2021 Swammy Awards: Top 10 Swims of the Year

To see all of our 2021 Swammy Awards, click here.

The Swammy Award for Top 10 Swims of the Year is not solely based on individual performance, great racing, or a swimmer coming through in a massive moment against all odds.

The list isn’t created using the FINA points table, nor is it formulated with an algorithm for the closest races or the biggest personal best times on paper.

However, it is a combination of all of the above, and then some. Think: If we were to distill 2021 into the 10 races that really mattered, what were they?

After racing in 2020 was a bit scattered, featuring several stops and starts, 2021 was incredible. Between the Olympic Trials and Olympic Games, to the NCAA Championships, Short Course World Championships and both the LC and SC European Championships, coming up with 10 swims was certainly not easy, and some phenomenal performances were left off.

Without further ado, here’s our 2021 Swammy Award for the Top 10 Swims of the Year. Let the arguing in the comments commence!

#10: A Changing of the Guard At U.S. Trials In Women’s 200 IM

Perhaps the least obvious race to make the list, the women’s 200 IM final at the U.S. Olympic Trials had a little bit of everything.

Was it the fastest race in Omaha? No. Were there any records broken? No.

But it was 1) An amazingly close race with career-defining stakes, and 2) Symbolic of the overarching theme of the Trials (and in some ways, the year) as a whole.

Melanie Margalis had largely dominated the women’s 200 IM domestically for the better part of the five-year gap between Olympics, following up her fourth-place finish in Rio by finishing in the same position at both the 2017 and 2019 World Championships.

Kathleen Baker had posted the top time in the nation in both 2018 and 2020, and then Madisyn Cox, who won bronze at 2017 Worlds and then returned from a two-year suspension, posted the top time in the U.S. in early 2021 in the lead-up to Trials.

The race was projected to be a three-way battle between those three, with University of Virginia swimmers Alex Walsh and Kate Douglass slotted in for fourth and fifth.

Several storylines emerged in the lead-up to the final of this event that shifted this narrative.

First, Baker fractured her foot and twisted her ankle, which essentially took her out of the running.

Then, at the beginning of the meet, Cox missed the final of the women’s 400 IM during the opening session in Omaha, placing 10th, well off her season-best.

That night, we saw Margalis shut out of qualifying for the Olympic team in the final of the 400 IM, turning first with 50 meters to go before falling to third, 12 one-hundredths shy of runner-up Hali Flickinger.

So while Cox and Margalis were on the wrong side of momentum leading into the 200 IM, Walsh and Douglass were riding its wave, including posting the top two times out of the semis, led by Walsh’s 2:08.87.

In the final, the race lived up to the hype and then some.

Torri Huske, another swimmer performing well at Trials after winning the 100 fly, blasted out to the early lead on fly, and held it through the 100m wall. Then, Walsh took over on breast, with Cox moving into second and Douglass third, while Margalis was seemingly out of it in sixth.

Down the stretch on freestyle, Walsh began to fade—her split ended up being 1.67 seconds slower than it was in the semis—while Douglass and Cox were charging home.

Walsh put her head down, gritted her teeth, and got her hand on the wall first. 2:09.30. Douglass was next, 2:09.32. Cox? 2:09.34, on the outside looking in by a painfully close margin.

Huske, 18 at the time, held on fourth in 2:10.38, while Margalis was well off her best, taking sixth in 2:11.77.

The race was incredible, and to see the top three finishers come within four one-hundredths, with the odd one out missing the Olympic team, made it a true rollercoaster.

Walsh and Douglass, both 19 at the time (now 20), coming through and upending the established veterans was a frequent occurrence at the 2021 Trials. Names such as Lydia JacobyKatie Grimes, Huske, Claire Curzan and Emma Weyant came through and took out the more experienced swimmers, due in part to the benefit of the one-year pandemic-delayed Olympics.

And this race perhaps best exemplified that, and it was an unbelievable one to boot.

#9: Finke Upsets Heavy Favorites To Win Inaugural Men’s 800 Free Gold

Making its Olympic debut in Tokyo, the men’s 800 freestyle had a trio of favorites entering the Games: reigning world champion Gregorio Paltrinieri, reigning European champion Mykhailo Romanchuk, and Germany’s Florian Wellbrock, who held both the World Championship and European titles in the 1500 free.

American Bobby Finke was coming off a phenomenal season swimming for the University of Florida in the NCAA, dominating the collegiate ranks in the 1650 free, but he was not considered to be a legitimate medal threat by many coming into Tokyo. If he did, it would probably come in the 1500, given his ability in the 1650 in yards.

In the 800 free prelims in Tokyo, Romanchuk led the way in a time of 7:41.28, followed by Wellbrock (7:41.77), while Finke recorded a near five-second best time in 7:42.72 to qualify third. Paltrinieri labored in the prelims and snuck into the final in eighth.

Then, the final turned into a four-man race for three spots on the podium, an instant classic.

Paltrinieri, swimming out in Lane 8, took the early lead, with Romanchuk, Wellbrock and Finke sticking in a three-man pack close behind.

Romanchuk and Wellbrock made a move on the penultimate 50, with Wellbrock taking over the lead, while Finke was now back in fourth, more than a second and a half off first place.

But Finke opting to bide his time ended up paying off, as he turned on the afterburners on the closing length and split a scintillating 26.39, running down all three of the men ahead of him to win a surprise Olympic gold in 7:41.87.

Paltrinieri pulled out the silver in 7:42.11, while Romanchuk (7:42.33) won bronze and Wellbrock (7:42.68) settled for fourth.

Not only was this a phenomenal race with a tantalizing finish, but it was also the unpredictability of Finke’s victory that made it memorable.

Not only did his time in the final improve on his PB coming into the meet by almost six seconds, but it was also slower than the clockings registered by both Romanchuk and Wellbrock in the prelims, and Paltrinieri had been significantly faster (7:40.22) just one year prior.

But it was the perfect storm for Finke, who broke the American Record in the process of winning Olympic gold, and he would follow up at the end of the meet by doing virtually the same thing in the 1500 free.

What gave the 800 this edge on this list was the fact that it was a four-man race all the way until the closing meters (Paltrinieri fell off the pace towards the end of the mile), and that the 800 win was so much more unexpected from Finke, mainly just because it came first on the program.

#8: U.S. Men Break Suited WR In Medley Relay To Close Tokyo Olympics

The American men have a long, storied history of success in Olympic swimming, and over the last 60 years, a lot of that stems back to the 400 medley relay.

The U.S. is undefeated in the event’s history, dating back to the first time it was contested in 1960, and entering the final in Tokyo, the pressure that comes along with that unbeaten run had been escalated by a couple of lackluster relays in recent days.

The American men came through in a big way early in the competition, picking up a dominant title defense in the 400 free relay, but they had slipped up in both the mixed 400 medley relay and the 800 free relay.

In the 800 free relay, the U.S. men fell to fourth place, marking the first time they failed to medal in an Olympic relay in history. It was also the first time they didn’t win gold since 2000.

Then, in the mixed medley event—making its Olympic debut—the coaching staff made a questionable lineup decision and the Americans ultimately finished fifth.

In addition to that, the U.S. women failed to reach the top of a relay podium in Tokyo, having finished .13 back of the Australians in the medley relay just prior to the final of the men’s event.

So, to say there was pressure on the U.S. quartet of Ryan MurphyMichael AndrewCaeleb Dressel and Zach Apple would be an understatement. Apple was also the anchor swimmer on the 800 free relay, so there was an added incentive of redemption in this swim for him, at least from the outside looking in.

Murphy had also failed to defend both of his 2016 Olympic titles in the men’s 100 and 200 back, resulting in the undefeated American streak of six Olympics to be cracked in both, and Andrew was just two days removed from a disappointing fifth-place finish in the 200 IM, an event in which he led the world rankings coming in.

Dressel was the only one of the four that was having the majority of his Games go as he had hoped, though there’s no doubt he felt the sting from the last two relay missing the podium despite the fact that he was left off the team in the 800 free and put in an impossible position in the mixed medley.

Though not indicative of the capabilities of the aforementioned four’s ability in the final, trepidation only rose even further after the prelims, where the Americans had qualified only seventh overall. Had they been just over three-tenths slower, they would’ve missed the final altogether.

Once the gun went off in the final, things finally went according to plan.

Murphy got the team out to an early lead in 52.31—not as fast as he was in winning bronze in the individual 100 back, but still beating rival Evgeny Rylov, who won individual gold, head-to-head for the second time in Tokyo (also doing so in the mixed medley relay).

As expected, Adam Peaty gave Great Britain the lead on the breaststroke leg, with Andrew splitting 58.49 as the Americans fell to third.

But Dressel pulled through with an unbelievable butterfly leg, recording the fastest split in history (49.03) to put the U.S. back in front, six-tenths up on the Brits.

Apple dove in with Duncan Scott, who famously reeled in the Americans to win gold in this event at the 2019 World Championships, hot on his tail, but wouldn’t give an inch.

Apple ended up out-splitting Scott, 46.95 to 47.08, giving the U.S. the win in a new world record time of 3:26.78.

In addition to keeping the country’s undefeated streak alive in the event, the quartet also took a full half-second off the previous world record of 3:27.28, which had been set at the 2009 World Championships with the now-banned polyurethane “super-suits.”

Great Britain won silver in 3:27.51, breaking the European Record and swimming a time that would’ve won gold at every other Olympics or World Championships, save 2009.

The men’s 400 medley relay was an incredible battle between the U.S. and Great Britain (who had won one relay apiece at the Games entering the event), served as a redemption swim of sorts for the American men after an up-and-down Olympics, and marked the first men’s LCM relay world record to be broken in 12 years.

#7: Maggie MacNeil Busts Through 49-Second Barrier In 100 Fly

  • Swimmer(s): Maggie MacNeil
  • Event: Women’s 100 butterfly
  • Winning Time: 48.89
  • Meet: 2021 Women’s NCAA Division I Swimming & Diving Championships
  • SwimSwam Recap

Have yourself a year, Maggie MacNeil.

MacNeil ran the table in 2021, winning titles in the women’s 100 butterfly at the NCAA Championships, Tokyo Olympic Games and Short Course World Championships. Having also won the last LC World Championship title in 2019, she became the first woman (and second swimmer, period) to hold all four titles simultaneously.

And while that 100 fly final at the Olympics was absolutely incredible, with the top-four finishers all within 14 one-hundredths of one another (and recording some of the fastest times ever), this spot recognizes MacNeil’s performances in the NCAA final.

In what was the first NCAA Championship meet in two years after the 2020 cancellations, MacNeil was the only swimmer to break the NCAA and U.S. Open Record in an individual race, and she truly blew everyone’s minds when she did.

It was only six years earlier that Kelsi Dahlia became the first swimmer under the 50-second barrier in the women’s 100 fly (SCY), clocking a time of 49.89 at the 2015 NCAA Championships while swimming for Louisville.

Dahlia brought the record down to 49.43 in 2016, and then Swedish native Louise Hansson, competing for USC, broke the all-time mark in 49.26 at the 2019 NCAAs.

MacNeil then matched that at the Minnesota Invite in December 2019, but didn’t get the opportunity to race at NCAAs that season due to the cancellation caused by the pandemic.

So, in 2021, she made up for lost time, swimming the fastest time ever recorded by 37 one-hundredths of a second and smashing her way through the 49-second threshold.

Not only is the Canadian native nearly four-tenths faster than anyone else in history, she’s almost a full half-second (.49) under the American Record, which now belongs to Erika Brown at 49.38.

#6: McKeown Wins Battle of the Titans In 100 Back Olympic Final

The women’s 100 backstroke had seen an incredible progression in the two years leading up to the Tokyo Olympics, kickstarted by Regan Smith becoming the first swimmer under the 58-second barrier at the 2019 World Championships in 57.57.

Australian Kaylee McKeown then joined her sub-58, clocking 57.93 in December 2020, and then proceeded to break Smith’s world record at the Aussie Olympic Trials in June 2021, producing a time of 57.45.

Not to be left out of the mix, Canadian Kylie Masse, who had won consecutive World Championship titles in 2017 and 2019, not to mention gold medals at both the 2018 Commonwealth Games and Pan Pacific Championships, immediately raised her level, becoming the third swimmer to break 58 at the Canadian Olympic Trials in June in a time of 57.70.

Then, at the Olympics, the three swimmers took turns breaking the Olympic Record in the prelims, with Masse first downing the mark in 58.17 before Smith (57.96) and McKeown (57.88) snagged it in back-to-back heats.

Smith re-broke it in the semi-finals, clocking 57.88, which led the three fastest women into history into an epic Olympic final.

McKeown emerged victorious, narrowly missing her world record by .02 in 57.47, while Masse fell short of her personal best time by the same margin for the silver (57.72). Smith wound up third in 58.05, a time that would’ve easily won every other Olympics or World Championships.

It was an incredible culmination of the three fastest swimmers of all-time battling it out in the highest pressure situation an athlete can experience.

And it’s also staggering how far they’ve taken the event in such a short period of time. We’ve now seen 13 sub-58-second swims in history, with 11 of them coming in 2021 (and one in December 2020).

#5: Schoenmaker Breaks World Record To Win 200 Breast Gold

At the 2016 Rio Olympics, South Africa sent zero female swimmers to compete.

In Tokyo, Tatjana Schoenmaker won the country a gold medal, setting a new world record in the process.

Schoenmaker by no means was an unexpected winner in the event, having earned silver in the women’s 200 breaststroke at the 2019 World Championships. She had also posted the fastest time in the world leading into the 2021 Games, making her a relatively clear pick for gold.

But still, once the final rolled around, it was far from a certainty that the 24-year-old would get the job done.

Earlier in the meet in the 100 breast, Schoenmaker came flying out of the gates, setting an Olympic Record in the prelims in 1:04.82. She also qualified first out of the semi-finals in 1:05.07, but took second in the final to upstart American Lydia Jacoby (1:04.95), having gotten progressively slower with each round (1:05.22).

In the 200 breast heats she was absolutely dominant, swimming the second-fastest time in history in 2:19.16, and then was a tad slower—but still well clear of the field—to qualify first out of the semis in 2:19.33. Still the favorite heading into the final, but she certainly hoped history wouldn’t repeat itself after the 100.

And then in the final, Schoenmaker left zero doubt.

American Lilly King, who was a massive favorite to win the 100 breast but had fallen to third, made a valiant effort and challenged Schoenmaker up at the front of the race for a time. King led early and was nearly even with Schoenmaker at the 150, but the South African eventually pulled ahead and won by almost a full second in 2:18.95, breaking the eight-year-old world record of 2:19.11.

That mark had previously belonged to Denmark’s Rikke Moeller Pedersen, who swam that time at the 2013 World Championships, almost eight years prior to the day.

Schoenmaker became the first swimmer to set a world record at the Games, the first South African female gold medalist in the pool since 1996, and she was also the first South African to win gold in Tokyo, period.

Beyond Schoenmaker’s breakthrough world record, the prevailing image from this race was something greater, as Schoenmaker, King, bronze medalist Annie Lazor and Schoenmaker’s South African teammate Kaylene Corbett all embraced post-race.

The moment was significant for Schoenmaker and Corbett, getting the South African women a gold medal after no female athletes from the nation even competed at the 2016 Games, while Lazor had been dealing with the loss of her father in recent months, and King had vowed to “do whatever it takes” to get her on the Olympic team.

Photo: Jack Spitser.

#4: Hafnaoui Stuns The World With Upset 400 Free Gold

This race did not result in a world record. In fact, it wasn’t even close. But that doesn’t diminish the fact that the men’s 400 freestyle final provided one of the most shocking moments in the pool of the Tokyo Olympic Games.

It’s the opening night (well, morning) of finals, and we’re just settling into the Games, getting a gauge of who’s hot, who’s not, and how the meet looks like it will unfold.

Chase Kalisz wins the first gold medal in the pool in the men’s 400 IM in a relatively pedestrian time, ho-hum. The women’s 100 fly semis yield some fast swims, but still, we’re waiting for something big to happen. And then it comes out of left field, out of Lane 8.

Tunisia’s Ahmed Hafnaoui was nowhere near the medal conversation entering the Games in the men’s 400 free as the 16th seed—at his last international competition, the 2019 World Juniors, he finished 10th.

In the prelims, Hafnaoui dropped his personal best time down from 3:46.16 to 3:45.68 in order to squeak into the final in eighth (.14 ahead of ninth-place), with a couple of big names—particularly #4 and #5 seeds Danas Rapsys and Martin Malyutin—missing the final.

Australian Elijah Winnington was the favorite coming into the final, holding a best time nearly three seconds faster than Hafnaoui’s PB from the prelims.

But swimming way out in Lane 8, Hafnaoui got off to an aggressive start to put himself in the mix. At the halfway mark, four swimmers were sub-1:51, including Winnington and Hafnaoui, and then with 100 meters to go, all of a sudden it appeared to be a two-man race between Hafnaoui and another Australian, Jack McLoughlin.

Essentially everyone watching figured Hafnaoui would fade late and the more established names would move into medal position, but he did anything but, making a big push down the last 50 to overtake McLoughlin in the closing meters and win a stunning Olympic gold medal in a time of 3:43.36.

Hafnaoui had dropped 2.32 seconds off his personal best time from the prelims, and chopped off a total of 2.80 seconds from his lifetime best entering the meet.

That’s why they play the games, or swim the races, in this case.

McLoughlin won silver in 3:43.52, and American Kieran Smith rounded out the podium with a bronze in 3:43.94. The top-two seeds coming in, Winnington and Italian Gabriele Detti, finished seventh and sixth, respectively.

#3: Three Teams Go Under WR As China Shocks Australia In Women’s 4×200 Free

World records were hard to come by at the Tokyo Aquatics Centre.

In total, world records were broken in just six swims at the Games (and one of them was the mixed 400 medley relay).

But in the women’s 800 free relay, three teams went under the existing mark, making for one of the most memorable races in Tokyo.

Oh, and the country that won (more so the one that didn’t win) was a massive shock.

Coming in, the Aussie women were huge favorites, having had their top four performers from the Olympic Trials producing flat-start times that added up to be under the existing world record. These swims came from Ariarne Titmus (1:53.09), Emma McKeon (1:54.74), Madi Wilson (1:55.68) and Leah Neale (1:56.08).

The Americans had won the last two Olympic titles (and five of the six all-time), along with four of the last five World Championship gold medals, but the Aussie women had staked their claim as the best in the world after breaking the super-suited world record and winning gold at the 2019 Worlds in a time of 7:41.33.

They now appeared even stronger with their Trials add-up coming out to 7:39.59.

But a bit of controversy surrounded the Aussie team leading into the final, as 17-year-old Mollie O’Callaghan, who was just outside the top-four having gone 1:56.29 in the 200 free at Trials, led off their prelim relay in a new World Junior Record of 1:55.11. But the Aussies had essentially already committed to using four new swimmers in the final: Titmus, McKeon, Wilson and Neale.

Despite O’Callaghan’s swim, the coaching staff stuck to their guns and sent out their top four swimmers from Trials, with the Aussies expected to win gold either way. But things did not play out so smoothly.

Titmus, who had won individual 200 free gold the night prior in an Olympic Record time of 1:53.50, was more than a second slower on the lead-off leg in 1:54.51, with China’s Yang Junxuan taking the early lead in 1:54.37.

Tang Muhan (1:55.00) extended the Chinese lead over McKeon (1:55.31), while the Americans lurked in third, more than two seconds back.

Zhang Yufei (1:55.66) and Wilson (1:55.62) were almost even on the third leg, sending Li Bingjie in with a slight lead of four-tenths of a second on Neale, while the U.S. was still down by almost two seconds but had their strongest swimmer, Katie Ledecky, bringing them in.

Li held China out in front through the first 100, with Ledecky nearly bridging the gap up to Neale, now down on the Aussies by just .17.

Ledecky charged past Neale, but Li managed to fend off the American, only giving up three-tenths on the final 100 to win gold for China in 7:40.33, breaking the world record by a full second.

Ledecky had the fastest split in the field at 1:53.76, giving the U.S. the silver in 7:40.73, and Australia settled for bronze in 7:41.29, still under their world record set in 2019.

It was an unbelievable race all the way around. Incredibly fast, high drama, twists and turns, culminating with one massive upset and one significant world record.

#2: Dressel Tops Chalmers In Men’s 100 Free Clash

The respectful, competitive rivalry between Caeleb Dressel and Kyle Chalmers had been brewing for years.

Chalmers broke out to win Olympic gold in the men’s 100 freestyle in 2016, a race in which Dressel placed sixth.

But Dressel had really come into his own after that, including bulldozing his way to the World Championship title in 2017, producing a time (47.17) over four-tenths better than what Chalmers went to claim gold in Rio (47.58).

Chalmers, absent at those 2017 Worlds in Budapest, got one over on Dressel at the 2018 Pan Pacific Championships, though the American was not on top form and even the time for Chalmers (48.00) was far from what he was capable of.

Then things came to a head at the 2019 World Championships, eliciting an incredible race that saw Dressel become the first man under 47 seconds in a textile suit (46.96) while Chalmers swam the fastest time of his career to take a close second (47.08).

Tokyo represented the rematch: Dressel vs. Chalmers 2. The American looking to make good on all of his World Championship success and win his first career individual Olympic gold medal, and the Australian eyeing an Olympic title defense to join some of the all-time greats, and to get revenge for 2019. Since 1932, only Alexander Popov (1992-96) and Pieter van den Hoogenband (2000-04) had won back-to-back Olympic titles in the men’s 100 freestyle.

Dressel and Chalmers both eased through the heats with respective times of 47.73 and 47.77, and then Dressel won the first semi-final in 47.23. Chalmers, swimming in Heat 2, touched second, safely through, but well off the pace in 47.80. Russia’s Kliment Kolesnikov was the #1 qualifier in 47.11, setting a new European Record. Would he spoil the party?

As it turned out, no.

Dressel and Chalmers stepped onto the blocks in the Olympic final and delivered another classic, with Dressel using his patented early speed to take the lead at the 50 in 22.39. Chalmers turned third in 22.71, more than a half-second quicker than he was out in the semis.

Chalmers came roaring home, overtaking Kolesnikov and inching up to Dressel over the last few strokes. But after the touch, the scoreboard read:  Dressel – 47.02. Chalmers – 47.08.

Dressel was both ecstatic and relieved, with all of the pressure of being the next great American male swimmer heaped upon his shoulders for two full years (or four if we go back to 2017), and he finally got that weight off his shoulders with his first individual Olympic gold medal.

For Chalmers, a bitter pill to swallow, but another incredible swim for a man that had dealt with more than his fair share of health issues in the five years since Rio.

Dressel would go on to win the 100 fly (breaking the world record) and the 50 free at the Games, while Chalmers carried out his 2021 by lowering the world record in the men’s short course meter 100 freestyle in October, breaking a super-suited world record that had been on the books since 2008.

#1: Titmus Dethrones Ledecky In Women’s 400 Free

The women’s 400 freestyle final at the Tokyo Olympic Games was nothing short of a heavyweight title fight between two undefeated opponents (to steal a line used in the night’s live recap).

Katie Ledecky was the most dominant swimmer on earth leading into the 2016 Olympics, and further distanced herself from the rest of the world in Rio, winning a trio of individual gold medals in dominant fashion, including placing first in the 400 free by nearly five seconds.

Ledecky broke the world record in that swim, clocking 3:56.46, and then cruised to the World Championship title in 2017 (3:58.34) and the Pan Pac title in 2018 (3:58.50).

She had beaten Ariarne Titmus head-to-head in both of those swims, but it was clear the Australian was beginning to find her groove. After finishing fourth, nearly six seconds back of Ledecky in 2017, Titmus was just over a second shy at the 2018 Pan Pacs, breaking through the 4:00 minute barrier in 3:59.66.

Then, at the 2019 World Championships, Titmus did get by Ledecky in the 400 free, denying her a fourth straight title in the event by running her down and winning gold by over a second, 3:58.76 to 3:59.97.

We later learned, however, that Ledecky had come up ill at the championships, causing her to withdraw from the 200 and 1500 free and ultimately gut out a win in the 800 free later on. This took nothing away from Titmus’ victory, but it did give Ledecky a ‘pass’ in some people’s minds, only heightening expectations leading into the Olympic showdown.

In addition to the win in 2019, Titmus had shown incredible improvement leading into Tokyo, swimming the second-fastest time ever at the Australian Olympic Trials in 3:56.90 (a time Ledecky had only been faster than once, five years earlier).

Ledecky, on the other hand, was not at her best at U.S. Trials. She didn’t need to be, but still, she was more than four seconds slower than Titmus was at the Aussie Trials, easily winning in Omaha in 4:01.27.

In the prelims in Tokyo, Ledecky won Heat 3 in a time of 4:00.45, while Titmus led the fourth heat in 4:01.66, ranking them first and third heading into the final.

In the final, both women rose to the occasion.

Ledecky opted for aggression—something that had worked for her so many times in the past—and took the early lead, turning in 1:57.44 at the 200 compared to Titmus’ 1:58.10.

The two produced identical 30.02 splits on the fifth 50, and then Titmus began to make up ground, overtaking Ledecky on the penultimate 50 and turning with a lead of 22 one-hundredths with one length to go.

Ledecky made a push, but Titmus shut the door, winning Olympic gold in a time of 3:56.69, the second-fastest time ever and a new Commonwealth, Oceanian and Australian Record.

Ledecky, despite losing her first individual Olympic final, swam her fastest time since 2016 in 3:57.36, winning silver.

In addition to the epic race, the result helped produce one of the last images of the Games: Titmus’ coach Dean Boxall going absolutely wild post-win.

Honorable Mentions

Here are some other swims from 2021 that deserve to be recognized:

  • Caeleb Dressel gets pushed by Kristof Milak in the men’s 100 fly final at the Olympics, winning gold in a new world of 49.45 while Milak sets a new European standard at 49.68.
  • Lydia Jacoby stuns the world by upsetting Lilly King and Tatjana Schoenmaker to win gold in the women’s 100 breaststroke in Tokyo in a time of 1:04.95.
  • Maggie MacNeil (55.59) tops Zhang Yufei (55.64), Emma McKeon (55.72) and Torri Huske (55.73) in a razor-thin Olympic final in the women’s 100 butterfly that saw four of the fastest swims ever. Sarah Sjostrom, who wasn’t sure she would race this event at the Games after undergoing elbow surgery early in the year, finishes seventh.
  • Kyle Chalmers breaks the super-suited world record in the men’s 100 freestyle (SCM), clocking 44.84 at the FINA World Cup to break Amaury Leveaux’s mark of 44.94 from 2008.
  • Kaylee McKeown breaks the women’s 100 backstroke world record in 57.45.
  • The Australian women break the world record in the 400 freestyle relay in a time of 3:29.69, winning gold by more than three seconds.
  • Kliment Kolesnikov becomes the first swimmer under 24 seconds in the men’s 50 backstroke (LCM), clocking 23.93 at the European Championships in May. He re-breaks the record in the final in 23.80.
  • Maggie MacNeil obliterates the world record in the women’s 50 backstroke (SCM) at the Short Course World Championships by 33 one-hundredths of a second in 25.27.
  • Emre Sakci becomes the first swimmer under 25 seconds in the men’s 50 breaststroke (SCM), lowering the all-time record by three-tenths in 24.95.

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1 year ago

200 IM and 100 SCY are a joke. I mean, Wellbrocks WR is from less than a couple of weeks ago.

NOT the frontman of Metallica
1 year ago

Every year you find a way to shoehorn in some yards race over races that should be higher. Not even honorable mention for 1500 at short course worlds, and Dressel/Milak 100 fly not making top 10 is a joke. Also the dominant performances of Wellbrock and Cunha in the 10k in Tokyo should at least earn a mention

Reply to  NOT the frontman of Metallica
1 year ago

every year there’s a really odd choice in this awards series in general

2021 asian female swimmer of the year – haughey winning instead of two individual olympic gold medalists.
#10 of this list

2020 top 10 swims – national age record for 1650 yards (which converts to 10 seconds slower than the 1500 wjr record set by someone the same age only the year prior, and conversions already favour yards times too much) makes it, paltrinieri’s 1500 (fastest in 8 years) doesn’t even rate an honourable mention

top 20 swimmers of the 2010s – morozov makes the list with just one major individual medal, paltrinieri omitted entirely

2018 top 10 swims – chinese mens medley relay is #1,… Read more »

Reply to  McKeown-Hodges-McKeon-Campbell
1 year ago

I don’t think Haughey for Asian female of the year was too unreasonable of an award; 2 silvers is clearly not as good as 2 golds or 1 gold + 1 silver but the IM field was definitely nowhere near as strong as the 100/200 free field and I think that Haughry’s short course season more than makes up for not winning gold

Reply to  jeff
1 year ago

that pick is definitely the most reasonable out of the ones I pointed out. but at the same time, last year was an olympic year, the biggest event on the 4 year calender. so naturally, the olympics should carry more weight than any other competition when picking these winners. purely judging medal haul and not times, ohashi was the best, with 2 individual golds. zhang is second best with 1 gold 1 silver. haughey is 3rd with 2 silvers. in terms of times, haughey’s performances were better than ohashi’s. ohashi’s times were still off her best times from 3-4 years ago, while haughey set asian records (that would win most finals) in both her events. which is why I think… Read more »

Reply to  McKeown-Hodges-McKeon-Campbell
1 year ago

I think that their LCM performances were close enough that Haughey’s SCM gives her the edge. No doubt that Zhang had better overall times, but Haughey’s 100 free time still would’ve won the finals of every Worlds/Olympics except 2009 Rome and 2019 Gwangju (would’ve placed silver in those two) and her 200 free would’ve taken gold in everything except 2009 Rome, 2012 London, and 2016 Rio.

Olympic times should definitely be given the most weight but I don’t think they should completely decide.

Reply to  jeff
1 year ago

then again, Zhang did have a great 200 free split right after her 200 fly. I think it realistically makes sense to give it to either swimmer, depending on how heavily you weigh a SCM world record

Darth Vader
1 year ago

What I don’t understand is how did my 24 minute mile I swam at the gym lap pool 2 days ago not make the list… if you factor in the broken back and the old age it’s a god damn miracle swim. No supersuit. Get it together swimswam.

1 year ago

not sure how the 200 im makes the list under any of the criteria you listed.

the list is called top 10 swims, which should take into account an impressive time by the winner, not just the closest races. the top 3 entries fit both criteria, with the winning times being good in isolation, made more impressive by the silver medal performances, and in the case of the 4×200, the bronze medal time as well. furthermore, all three of these entries came in olympic finals, whereas the 200 im was a trials swim.

the m400 free is the better example of a changing of the guard. I know it is on the list (and in a higher spot), but it… Read more »

Last edited 1 year ago by McKeown-Hodges-McKeon-Campbell
Reply to  McKeown-Hodges-McKeon-Campbell
1 year ago

I’m willing to defend the 200 IM in that the women who didn’t make it were the ones everyone thought were going to be huge medal threats in Tokyo, Baker, Margalis, etc., and the fact that teen stars not only came out on top, but went on to hold their own on the world stage, I think is a pretty good “changing of the guard” moment to include. It also speaks to how much moving the Olympics to 2021 shook up swimming, since a 2020 Tokyo Games almost certainly would’ve ended with an older, more experienced swimmer going to Tokyo.

I agree that the women’s 100 fly probably should’ve been on the list (and maybe swapped out for its… Read more »

Reply to  swimswim4
1 year ago

but still not a changing of the guard like the 400 free was. sun yang won most 400 freestyle titles last decade, horton was the defending champion, and together with detti, they swept the podiums in 2016, 2017 and 2019. aside from cox winning a bronze back in 2017 (and even then pickrem swallowed water in that race), no active american has won an im medal internationally. given that this is a global list, how can you say that 3 people missing the team, who never made an impact anyway, impacts world swimming? If your argument is that walsh and douglass went on to win medals in the 200 im, then put the olympic final on the list, not this… Read more »

Last edited 1 year ago by McKeown-Hodges-McKeon-Campbell
1 year ago

While I know some folks are tired of Dressel, I’m not one of them. I think the 50m free in Tokyo should have received an honorable mention at least. He won that 50m race by nearly half a second (0.48), an incredible margin. It makes Biondi’s margin in the 1988 Olympics look small.

1 year ago

That 200IM doesn’t even merit an honourable mention. How it earns a spot in the top 10 over the men’s and women’s 100 fly I don’t know.

Reply to  Troyy
1 year ago

It was an Olympic Trials Meet of Tears kind of race. Kate Douglass really nailed the touch to get 2nd. Being a sprinter she has a lot of skill and experience with close finishes.

Reply to  Troyy
1 year ago

And what about Emily Seebohm and Cate Campbell coming back to get individual bronzes. Or 4 Australian women going under 53 at out trials.So many better examples than that 200 IM.I think it was chosen to cause controversy.

Last edited 1 year ago by Joel
Ol' Longhorn
Reply to  Joel
1 year ago

But they’re Australian.

1 year ago

kinda surprised that the women’s 200 free race doesn’t show up in the honorable mentions.

Titmus’ 1:53.5 was the second fastest swim in an international final (and third fastest ever) and took the Olympic record, Haughey’s swim was the fastest second place finish ever and the only time that second place has been sub 1:54, and Oleksiak’s swim was the fastest third place finish ever. Even Yang Junxuan’s 4th place finish was only 0.03 off the fastest 4th place finish ever (Haughey’s 1:54.98 from 2019 Worlds).

EDIT: in fact, I think I can actually keep going with this. Ledecky’s 5th place finish is the fastest ever, Seemanova’s 6th place is the second fastest ever (behind the Duo/Barratt tie for 5th… Read more »

Last edited 1 year ago by jeff
Reply to  jeff
1 year ago

Is not the same for men 200 free? If we take all rounds, 5 sub 1:45 and this year we had 8 or 9 1:44

Reply to  Rafael
1 year ago

definitely very fast finals there but I think it just feels less impressive since some of the supersuit mens times are just so crazy. 3 of the top 10 (2nd, 3rd, 7th) fastest womens 200 free times ever came from this year, but Dean and Scott’s swims are “only” 14th and 16th respectively.

I guess just all around it was a great final but nothing “record breaking” like the women had this year- 2012 Olympics had Agnel’s textile WR, the 2011 Worlds final had more sub 1:45s, and this year matched the 2016 Olympic final in sub 1:46s

Last edited 1 year ago by jeff
1 year ago

Was hoping to find Manuel’s 50 Free at trials on this list (especially with the IM at #10). One of the most inspiring moments of this year.

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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