2021 U.S. Olympic Trials Previews: Dressel’s 20-Point Quest In Men’s 50 Free

See all of our U.S. Olympic Trials previews & picks here.


Men’s 50 free

  • World Record: Cesar Cielo (BRA) – 20.91 (2009)
  • American Record: Caeleb Dressel – 21.04 (2019)
  • US Open Record: Cesar Cielo (BRA) – 21.14 (2009)
  • World Junior Record: Michael Andrew (USA) – 21.75 (2017)
  • 2016 Olympic Champion: Anthony Ervin (USA) – 21.40
  • 2016 US Olympic Trials Champion: Nathan Adrian – 21.51
  • Wave I Cut: 23.19
  • Wave II Cut: 22.71

As with the 100 free, discussion about the men’s 50 free at U.S. Trials starts and ends with Caeleb DresselThe two-time defending world champ is the fastest American in history by three-tenths of a second, and the heavy favorite to win the 50 free at Trials.

The big question for Dressel this year is whether he can crack the 21-second barrier. He’s currently #3 all-time in the event, and the only two men ever to break 21 did so in now-banned full-body suits: Cesar Cielo (20.91) in 2009 and Fred Bousquet (20.94) in 2008.

The 50 free comes at the very end of U.S. Trials, so Dressel might be exhausted after what many expect to be a heavy event load. Semifinals of the 50 free also share a session with the 100 fly final. But Dressel has generally been excellent even in tough event slates, and there’s really not much worry that he’ll drop out of the top two – only questions about whether he’ll be primed to go 20-point by day 8 of Trials.

The 21 Club:

Four other Americans have broken 22 this season.

Michael Andrew was the second American entrant into 2019 Worlds, taking 6th in 21.62. Andrew’s career highlight in this event so far was beating Dressel head-to-head for Pan Pacs gold in 2018. That was far from a nailbiter – Andrew’s 21.46 beat Dressel by a good half-second, though Dressel was at the time recovering from a motorcycle crash that left him visibly off his mark.

While Andrew and Dressel were off crushing it at Worlds in the summer of 2019, Ryan Held was starting his revenge tour back in the U.S. Left outside the major Team USA travel teams that year after a disappointing 2018, Held smashed a 21.87 to win the U.S. National title. He’s only gotten better since, lowering his career-best to 21.62 in April of 2021.

Nathan Adrian was the Olympic bronze medalist in this event in 2016, but he’s also much older than the rest of the field at age 32. Still, age isn’t of too much concern in this event; just look at the 2016 Olympic champ (then-35-year-old Anthony Ervin). Adrian is probably not bettering his career-best of 21.37 from way back in 2015. But he’s pretty consistently cracked 22 each year and has already been 21.98 this year.

Adrian has hit 21.8 as a season-best in every calendar year since the Olympics: 21.83 in 2017, 21.85 in 2018, 21.87 in 2019 and 21.88 in 2020. So for prediction purposes, the game almost becomes deciding who will be faster than 21.8 (and projected ahead of Adrian) and who will be slower (and ranked behind him).

David Curtiss is the last U.S. man to break 22 so far this year. He follows in the footsteps of Andrew as a World Juniors medalist in the event. (Andrew won gold in 2017; Curtiss took silver in 2019).

David Curtiss (photo courtesy of Aidan Medina)

Curtiss went 21.95 at the age of 17, and broke 22 again this year with a 21.87 at the Pro Swim Series in Richmond. He’s clearly on a great improvement trajectory, and the biggest question for the youngest member of the 2021 21-club will be whether he can handle the prelims/semifinals/finals format as deftly as the veterans in an event where every tiny detail carries so much weight.

Other contenders:

Zach Apple and Michael Chadwick have both been 21-point in previous seasons. Apple has become a standout 100/200 threat on the relays for Team USA, but did go 21.81 in late 2019. He had just started to heat up with an in-season 22.0 just before the pandemic hit in 2020, and he’s been 22-low so far this season.

Chadwick took bronze at the 2019 Pan American Games, behind silver medalist Adrian. Chadwick’s 21.95 from that year remains his best time, but he has been sub-22 on a few other occasions. His best time this year is a 22.29 from the Indy Pro Swim Series last month.

Some other former NCAA standouts to watch: Minnesota Golden Gopher alum Bowe Becker is the 10th-fastest all-time in the 50-yard free at 18.69. He’s been 22.00 in the long course meters version of the event, but hasn’t competed much this year and hasn’t been faster than 22.5. Indiana Hoosier alum Blake Pieroni is another 100/200 freestyler who probably won’t key in on this event, but has been 22.03 in his career. He’s only been 22.8 so far this year.

Robert Howard of Alabama has been 22.0, but hasn’t registered a long course swim yet this season and swam only sparingly in the ISL.

Then there are current NCAA stars. Ryan Hoffer won back-to-back NCAA titles and ranks #2 in history (behind Dressel) in the 50-yard free at 18.33. Hoffer is much more of a short course specialist, though, with a career-best 22.52 in long course.

Adam Chaney, Matt Brownstead and Matt King were freshman standouts in the NCAA this year. Chaney (the NCAA bronze medalist) is the most accomplished in long course, with a personal best of 22.40 from 2019, when he won World Juniors bronze behind Curtiss. Brownstead (22.65) and King (22.56) have both hit career-bests this season, but need big drops to make the final here.

Top 8 Picks

Place Swimmer Lifetime-best Season-best
1 Caeleb Dressel 21.04 21.82
2 Michael Andrew 21.46 21.98
3 David Curtiss 21.87 21.87
4 Ryan Held 21.62 21.62
5 Nathan Adrian 21.37 21.98
6 Zach Apple 21.81 22.30
7 Adam Chaney 22.40 22.65
8 Michael Chadwick 21.95 22.29

Dark Horse: August Lamb (season/lifetime-best: 22.23). Lamb has been a breakout star for the Virginia men in the NCAA. In short course yards, he dropped from 20.4 to 19.4 during his freshman year and did split 18.6 twice this year as a sophomore. The pandemic mostly kept him from making similar strides in long course over the summer of 2020, but he did drop from 23.1 out of high school to going 22.23 in March of this year. At that trajectory, he’s got a real shot to crack 22 with a great swim.

Wave I standout: Cam Peel (season-best / lifetime-best:) In yards, Peel dropped from 19.6 to 19.3 in his sophomore year at Michigan. Like Lamb, he didn’t get much of a chance to improve on his high-school best 22.99 in long course meters over the summer after his freshman year. But this spring, he went 22.74 in March and 22.77 again in May and has a shot to move on from Wave I to Wave II, especially if he gets out front with some clean water.

In This Story

Leave a Reply

Notify of
newest most voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Mr Piano
3 months ago

The only reason I think he doesn’t break it this year is because of the heavy event schedule. If he just swam this, he would totally get the record. I think he’ll end up being somewhere around 21.2 at trials and 20.95 at the games

3 months ago

I’m afraid that with the one year delay of the Olympics, we won’t be seeing a prime Dressel.

Reply to  Notanyswimmer
3 months ago

He’s better in odd years

Caeleb’s left suit string
Reply to  Notanyswimmer
3 months ago

If anything I think it’s the opposite, one extra year to prepare, plus it didn’t sound like the training schedule for Dressel was effected as much as other people’s were bc of shutdowns. All indications are that he’s primed and ready to shatter records

Reply to  Caeleb’s left suit string
3 months ago

Dude was amazing at isl. I think this’ll help him

Remel Dressel is the best sprinter of all time
3 months ago

He’ll go 20.7 and Cesar “supersuited” Cielo won’t sleep that night.

3 months ago

Curtiss and Andrew ahead of held?

Reply to  Hswimmer
3 months ago

Yeah I’m also skeptical about this. Held just went a 21.6 in April. That’s moving and I’m sure he will be faster than that at trials. I have him at number 2.

Reply to  Camelboar
3 months ago

Me too, I think he could be 21.3/4

3 months ago

The battle for the second spot is definitely between Curtiss and Held. My hot take- I think Michael Andrew is exhausted by the end of the meet, and misses the second spot.
Especially if Andrew swims the 100 fly, the prelims-semis-finals program is really heavy for his training background. Being tired can definitely affect an event like the 50 by a couple tenths.
I definitely think you cannot count Curtiss out- he’s going to trials specifically for the 50. He’s proven himself on the world stage. I just hope he can finish the job in finals.

Reply to  FlynDie
3 months ago

I agree, but I have held ahead of Curtiss

3 months ago

Michael Andrew’s best bet is in the men’s 100 meter breaststroke. End of story.

Dressel, Held

Reply to  Smith-King-Dahlia-Manuel
3 months ago

I’m not discounting the idea of andrew just having an on fire meet and making all three. I wouldn’t bet on it, but I wouldn’t ben anything serious against it either.

Reply to  Smith-King-Dahlia-Manuel
3 months ago

This is selfish, but part of me wants MA to only make the team in the 100 breast. I think his best chance for a gold metal would be by making sure he’s not worn out by a heavy program so he can put up a fast split in the medley relay. I just really want to beat Britain and Russia in that race and a 58 low from him would go a long way towards making that possible. But obviously I get that he should swim whatever he wants and not care what people like me prioritize. I’m mostly just out here armchair quarterbacking for my own amusement.

Ga swimma
Reply to  Willswim
3 months ago

Adam Peaty? Lol. Peaty is gonna win gold in the 100br

Reply to  Ga swimma
3 months ago

Yeah, I get that. I meant MA could win gold in the medley relay if he can avoid burning himself out.

Amadeus Quix
3 months ago

Regardless of his current seed time or post 2016 performances, Anthony Ervin should be listed somewhere in this article as a possible contender. His name only appears briefly in Adrian’s paragraph, but doesn’t reference him as a contender.

Last edited 3 months ago by Amadeus Quix
Reply to  Amadeus Quix
3 months ago

You want them to lie and say he’s a contender? What does that accomplish?

Reply to  Amadeus Quix
3 months ago

Ervin was consistently between 21.4 and 21.9 multiple times every year in the 2012-2016 Olympic quad en route to making that Olympic team and getting the gold. The fastest he’s been this Olympic quad is 22.0, and his fastest since 2019 has been 22.6. He’s a swimming legend but he’s not making that team unless he starts at a new training camp in Russia.

Reply to  Amadeus Quix
3 months ago

Agreed. With the defending champ in the mix, its always worthy of acknowledgement.

Reply to  Amadeus Quix
3 months ago

I don’t think Anthony Ervin has a shot, but I also didn’t think he had a shot in 2016. He sure proved me wrong then. Anybody who has won two Olympic gold medals in the event and is still competing at least deserves a mention.

Reply to  Dan
3 months ago

if you didn’t think he had a shot to make the team in 2016 you weren’t paying attention

3 months ago

I think he’ll need someone to push him to break 21, especially since the 50m freestyle is so late in the agenda. If h ends up doing it, which I think he will, it would have to be in the Olympics.

About Jared Anderson

Jared Anderson

Jared Anderson swam for nearly twenty years. Then, Jared Anderson stopped swimming and started writing about swimming. He's not sick of swimming yet. Swimming might be sick of him, though. Jared was a YMCA and high school swimmer in northern Minnesota, and spent his college years swimming breaststroke and occasionally pretending …

Read More »