2023 U.S. Nationals: Official SwimSwam Awards

We saw an incredible week of racing recently at the 2023 U.S. National Championships, where the roster for the 2023 U.S. World Championships team was decided. There were several big swims, new faces,  emerging and returning at the meet, and in this article, we will highlight the best of the best from Nationals via SwimSwam awards.

These awards were decided based on a mix of the swimmer’s objective success on paper, as well as the subjective significance of their performances in the context of their situation.

Female Swimmer Of The Meet: Regan Smith

Simply put, Regan Smith is back.

Since Smith moved from Stanford to Arizona State in August 2022, she has been impressing meet-after-meet with her in-season swims. However, at Nationals, she proved that she could get the job done when the lights shined the brightest, winning three different events (200 fly, 200 back, 100 back) and placing second in another (50 back). The only women able to match Smith’s win total were Lilly King and Katie Ledecky.

Smith began her meet with a convincing win in the 200 fly. She was off her American record time from the Sun Devil Open, but her 2:05.79 was good enough to take first by over a second. Then, she swam a 2:03.80 to break the U.S Open record in the 200 back, getting under 2:04 for the first time since 2019. This race was a major breakthrough for Smith, who had failed to qualify for the 2021 Olympics and 2022 World Championships in the 200 back despite being the World Record holder in the event at the time.

The latter two races in Smith’s event also went in her favor. She dropped a 27.14 personal best in the 50 back to maintain her spot as the second-fastest American of all time, finishing just 0.01 of a second behind American record holder Katharine Berkoff. Then, she got the best of Berkoff in the 100 back, breaking her own U.S. Open record with a 57.71 to clock the ninth-fastest performance of all-time. As crazy as it seems, 2023 Worlds will be the first time that Smith will be qualified to race all three backstroke events individually.

Smith’s next challenge will be beating and re-claiming the backstroke World Records from her Australian rival Kaylee McKeown, whose season-bests in the 100 back (57.50) and 200 back (2:03.14) are faster than hers. She will also be the favorite to win the 200 fly with her American record time (2:03.87), but fast-rising 16-year-old Summer McIntosh has a best time of 2:04.70 and should not be counted out.

Honorable Mentions:

  • Katie LedeckyLedecky had some minor slip ups at Nationals like losing to Claire Weinstein by 0.02 seconds in the 200 free and being two seconds off her season-best in the 400 free, but overall she’s continued to show her reign of dominance and longevity in the longer distance events. She’s looked better in those events than she has in a long time, posting her fastest 800 free (8:07.07) since 2016 and her first sub-15:30 1500 free (15:29.64) since pre-COVID. Even with an “off” 400 free time of 4:00.45, she still managed to win the race by nearly three seconds. If Nationals tells us anything, it’s that Ledecky re-breaking her world records from her younger days doesn’t seem so out of reach now.
  • Lilly KingFor the second year in a row, King has swept the breaststroke events at a trials meet. She started off by holding off Kate Douglass in a gutsy 200 breast battle to post her second-fastest time ever (2:20.95), which also stands as the second-fastest time in the World this year. Then, she out-touched Lydia Jacoby in the 50 breast by 0.04 seconds to win the 50 breast (29.77), before breaking 1:05 for the first time since June 2021 to win the 100 breast (1:04.75) with her biggest margin of victory all week. Headed into Worlds, King should be the favorite to win the 100 breast and has a chance of taking 50 and 200 breast gold as well, meaning she’ll get another shot at a breaststroke sweep this summer.
  • Kate DouglassDouglass is a “bathtub pool swimmer” no more, as she proved that she was a long course star in the making at Nationals. She posted wins in the 100 free (52.57) and 200 IM (2:07.09), becoming the second-fastest American ever and entering the top ten performers of all-time list in both events. She also took second in the 200 breast (2:21.22) and third in both the 100 fly (56.43) and 50 free (24.48), which highlights her versatility across several strokes and distances. Although she’s made international teams in the past, this year is the first year where she’s going to be a “heavyweight” for Team USA—in addition to being a medal contender in her individual events, she will also be expected to swim on several relays as America’s top performer in the blue ribbon event.

Male Swimmer Of The Meet: Carson Foster

This year, the U.S men struggled to find a multi-event star, with names like Caeleb Dressel and Michael Andrew being off-form. It was getting to the point where there was no guarantee that all projected mens’ qualifiers were able to go to Worlds, as not enough men were versatile to “double up” and qualify in more than one event.

However, if there was one guy that could be counted on to win multiple events, it was Carson Foster.

Headed into Nationals, Foster was heavily favored to win the 200 fly and sweep the IMs. He pulled through and did the job, taking first in the 200 fly (1:54.30), 200 IM (1:56.19), and 400 IM (4:08.14) and being the only male swimmer to win more than two events. He also swam a 1:45.64 in the 200 free prelims, which justified him a spot on the 4×200 free relay at Worlds, but ended up scratching finals.

Foster has come a long way in the last two years, from not meeting expectations at the 2021 Olympic trials and getting run down at the finish to being named “swimmer of the meet” at 2023 trials. At Worlds, he will have to battle it out with favorite Leon Marchand in the IMs once more, while taking on names like Marchand and Tomuru Honda in a 200 fly field that has suddenly become wide-open with the withdrawal of Kristof Milak.

Honorable Mentions:

  • Bobby FinkeFinke was expected to sweep the distance freestyles at Nationals, but that doesn’t make his performances any less impressive. He dominated both the 800 (7:40.34) and 1500 free (14:42.81) free, swimming his fastest trials times ever as he broke the U.S. Open record in both events. His 800 free time in particular was super impressive, as it currently stands as the fastest time in the world this year and is less than a second off his best time of 7:39.36 that won the World title last year. He also raced the 400 IM as a third event, going a best time of 4:09.55 and placing third. Even though the U.S. men have less medal chances than they have had before, it’s reassuring to know that Finke is still amongst the best of the best in his events.
  • Nic FinkWith Michael Andrew out of the picture now, Fink is now the clear top male breaststroke in the United States. He proved that to be true at Nationals, winning the 50 breast (26.74) and 100 breast (58.36), with his 100 breast time being a personal best by 0.01 of a second and also the second-fastest time in the World. His only slip-up was the 200 breast, where he was fourth in a time of 2:09.20 and missed the Worlds team for the first time in three years, but that really only indicated that he was shifting his focus more and more towards the sprints. At Worlds, he will be a medal contender once more in both the 50 and 100 breast, and looks to defend his World title in the 50 breast.

Female Breakout Swimmer Of The Meet: Gretchen Walsh

Trials meets used to be Gretchen Walsh‘s worst nightmare.

Walsh first became a contender to make international teams in 2019, when she swam a 53.74 as a 16-year-old at World Juniors. However, she wasn’t able to get the job done at both the 2021 Olympic and 2022 World trials, being well off her best time in the 100 free and failing to make it out of prelims. She didn’t have any luck in her other events as well, and had even had a disappointing third-place finish in the 50 free by 0.01 of a second at 2022 trials.

However, this year would be different for Walsh. First, she got the monkey off her back by placing third in the 100 free with a time of 53.11, setting her first best time in nearly four years and finally qualifying for her first senior international team. Third would be the lowest that she’d finish all week, as she then went on to win the 50 fly (25.11) in American record fashion, place second in both the 100 fly (56.34) and 50 free (24.31), and take third in the 50 back (27.54). She set best times in all of her events.

After never qualifying for a senior international team in the past, Walsh will be representing the U.S. in four different events (three individual) this summer, finally meeting expectations that had been placed on her all those years before.

Honorable Mentions:

  • Alex ShackellThe 16-year-old Shackell had been one of the top junior swimmers in the country coming into Nationals, but nobody expected her to qualify for a senior international team. She had an entry time of 1:59.49 in the 200 free, but then dropped nearly two seconds to go 1:57.74 in prelims and qualify for the ‘A’ final. In finals, she dropped another full second and went 1:56.70, finishing fifth overall and qualifying herself for Worlds on the womens’ 4×200 free relay. She produced big swims in other events as well, going best times of 57.59 and 2:07.95 in the 100 fly and 200 fly respectively and placing top six in both events. She also swam a 54.22 100 free right after going her 200 fly PB, and ended up finishing 15th in the ‘B’ final of that event.

Male Breakout Swimmer Of The Meet: Thomas Heilman

On the men’ side of the 2023 U.S. World Championships roster, there were 13 first-time qualifiers in pool swimming. However, none of them exploded quite like how Thomas Heilman did in the butterfly events.

At 16 years old, Heilman became the youngest American male to qualify for an Olympic or World Championships roster since a 15-year-old Michael Phelps did so back in 2000. He placed second in both the 200 fly (1:54.54) and 100 fly (51.19), setting U.S. National Age Group record across both events.

In the 200 fly, Heilman was entered as the ninth seed with a time of 1:56.52. He dropped over two seconds across the course of his prelims and finals swims and broke Michael Phelps’ National Age Group Record time of 1:54.58, which had stood since 2001 and had once been the World Record. Heilman was also entered as the ninth seed in the 100 fly with his 15-16 NAG time of 51.98, before lowering his NAG to a 51.19 in finals. He’s now the fastest 15-16-year-old American of all-time by 1.21 seconds, and just 0.09 seconds off of Phelps’ 17-18 NAG time.

With how young he is and how fast he’s been improving every single year, Heilman is becoming one of the greatest male American age groupers of all-time. Now, he gets to have a taste of what the senior international stage is like.

Honorable Mentions:

  • Jack AlexyAs the man who went 48.69 two years ago to break Caeleb Dressel’s 17-18 National Age Group record, Alexy was bound to see success in his future. It didn’t come in 2022, when he added over a second from his best time and finished 24th at trials. However, he turned the tide in 2023, dropping nearly a second and setting a best time of 47.75 in 100 free prelims of Nationals. Then, in finals, he swam a 47.93 to win a National title and qualify for his first senior international team. The success didn’t stop there, as he also dropped exactly half a second in his 50 free to go 21.63 and take second in the 50 free, giving him two different events to swim in Fukuoka.
  • Chris GuilianoPrior to the 2022-23 NCAA season, most swim fans didn’t know Guliano’s name. He then broke out in yards and earned two finals swims at 2023 NCAAs, but he was still far and away from being a contender in long course meters. In fact, prior to December 2022, he had never broken 50 seconds before in a long course 100 free. He came into Nationals seeded 22nd with a time of 49.17, but then dropped down to a 47.98 to finish second overall and qualify to swim an individual event at Worlds. His Worlds berth was so unexpected to the point that he even opted to swim at the 2023 World University Games, but he ended up having to withdraw from that competition because it conflicted with Worlds.
  • Baylor NelsonA week before Nationals, Nelson didn’t even have a meet ‘A’ cut in the 200 free, and was better known for his IM abilities in short course yards. He entered Nationals with a best time of 1:49.16 and was seeded 25th, but dropped nearly three seconds to finish fifth overall in a time of 1:46.51. After not making a single ‘A’ final at trials last year, the top domestic recruit in the high school class of 2022 is on a senior World Championships team just a year later.

Female Swim Of The Meet: Katie Ledecky, 800 Free

No swim screamed “dominance” the way that Katie Ledecky‘s 800 free swim at Nationals did.

Ledecky won her 800 free race by over 13 seconds, touching in a time of 8:07.07. That time is the third-fastest 800 free performance of all-time and her fastest performance since 2016, which was the year that she set her World Record time of 8:04.79.

That 800 free swim from Ledecky signified two things: 1. age is just a number for her 2. her World Record in the event is not that far out of reach for her. After struggling to come near to her World record after 2016 and even failing to break 8:10 from 2019 to 2021, Ledecky proved that she can become a better swimmer as she ages, getting the closest she’s ever been to her peak since hitting that peak back in 2016. At the age of 25, she’s far older than most of the best female distance swimmers in the World. But with her career on an upward trend, aging doesn’t seem to have any lasting effect on her dominance.

At Worlds, look to see Ledecky racing the clock once more in the 800 free. And maybe this time, that yellow World Record line will be within reach.

Honorable Mentions:

  • Gretchen Walsh, 50 fly—Walsh was absolutely dominant in the 50 fly, leading from start to finish and blasting a time of 25.11 to break Torri Huske’s American record by 0.27 seconds. In total, Walsh dropped 0.86 seconds from her previous best time at Nationals. With her time, she became tied with Rikako Ikee as the third-fastest performer in history, and is now the favorite for silver at Worlds behind World Record holder Sarah Sjostrom. If she continues her trajectory, she could join Sjostrom as the only two women under 25 seconds in the 50 fly.
  • Kate Douglass, 200 IM—After not swimming the event at all last year, Kate Doulgass made her return known in the long course 200 IM. She dropped nearly two seconds from her 2021 Olympic bronze-winning time of 2:09.04, going 2:07.09 to break the U.S. Open record and beat defending World Champ Alex Walsh in the same race. Douglass’ time is the second-fastest time that’s been clocked since Katinka Hosszu’s 2:07.00 from 2017, with only Summer McIntosh’s 2:06.86 being quicker. In addition, Douglass also moves up to become the #6 performer in history.
  • Regan Smith, 200 back—Smith’s 2:03.80 200 back was a U.S. Open record, and also the fifth-fastest performance of all-time. In addition, it was just 0.74 seconds off Kaylee McKeown’s World Record time of 2:03.14. However, Smith’s swim wasn’t just significant because of how fast it was on paper, as it also signified her return to the top of the event following a two-year plateau. After breaking the 200 back World Record in a time of 2:03.35 in 2019, Smith didn’t break 2:05 for the next three years, missing the Olympics in 2021 and Worlds in 2022 for the event. However, her time from Nationals this year was the fastest she had been since 2019 Worlds, and proves that she is capable of being back where she used to be.
  • Abbey Weitzeil, 50 free—After placing second in the 100 free, Weitzeil took full control of the 50 free, throwing down a time of 24.00 to take down the U.S. Open record. She now is just 0.03 seconds behind Simone Manuel’s American Record, and becomes the 12th-fastest performer of all-time. Considering that Emma McKeon and Sarah Sjostrom are the only two active swimmers that have been under 24 seconds in the 50 free, for Weitzeil to be close to joining them is a big deal.

Male Swim Of The Meet: Thomas Heilman, 200 Fly

Heilman didn’t even win his 200 fly race, but he earns the “swim of the meet” award because of the cultural significance of his swim, which was a 1:54.54 that broke Michael Phelps’ 15-16 U.S. National Age Group record by 0.04 seconds.

Phelps’ NAG (1:54.58) was one of the most iconic NAGs in the books, as it was a World Record and signified the rise to stardom of the greatest swimmer of all-time. For a swimmer like Phelps to be breaking World Records as a male teenager (in fact, when he first broke the 200 fly World Record in a time of 1:54.92 at age 15, he became the youngest swimmer, male or female, to break a World Record in the 21st century) was almost unheard of.

What made breaking Phelps’ NAG an even bigger deal was that nobody had come close to the record for the last 22 years—Luca Urlando was the second-fastest U.S. 15-16-year-old with a 1:55.21, but even that time was 0.67 seconds slower than Phelps. This only goes to show how generational of a swimmer Heilman is.

Heilman won his race with incredible closing speed, as he was third to Trenton Julian for the first 150 meters of his race, but then posted a 30.04 final 50 (the fastest in the entire field) to run Julian down and and close in on Foster.

In just three weeks, Heilman will race the 200 fly in Fukuoka, which was the same city where Phelps set his NAG in. As the youngest American male senior Worlds competitor since Phelps, Heilman will have a lot to live up to.

Honorable Mentions:

  • Bobby Finke, 800 Free—Because of how far ahead he is of the rest of America, Finke doesn’t need to be at his best to win at domestic-level trials competitions. So when he was less than a second off his best to win the 800 free in a U.S. Open record time (7:40.34), it is significant. Finke won his race by nearly three seconds, and overtook Samuel Short to lead the 2023 World rankings in the 800 free. As the World’s fastest swimmer in the 800 free for the last two years (so far), he looks to be the (slight) favorite for gold in this event in Fukuoka.
  • Nic Fink, 100 Breast—After a disappointing 200 breast, Fink’s 100 breast was a way of telling the people that he was still “that guy” in American breaststroke. He won his race by nearly a second, dropping 0.01 of a second to go a best time of 58.36 and become the second-fastest performer in the World for 2023. His time was also just 0.1 of a second off Nicolo Martinenghi’s best time of 58.26 that both won the World title last year and led the 2022 time rankings.
  • Justin Ress, 50 Back—In a tight race with World Record holder Hunter Armstrong, Ress got his hand on the wall first by 0.06 seconds, touching in a World-leading time of 24.10. This time is 0.18 seconds off his best time of 23.92 but 0.02 seconds faster than the time he swam to win Worlds gold last year, which puts him in a strong position to defend his title in Fukuoka.

Team Of The Meet: Cal

Simply put, Cal wins this award because they were the training group that put the most swimmers on the Worlds roster with six.

Some of their qualifications could be predicted even a year in advance, like Hunter Armstrong and Ryan Murphy sweeping the 100/200 back. However, most of their Worlds berths were a product of incredible development over the last year.

For example, after missing Worlds in 2022, U.S. veteran Abbey Weitzeil set best times to qualify for 2023 Worlds individually in both the 50 and 100 free, even breaking a U.S. Open Record in the former event. Destin Lasco was a “short course swimmer” up until Nationals where he dropped nearly a second in 100 free and 200 back, breaking 48 seconds in the former event and qualifying for an individual Worlds team spot in the latter. Dare Rose saw a 0.66-second drop in the 100 fly, and now he’s America’s top male butterflyer. Jack Alexy went from 24th to 1st at trials in one year, and is qualified to swim two individuals at Worlds.

The only “miss” that the Golden Bears had all of Nationals was Gabriel Jett, who was off his best in the 200 fly after being projected to qualify for Worlds. However, he still set best times in the 200 free and 100 fly (where he ‘A’-finaled and broke 52 seconds for the first time), so it isn’t all a lost cause for him.

Because of their fast times across the board and how they developed so many swimmers this year, the Golden Bears can be considered the top team of Nationals.

Honorable Mentions:

  • Virginia—Similar to Cal, Virginia developed several of their swimmers very well this year and will take up half of the womens’ 4×100 free relay spots at Worlds. Kate Douglass and Gretchen Walsh became much better at long course than they were a year ago, and Alex Walsh finally added another event to her individual lineup after dropping seven seconds and finishing second in the 400 IM. Furthermore, Maxine Parker saw her first international team berth after improving nearly 1.5 seconds in the 100 free in one year. But it wasn’t just the women who shined, as Jack Aikins and Noah Nichols both earned third-place finishes with best times. And although Worlds qualifier Matt King currently trains with the Texas Ford Aquatics pro group, his success can also be partially attributed to Virginia, where he swam for two seasons.

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Viking Steve
7 months ago

Douglass 100 Free?!?!

Weinstein-Smith-Ledecky-Sims
7 months ago

Perservance Award

Abbey Weitzeil over Olivia Smoliga. Both bounce back from missing out of the 2022 World Aquatics Championships.

Chris
7 months ago

I think Douglass should have been listed as one of the awards, not just an honorable mention, seeing as she did best times and won races. Regan swam incredibly well but did not do best times.

Weinstein-Smith-Ledecky-Sims
Reply to  Chris
7 months ago
Joshua Liendo-Edwards-Smith
Reply to  Chris
7 months ago

Smith’s times are more competitive than Douglass. Swimmer of the meet should go to someone who swam the best comparative times, rather than times that are less good but PBs.

Lisa
Reply to  Joshua Liendo-Edwards-Smith
7 months ago

Yeah but Douglass improvement in 200IM and 100 free is pretty impressive and that’s why also she deserved it.

Weinstein-Smith-Ledecky-Sims
Reply to  Lisa
7 months ago

The time posted in W 100 FR is not historically significant vis-a-vis the Top 25 All-Time Performance list.

Awsi Dooger
7 months ago

The problem with expecting Ledecky to go 8:04 again is that she wasn’t expecting 8:04 in the first place. She wrote down 5605 as her Rio goals, meaning 3:56 at 400 and 8:05 at 800. Very tall order to exceed prime 19 ambitions and then surpass again at 26 or beyond.

The gap from 8:07 low to 8:04 high is 3 tenths per lap, which might not sound like much until you watch every lap and how noticeably different it looks when the pace rises or falls by that level. IMO, Ledecky would have to be well under the Rio numbers then hang on.

In Tokyo the 800 is at the end of a long meet. Ledecky has… Read more »

Lisa
Reply to  Awsi Dooger
7 months ago

Well she did go 8:08 last year at world championship and that was her best swim last year And one thing we know right now is that since she moved to Florida, her long distance events keeps getting better and also last year even after world championship , she also broke the 800 world record in short course and earlier this year she also broke the 1650 yard American record and one thing for sure is that she keeps getting better and better in the long distance and it’s not necessarily world record but based on what we’re seeing last week, there’s a good chance she gonna get really to close her world record time again this month.

Last edited 7 months ago by Lisa
Weinstein-Smith-Ledecky-Sims
Reply to  Lisa
7 months ago

The fastest time Katie Ledecky has posted in the final of the W 800 FR at the World Aquatics Championships has been 8:07.39 after swimming the heats and final of the W 1500 FR and the final of the W 4 x 200 FR-R.

Weinstein-Smith-Ledecky-Sims
Reply to  Awsi Dooger
7 months ago

A reasonable objective for Katie Ledecky at the 2023 World Aquatics Championships would be Top Six (6) All-Time Performances across the board:

400 FR – sub 3:57.36
1500 FR – sub 15:29.64
800 FR – sub 8:08.04

Lisa
Reply to  Weinstein-Smith-Ledecky-Sims
7 months ago

Yeah like her main objective is to win and win by improving her times from last week and world record would be a bonus if she gets it.

Weinstein-Smith-Ledecky-Sims
Reply to  Lisa
7 months ago

The primary objective is to win gold medals and not break world records. As for a bonus, Katie Ledecky can chase her own CRs in the W 400 FR, W 800 FR at the World Aquatics Championships. The CR in the W 1500 FR seems a bit out of reach.

Wisco Swim Fan
7 months ago

Dare Rose for Male Breakout Swimmer of the Meet.

Chris
Reply to  Wisco Swim Fan
7 months ago

good pick, but Heilman gets the nod for sure.

iLikePsych
7 months ago

Ledecky’s 800 makes me wonder what she could do if she decided after this or next year that Summer/Titmus can take the 400 and she can focus now on project-8mins

Lisa
Reply to  iLikePsych
7 months ago

I’m pretty sure nobody is beating her in 1500.

Weinstein-Smith-Ledecky-Sims
Reply to  Lisa
7 months ago

Katie Ledecky has not been challenged in the W 1500 FR since she was 16 years old.

Weinstein-Smith-Ledecky-Sims
Reply to  iLikePsych
7 months ago

Katie Ledecky is not dropping the W 400 FR from her event schedule.

Weinstein-Smith-Ledecky-Sims
7 months ago

Perseverance Awards?

Jonathan
7 months ago

I’m surprised that neither Lilly King’s 100 nor 200 breast got an honorable mention for Female Swim of the Meet. I thought her winning times in both races were pretty incredible.

SAMUEL HUNTINGTON
Reply to  Jonathan
7 months ago

Agree, especially with the 100. 1:04 is super rare!

About Yanyan Li

Yanyan Li

Although Yanyan wasn't the greatest competitive swimmer, she learned more about the sport of swimming by being her high school swim team's manager for four years. She eventually ventured into the realm of writing and joined SwimSwam in January 2022, where she hopes to contribute to and learn more about …

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