University of Florida)
  • Event: 500 Freestyle (SCY)
  • Time: 4:06.32
  • Meet: 2020 SEC Championships (Feb. 19)
  • SwimSwam Recap

The University of Florida’s Kieran Smith was on fire in February. Smith began his campaign at the 2020 SEC Championships with a 1:30.11 as the lead-off swimmer for Florida’s 800 freestyle relay, becoming the 4th-fastest all-time in what might be swimming’s most uncomfortable event. The next day, Smith exploded a 4:06.32 in the 500 freestyle to knock a second off Zane Grothe‘s 2017 American Record and nearly 2 seconds off Townley Haas‘ 2019 NCAA Record. This also came as a lifetime best by more than 10 seconds for Smith.

Smith is undoubtedly one of the greatest middle-distance swimmers in history in the short course yards pool, and if past trends hold, he is poised to ascend to the Olympic strata.

#8: Finke Flies to New Record in 1650

  • Swimmer: Bobby Finke (USA/University of Florida)
  • Event: 1650 Freestyle (SCY)
  • Time: 14:12.08
  • Meet: 2020 SEC Championships (Feb. 22)
  • SwimSwam RecapVideo

The 1650 or the mile gets a bad rap for being, well, long. While there’s no denying the amount of time it takes to swim the race or the amount of effort it takes to watch the race without losing focus for at least a couple minutes, it is also exciting to see a record get smashed, and that is exactly what Florida’s Bobby Finke did at the 2020 SEC Championships. At Auburn, Finke lowered Zane Grothe‘s 2017 American Record by over 6 seconds, Clark Smith‘s 2017 NCAA Record by over 10 seconds, and won the race by more than 30 seconds.

Finke began the 2019-2020 NCAA season after having a very successful meet at the 2019 USA Swimming National Championships where he won titles in the 400 IM, 800 free, 1500 free, and nabbed 3rd in the 400 free.

Here you can learn how Smith and Finke’s distance records stack up against Caeleb Dressel‘s sprint records. Of note, Florida men’s head coach Anthony Nesty is the winner of the 2020 NCAA Men’s Coach of the Year Swammy Award. It is interesting that one program (Florida) has produced the current NCAA, U.S. Open, and American Record holders in the 50, 100, 500, and 1650 yard freestyles.

#7: Andrei Minakov, Faster than Chalmers at Age 18

In 2016, 18-year-old Australian Kyle Chalmers won the gold medal at the Rio Olympic Games, clocking a time of 47.58, establishing a new World Junior Record in the process. At the 2019 FINA World Championships, Chalmers won the silver medal in the 100 free, clocking a blistering 47.08.

In October 2020, 18-year-old Russian Andrei Minakov won the gold medal at the Russian Swimming Championships, clocking a time of 47.57, breaking Chalmers’ 4-year-old World Junior Record, but falling just short of the Russian National Record of 47.43 set by Vladislav Grinev in 2019. Minakov’s prowess in the 100 freestyle is even more impressive considering that he is primarily a butterflyer and the Russian National Record holder in the 100 LCM butterfly, as well as the 2019 FINA World Championships silver medalist in the 100 fly. Chalmers, who is primarily a freestyler, is also an elite flyer with a lifetime best of 51.37 in the 100 LCM fly. It might be splitting hairs to say that, as far as second-best-strokes go, Minakov has slightly the edge on Chalmers, but that’s what the data supports. We’ll have to wait until 2021 at least to see which of the two will get to a flat-start 46 first, but in the meantime, we’ll speculate how pressure each man might give Dressel in both the 100 free and 100 fly in Tokyo.

100 Freestyle 100 Butterfly
All-Time Rank Swimmer Time All-Time Rank Swimmer Time
6 Chalmers 47.08 14 Minakov 50.83
16 Minakov 47.57 44 Chalmers 51.37

#6: Toussaint Sets First World Record of 2020 ISL Season

Kira Toussaint broke Etiene Medeiros‘ 6-year-old World Record not once but twice in 2020. In the first ISL semifinal, Toussaint blasted a 25.60 to shave 0.07 from Medeiros’ 2014 mark. Though she did not actually race the 50 back in the ISL Final in order to be better prepared to lead off London’s 400 medley relay she did tie her time of 25.60 at the 2020 Amsterdam Christmas Meet a few weeks later. Toussaint was a vital component of London Roar’s success in the 2020 ISL season and finished 17th in the season MVP standings (out of more than 300 athletes) and 38th in match MVP standings. Toussaint is the most dominant swimmer in history in the 50 SCM backstroke and owns 7 of the 10 fastest performances all time.

Toussaint also lowered Dutch Records in the long course pool in 2020, clocking a 58.91 in the 100 backstroke and a 27.37 in the non-Olympic 50 backstroke. Now that she is sub-59 in the 100 back, Toussaint has added her name to the high-competitive list of women who will be in the hunt for an Olympic medal next summer in the 100 backstroke.

#5: Dressel Destroys World Record in 100 SCM Butterfly

In the first men’s race of the 2020 ISL Grand Final in Budapest, American superstar Caeleb Dressel completed the trifecta of records in the 100 butterfly when he hit the wall in 47.78 to win the 100 fly for the Cali Condors and obliterate South Africa/Energy Standard butterfly juggernaut Chad le Clos‘s 2016 World Record by a full 3/10ths. Dressel’s performance was not only the fastest-ever, or the fastest since 2016, but the fastest swim other than le Clos’s two World Records (2014, 48.44; and 2016, 48.08; respectively) since the bygone era of 2010. (Are you reading this article on an iPhone, Android, or a Blackberry?)

To their credit, le Clos and LA Current’s Tom Shields clocked blistering times of 48.45 and 48.47, respectively, qualifying their performances as the 4th and 5th-fastest all-time, respectively. Chad le Clos is still far and away the 2nd-fastest performer all-time in the 100 SCM fly with a 48.08 from the 2016 FINA World Championships in Windsor, where he dedicated his emotional victory to his mother.

Dressel’s entire career until late 2018 was focused on short course yards and long course meters, so seeing his quick adaptation to short course meters is promising for fans of Team USA and/or the Cali Condors. Simultaneously, it is also taunting in that they are left to wonder how much more dominant Dressel might be in the SCM arena if he had not spent the first 21 years of his life trying to maximize his speed in a yards pool 6+ months out of the year. Oh well, the 17.63, 39.90, 42.80, 1:38.13, and 50.03 were pretty sick. Not to mention that 17.81. Or the 40.00.

#4: Shymanovich Breaks Peaty’s World Record

Ilya Shymanovich and Adam Peaty had their share of great duels in the 50 and 100 breaststrokes over the course of the 2020 ISL season. Peaty broke Cameron van der Burgh‘s 2009 World Record in the 100 breaststroke in the first ISL semifinal, clocking a 55.49, shaving 0.12 from van der Burgh’s mark. In the ISL Grand Final, Peaty lowered his record to a 55.41, barely getting to the wall ahead of Shymanovich who tied Peaty’s entry time of 55.49.

Undeterred, Shymanovich resumed racing at the 2020 Belarusian Short Course Championships where he bested Peaty’s weeks-old record with a 55.34 and won by a margin of 5 seconds. At the same meet, Shymanovich blasted a 25.39 in the 50 breaststroke to become the 3rd-fastest performer all-time, taking the spot from Peaty. In addition to his SCM World Record, Shymanovich is the 2nd-fastest performer all-time in the 100 LCM breaststroke with a 58.29 from 2019. While it’s hard to imagine anyone beating Peaty in the long course pool, Shymanovich could make the 100 breaststroke less of a blowout and more of a race at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021.

#3: Kolesnikov Destroys 100 Backstroke World Record

Kliment Kolesnikov dominated the field when he led off Energy Standard’s 400 medley relay in the 2020 ISL Grand Final in Budapest and destroyed the former World Record by 3/10ths. Kolesnikov beat LCM World Record holder Ryan Murphy by nearly a second (0.78) on the lead-off leg of the relay and was between 1.01 and 2.37 seconds ahead of all other swimmers. The huge lead Kolesnikov established propelled Energy Standard to victory in the relay, allowing them to choose the style of the highly-important skins race that would cap off the meet on day two. Kolesnikov won the individual 100 backstroke in the ISL Final in 48.82, a bit off the time he posted the day before when he led off the relay but still the 2nd-fastest performance ever at that time.

Kolesnikov first broke this World Record in 2017, setting it at 48.90, but it was lowered to a 48.88 by China’s Xu Jiayu in 2018. Kolesnikov seemed stagnant in this race for two years but has now reasserted himself as the most dominant 100 SCM backstroke swimmer in history. Kolesnikov followed up this performance with a 48.63 and 48.71 at the 2020 Russian Championships.

#2: McKeown Takes 200 Back into Uncharted Territory

  • Swimmer: Kaylee McKeown (AUS)
  • Event: 200 Backstroke (SCM)
  • Time: 1:58.94
  • Meet: 2020 Swimming Australia Virtual Championships (Nov. 27)
  • SwimSwam Recap

While the United States has remained dominant in long course backstroke, the Australians are clearly the greatest short course backstroke swimmers in the world today. In 2019, Minna Atherton broke the World Record in the 100 SCM backstroke during ISL competition and then nearly broke the World Record in the 200 back in the 2019 ISL Final in Las Vegas. Atherton’s performance was dominant but Katinka Hosszu‘s record was safe for another year. Enter Kaylee McKeown.

McKeown has been among the best backstrokers in the world since 2017, and in 2019 at the FINA World Championships she won the silver medal in the 200 backstroke behind LCM World Record holder Regan Smith. Now in 2020, McKeown is also a World Record holder.

At the 2020 Australian Medal Shots meet, McKeown blasted a 1:58.94 to lower Hosszu’s 2014 record and become the first woman in history to swim under 1:59. McKeown also blasted a 55.68, beating Atherton by a half-second. The teen phenom also put up a 2:03.68 in the 200 IM to become the 2nd-fastest performer all-time, though still nearly 2 seconds behind Hosszu. McKeown had a very successful campaign in the Olympic pool as well, clocking a 57.93 in the 100 LCM backstroke in December, the 2nd-fastest performance ever, and a 2:04.49 in the 200 backstroke in November to become the 3rd-fastest performer in history.


#1: Dressel’s Goes 49.28 in 100 IM

This swim was so dominant that it’s difficult to quantify. Caeleb Dressel is one of those rare swimmers that is seemingly capable of going best times at every shave and taper meet he competes in. Dressel kicked off the 2020 ISL Grand Final with a World Record in the 100 butterfly on day 1, which he followed up with another World Record in the 50 freestyle and then an American Record in the 100 freestyle as he led off the Condors’ 400 free relay.

On day 2, Dressel wowed viewers with a 49.28 in the 100 IM, obliterating his own World Record of 49.88 set in the 2nd ISL semifinal. Dressel won the race by nearly 2 seconds and stole the points from everyone else in the field save for his teammate Macin Cieslak. This performance came after Dressel had already lowered the American Record (again) in the 100 freestyle earlier in the session. Dressel is the first and only man to break 50 seconds in the 100 SCM IM and is a full 0.98 faster than the 2nd-fastest performer all-time, Russia’s Vladimir Morozov. Ryan Lochte is the 2nd-fastest American in history and former World Record holder having been 50.71 in 2012.

Other Swims Considered

As I said earlier, this was not an easy list to compile. Given how 2020 began, it is fortunate that we had so many swims to consider as opposed to the mere handful there would have been if swimming were truly “cancelled” in mid-March. The preliminary list contained around 25 different swims in yards, short course meters, and long course meters. Teen and age group swimmers, NCAA student-athletes, and professionals alike were all considered, but we had to trim the list.

Fresh out of quarantine, Italian sprintster Benedetta Pilato blasted a new WJR in the 50 LCM Breaststroke in 29.85 at the Setti Colli Trophy in August, showcasing incredible turnover. Pilato also had an incredible season in the ISL and recently qualified for the Tokyo Olympics next summer.

The first World Record and only long course record broken in 2020 was the mixed 400 medley relay which fell to a very talented quartet from China. Xu Jiayu (back, 52.45), Yan Zibei (breast, 57.93), Zhang Yufei (fly, 55.32), and Yang Junxuan (free, 52.68) combined for a 3:38.41, shaving 0.15 from the mark set by Team USA at the 2017 FINA World Championships. In Budapest in the ISL Final, the Cali Condor team of Olivia Smoliga (back, 55.60), Lilly King (breast, 1:02.40), Kelsi Dahlia (fly, 54.79), and Erika Brown (free, 51.73) blasted a 3:44.25 to crack the World Record in the women’s 400 SCM medley relay. Because all four swimmers are American, FINA will ratify the time. On the flip side, Energy Standard’s multi-national team of Siobhan Haughey (HKG, 51.35), Pernille Blume (NED, 51.67), Femke Heemskerk (NED, 51.53), and Sarah Sjostrom (SWE, 51.27) unofficially broke the World Record in the women’s 400 freestyle relay–FINA will call it a “World Best.”

In Australia, Kaylee McKeown blasted a 57.93 in the 100 LCM backstroke to become the 2nd woman ever to break 58 in the race. McKeown also blasted a 2:04.49 in the 200 LCM backstroke to become the 3rd-fastest all-time in that event. Though McKeown fell short of Regan Smith‘s 2019 World Record of 57.57, she and Smith are the only two women in this–whatever this is–echelon of backstroke.

Claire Curzan‘s 56.61 100 LCM butterfly was also highly considered for this list as it obliterated the NAG Record and elevated Curzan to a triple-tie for 11th all-time in the event as well as the 3rd-fastest American all-time. Curzan has been one of the brightest stars in American age group swimming in the current quad, though her youth has in no way impacted her ability to perform at an internationally-competitive level. Another 18 & Under swim that captivated us took place inn South Korea where 17-year-old Hwang Sun Woo blasted a 1:45.92 in the 200 LCM freestyle. For comparison, Michael Phelps set the 17-18 NAG Record here in the United States in 2003 at 1:45.99.

Finally, we recognize that Dressel lowered his own World Record in the 50 SCM freestyle to a 20.16 which is, well, impressive. Though compared to his 100 IM and 100 fly it’s not quite as awesome… that says something about the season he had.

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8 months ago

not a single long course swim? 😔

Reply to  whever
8 months ago

Minakov’s WJR was long course but yeah it’s a little lonely in this list.

Last edited 8 months ago by Troyy
NOT the frontman of Metallica
Reply to  Troyy
8 months ago

And as previously mentioned the most impressive long course swim didn’t even get honorable mention

Reply to  whever
8 months ago

There Was China mixed medley WR

Zhang 100 fly also

NOT the frontman of Metallica
8 months ago

European LCM record in the 1500 but hey let’s list two 1650 swims in the kids pool and then not even mention it, weak.

NOT the frontman of Metallica
Reply to  NOT the frontman of Metallica
8 months ago

Yeah, 14:12 in yards doesn’t hold a candle to 14:33 long course. I rank that one top 3 if not number one. But then again I’m not American

Reply to  NOT the frontman of Metallica
8 months ago

Its apparently a 14:29 but ok

NOT the frontman of Metallica
Reply to  UNKNOWN
8 months ago

Time converters are not accurate. Living in Europe I never saw a miler coming close to what their yards times predicted for short course, and when transitioning to long course the gap would be even bigger.

8 months ago

Netherlands wr? Us medley relay wr? China lcm mixed medley relay wr???

8 months ago

It’s like some of y’all just want a list of “10 best long course swims of 2020.”

There is more to swimming than just long course…

NOT the frontman of Metallica
Reply to  swimapologist
8 months ago

Not at all, but there is clearly at least one long course swim that outshines most of this list.

8 months ago

Paltrinieri not even getting mentioned in the honorable mention section makes this list a joke.

8 months ago

I get NCAA records and World records, but a NAG record over Greg Paltrinieri’s 1500? Come on, Swimswam.

8 months ago

Deliberately controversial perhaps to leave out Paltrinieri ?

8 months ago

How about McKeown blasting LCM backstroke times that would have been a WR and just off the WR last year, respectively? Probably more impressive than one US NAG.
Are Custer’s and Finke’s miles more impressive than Paltrinieri’s LCM mile that probably should have been a WR?
Are relays, where all 4 swimmers need to step up and swim fast, less significant than individual swims?
No mention of the Dutch women 200 free relay WR and Zhang Yufei exploding to 55.6 in the 1fly in other swims?
Thankful for fast swimming in 2020.

Reply to  swimfan210_
8 months ago

Paltrinieri’s should have been a top 10 swim. Finke’s record1650 is definitely a top 10 swim though. Paltrinieri has been the European record-holder and the second fastest in the 1500 since 2016 as I read the FINA rankings. His swim lowered his personal best and the European record by less than a second. Finke cut over 6 seconds from the 1650 record and 11 seconds from his personal best. Just because non-US swimmers don’t swim yards (unless they are swimming for a US university) doesn’t make it less impressive.

About Reid Carlson

Reid Carlson

Reid Carlson originally hails from Clay Center, Kansas, where he began swimming at age six.  At age 14 he began swimming club year-round and later with his high school team, making state all four years.  He was fortunate enough to draw the attention of Kalamazoo College where he went on to …

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