Maybe you’re not a year-round swimming fan, but you love following the Olympics, and you want to know what to watch for in Rio next week. Maybe you’re a dedicated swimming fan who’s spent months poring over the details and micro-storylines of these Olympics and you want a big-picture look at next week’s action. Maybe you just want to be able to impress your friends with your detailed aquatic background knowledge at next week’s Olympic watch party.
If you’re any or all of the above, we’ve got you covered. As we at SwimSwam wrap up our months of extensive pre-Olympic swimming coverage, we’re putting together one more “big picture” preview – counting down the 5 most gigantic storylines of the coming Olympics.
These are the major threads, the ones you’ll hear about on TV, read about online (or in newspapers if you still remember what those things are), chat about around the water cooler. Certainly not every important storyline will make the top 5, but consider this your swimming Cliff’s Notes to prep you for the Rio media flood.
If you want to dive deeper, check out links to our full Olympic coverage below – just make sure you resurface before the 15-meter mark.
Our 2016 Rio Olympics Preview Central is here.
Previews of each event can be found here:
The 5 Biggest Swimming Storylines At the Rio Olympics
1. Goodbye to the GOAT – Phelps’ Swan Song
No, you’re not having déjà vu. We thought we were saying goodbye to Michael Phelps at the 2012 Olympics, but that lasted all of… a year and a half. Hey, it’s the 21st century – no one stays retired anymore.
That was especially true of Phelps, who returned from retirement in early 2014 and put up world-leading times in the 100 fly, 200 fly and 200 IM at last summer’s U.S. Nationals.
He’s made clear, though, that after Rio, he’ll retire for good. And with his newborn son Boomer waiting for him back home, all signs point to this truly being Phelps’ last hurrah.
Expect a lot more personal content from Phelps in Rio media coverage. The 15-year-old phenom at the 2000 Olympics has grown and matured into a man with a fiancée, a son and a visible happiness he says he didn’t have in 2012.
Rio will be a chance to look back at Phelps’ 16-year Olympic career arc – not to mention an opportunity for him to add to his record 22 Olympic medals and 18 Olympic golds.
And somehow, Phelps’ 3 individual races might just be the most exciting of the meet. The 100 and 200 butterflys are a clash of titans with the legendary Phelps taking on his new rival Chad le Clos of South Africa and red-hot Hungarian veteran Laszlo Cseh.
Phelps, le Clos and Cseh engaged in some intercontinental trash talk last summer as they battled for world butterfly supremacy. Le Cos nipped Cseh for the 100 fly world title, Cseh struck back with a touchout of le Clos for 200 fly gold, but Phelps, swimming halfway across the world in San Antonio the same week, bested both with world-leading times in both races.
Now all three collide in Rio for what may be the most anticipated and unpredictable races of the meet. Honorable mention goes to the 200 IM, where Phelps takes on 2015 world champ and U.S. teammate Ryan Lochte, plus 21-year-old Japanese sensation Kosuke Hagino, who grew up idolizing Phelps and is now the closest thing the world has to a young Phelps with his blend of endurance and versatility.
2. Hosszu & Sjöstrom Hunt First Olympic Medals
Between them, they hold 34 total World Championships medals – but neither has yet earned a piece of Olympic hardware.
Hungary’s Katinka Hosszu has been the most prolific swimmer on the planet in terms of sheer wins since 2012. Hosszu almost never stops competing – she’ll show up at a meet, swim every event on the schedule back-to-back-to-back and win every one. She’s racked up more than $1 million in prize money while winning the FINA World Cup Series 5 years straight.
Yet her Olympic coffers are still empty despite appearances in Athens in 2004, Beijing in 2008 and London in 2012, where she finished a heartbreaking 4th in the 400 IM. The defending world champ and world record-holder in the 200 IM, plus reigning world champ in the 400 IM, Hosszu will be aiming to make her first Olympic medal one of the most-coveted material: gold.
Sweden’s Sarah Sjöstrom, meanwhile, has owned the sprint butterfly since 2012. She holds the world record in the 100 fly along with 8 of the 10 fastest swims in world history. She too knows the agony of 4th place, having finished in that spot in London in the 100 fly. She’s the heavy favorite to win the 100 fly for her first career Olympic medal.
Expect to see both swimmers in the pool plenty in Rio. Hosszu is entered in 5 individual events (200 IM, 400 IM, 100 back, 200 back, 200 fly) and will swim on the Hungarian 4×200 free relay. Sjöstrom is a medal contender in the 100 fly, 50 free, 100 free and even 200 free, plus should be the rock of all three Swedish relays.
3. The Doping Shadow
Unfortunately, not all news is good news. The Rio Olympics more than any other in recent memory will be overshadowed by some negative storylines, most notably the pall of doping allegations.
Russia’s entire track & field program has been banned from Rio based on allegations of an elaborate, state-sponsored doping program. And the accusations aren’t just confined to the track. 7 Russian swimmers were pulled from the Olympics on similar grounds, including returning Olympic medalists Yulia Efimova, Vladimir Morozov and Nikita Lobintsev.
All three have appealed the ban and their Rio eligibility is still up in the air just one day out from the opening ceremonies.
On top of that, a number of swimmers are competing in Rio despite doping struggles. Korea’s Park Tae-hwan served an 18-month sentence after testing positive for testosterone, returning to eligibility earlier this year. But he ran up against a Korean Olympic Committee rule that would have tacked an additional 3-year ban from international competition onto the sentence. After winning an appeal with the Court of Arbitration for Sport, Park will compete in Rio. He won two silver medals in 2012.
China’s world record-holding distance man Sun Yang is still under criticism for a doping test he failed in 2014. The test resulted in a 3-month ban that didn’t hold Sun out of any major international meets and wasn’t even announced until months after he had served it.
In addition, China’s anti-doping authority announced earlier this year that 6 swimmers had failed anti-doping tests since the fall of 2015. 3 of the 6 names eventually trickled out, with news that 2 of the 3 had received only warnings and a monetary fine.
Of the 3 known names, none is on the Chinese Olympic roster. But that hasn’t stopped fan concern and pessimism over the trustworthiness of Olympians in any sport and nationality when it comes to anti-doping legality.
4. Australian Redemption & The Campbell Sister Act
2012 was rough sledding for the once-proud Australian Olympic swim team, which struggled to 10 medals and just a single gold in what was the nation’s lowest overall Summer Olympic medal haul since 1992.
But heading into the 2016 Olympics, there’s no team hotter than the Aussies, and prospects for a Rio redemption appear high.
The media darlings should be Cate and Bronte Campbell, sisters who are quite possibly the two fastest women in the world.
Little sis Bronte won world titles in the 50 and 100 free last year, but it’s Cate who’s dominated 2016. The elder Campbell broke the 100 free world record in a tune-up meet a few weeks ago, and is right on the cusp of adding the 50 as well. A 1-2 finish isn’t out of the question if the Campbells can avoid the Olympic letdown that happened to pre-Olympic favorites James Magnussen and James Roberts back in 2012.
If the sister act doesn’t catch your fancy, maybe a more academic approach will. Cameron McEvoy, nicknamed “The Professor,” is a graduate student in physics and is also the world’s fastest male 100 freestyler this year by half a second. He’s got a shot at a world record of his own and could be the most dangerous relay swimmer in Rio.
Meanwhile Emily Seebohm has been all-but-unbeatable in the backstrokes since last summer, and Mitch Larkin is maybe the best threat to the U.S. backstroke dynasty that we’ve seen in decades.
With a good meet, Australia could realistically challenge the United States for gold medal supremacy in Rio – but to do so, Australia will have to exorcise its 2012 demons by replicating their dominant domestic times on the Olympic stage instead of regressing to the field.
5. Katie Ledecky – ‘Nuff Said
With all due respect to everyone mentioned above, these Olympics are Katie Ledecky‘s show. Everyone else just gets cameos.
The best swimmer on the planet is a 19-year-old from Washington D.C. whom most Olympic fans will only recognize as the upstart surprise 800 freestyle champ of London in 2012. But Ledecky’s stock has skyrocketed since then. She’s obliterating world records with unthinkable times.
In the 800 free, she’s 7.5 seconds better than anyone in world history. She won the 2015 world title in the 400 free by two body lengths or more.
And she’s got incredible range. Last summer, Ledecky won World Champs golds in the 200, 400, 800 and 1500 frees. With the women’s 1500 not a part of the Olympic lineup, she’s started to focus on her speed, and will reportedly swim a leg of the American 4×100 free relay, almost unheard of for a distance swimmer.
Ledecky has a shot to win the 200, 400 and 800 in Rio, which would be an absurd range to dominate internationally. Track runners might compare the 200-meter freestyle to a 400-meter run – both are right at the blurring point between sprints and mid-distance. Ledecky sweeping Olympic gold from that distance upward would be akin to a runner winning from the 400 up to the vicinity of the 5K.
Keep an eye on world records in all three of those events plus the 4×200 free relay. If Ledecky also swims the 4×100 free relay, she could rack up as many as 5 medals, something only a handful of female swimmers have ever done at a single Olympics.