8 Swimming Storylines To Watch At The Tokyo Olympic Games


For us hardcore swimming fans, the number of intriguing storylines and athletes to watch for in Tokyo is seemingly countless, with a lot happening in the sport over the last five years and several surprisingly fast swims being dropped in recent months.

The casual viewer (or even just sports fans in general) will only watch swimming during the Olympics, so during the Games you’ll probably find some of your more “novice” swim fan friends striking up a conversation about what’s going on in the pool.

Here are eight storylines you can discuss with them that we expect to emerge over eight days of racing at the Tokyo Aquatics Centre.

1. Katie Ledecky Unlikely To Go Undefeated

15-year-old Katie Ledecky was a revelation at the 2012 Olympics in London, upsetting pre-race favorite Rebecca Adlington on her home soil to win gold in the women’s 800 freestyle by more than four seconds.

Ledecky returned to the Games in Rio as a swimming superhero, running the table with three gold medals in her individual events, including setting a pair of incredible world records in the women’s 400 and 800 free that still stand today. The former Stanford Cardinal added a fourth gold medal in the 800 free relay, and picked up a silver on the 400 free relay.

But the air of invincibility that Ledecky had following the Games has slowly been chipped away in the years since.

Now 24, Ledecky hasn’t won a major international final in the 200 free since Rio. In the 400 free, Australian Ariarne Titmus upset her for gold at the 2019 World Championships. We later found out that Ledecky was sick at that meet, forcing her to withdraw from both the 200 and 1500, but still, the armor had been broken.

Furthermore, Titmus has been absolutely on fire this year, posting the second-fastest swims of all-time in both the 200 (1:53.09) and 400 free (3:56.90) last month. Both of those times are miles ahead of where Ledecky’s been recently, and her 400 in Rio is the only time she’s been faster than either.

So while Ledecky should win a third straight 800 gold and the inaugural women’s 1500 title, the 200 and 400 will be uphill battles.

Adding a bit of intrigue into the women’s 200 free is that it will feature the last three Olympic gold medalists all racing head-to-head at the Games for the first time, with defending champ Ledecky taking on American teammate and 2012 gold medalist Allison Schmitt and 2008 winner Federica Pellegrini.

Pellegrini, 32, was also the 2004 silver medalist, and will race in her fifth and final Olympics in Tokyo. The Italian will be a factor for a medal despite her age, having won an incredible eight straight medals in the event at the LC World Championships, including back-to-back titles in 2017 and 2019.

2. Dressel Will Be The Star On The Men’s Side

It’s been two decades since Michael Phelps wasn’t the mainstream star of the Olympic swimming competition, with the all eyes falling on the GOAT in Athens, Beijing, London and Rio.

In Phelps’ absence, a new American male superstar has emerged, and his name is Caeleb Dressel.

The two actually teamed up in Rio en route to winning gold in the men’s 400 free relay, and Dressel closed out his first-ever Olympic experience with a second gold as a prelim swimmer on the 400 medley relay, and also made an individual final in the 100 freestyle.

The former University of Florida Gator been dominant on the world stage ever since, winning a combined 13 gold and 15 total medals at the last two World Championships, including tying Phelps’ record seven golds in 2017. (It’s worth noting that when Phelps won seven golds in 2007, he didn’t have the opportunity to race either the mixed 400 free or 400 medley relays, which are now contested at the World Championships. Only the mixed medley will be raced in Tokyo.)

Dressel broke Phelps’ world record in the men’s 100 butterfly two years ago, and is also the favorite to win the 50 and 100 free.

The American relays are far from bulletproof, but Dressel has a great chance to add three more golds in the men’s 4×100 free, 4×100 medley and the mixed 4×100 medley. He could also vie for a potential seventh in the 4×200 free, but that’s a big question mark for now (the Americans are not favored to win).

If things go according to plan early, expect all of the hype surrounding the Games from an American perspective focused on Dressel’s medal count, just like it’s been on Phelps’ so many times before.

3. Katinka Hosszu‘s Quest For Gold While Coaching Herself

Katinka Hosszu was a dominant force in the swimming world throughout the mid-2010s, highlighted by her three individual gold medals and one silver at the 2016 Olympic Games.

Beginning at the 2013 World Championships, Hosszu has gone undefeated in the women’s 200 and 400 individual medley across the Olympics and Worlds, but similar to Ledecky, her invincibility has fallen by the wayside as we head into Tokyo.

Katinka Hosszu 58th Settecolli Trophy, Rome, Italy Courtesy of Mine Kasapoglu

Katinka Hosszu. Photo: Mine Kasapoglu

Now 32, Hosszu has changed coaches multiple times since Rio, splitting with former coach and ex-husband Shane Tusup in May 2018 before enlisting former Swiss National Team head coach Arpad Petrov. However, in November 2019 Hosszu split with Petrov, and said she would coach herself to Tokyo.

The 20 months since have been up and down for Hosszu, and she hasn’t been anywhere near her best times this season. At the European Championships in May, Hosszu saw her streak of five consecutive 200 IM titles snapped, falling to bronze, though she did deliver a decisive two-second victory in the 400 IM.

Her quest to repeat in both medley events in Tokyo will be far tougher than it was in Rio, but things look about as good as they possibly could in terms of her chances, with Australia’s Kaylee McKeown, the fastest swimmer in the world in the 200 (and second in the 400 last year), opting out of the IM to focus on the backstrokes.

4. McKeown’s Rapid Rise To The Top

McKeown, who turned 20 just over a week ago, has been on a record-breaking rampage over the last year, vaulting herself into the conversation of who the best swimmer in the world is.

It might seem like it’s too early to put McKeown in that mix, with names like Ledecky and Dressel competing, but McKeown has been consistently delivering jaw-dropping performances, headlined by her world record in the 100 backstroke (57.45) in June at the Australian Olympic Trials.

Kaylee McKeown wins 100m back Pan Pac Trials

Kaylee McKeown. Photo: Delly Carr, Swimming Australia

The Queensland native owns three of the six-fastest swims ever in both the 100 back and 200 back, and ranked first in the world in both 2020 and 2021 in the 200 IM. In the 400 IM, her fourth-best event, her time of 4:32.73 from 2020 would rank first in the world this year by more than a second.

So while McKeown will only be in contention for two individual gold medals, she’s arrived in a big way, and Tokyo projects to be the first of many major international meets where she’s among the top performers.

5. Daiya Seto & Defending Home Soil

It’s been a tumultuous last year for Japanese medley star Daiya Seto.

Seto, 27, rounded the turn into 2020 riding a ton of momentum, posting incredible world-leading times early in the year in the men’s 200 butterfly (1:52.53), 200 IM (1:55.55) and 400 IM (4:06.09).

Then came the postponement, which hit Seto hard after setting himself up so well to perform in the summer of 2020.

“I couldn’t think of anything positive to say because I had dedicated myself so much to the Tokyo Olympics,” Seto said last April. “When the postponement was announced I was left with a gaping hole I couldn’t fill – I was empty.”

Then, in September, it was revealed in Japanese media that Seto had an extramarital affair, leading him to vacate his post as an Olympic team captain for Japan.

Daiya Seto. Photo: Mike Lewis

Seto has been well off his early 2020 form so far this year, though it’s worth noting that he’d already locked up Olympic spots in the 200 and 400 IM due to his 2019 World Championship titles.

Now we’ll find out whether or not the one-year pause was as detrimental to Seto’s Olympic bid as it seems it might be. Looking like a lock to win two events and add a silver in 2020, things are much more wide open 12 months later. There won’t be any fans, but that doesn’t take away the fact that it’s the Tokyo Olympics. We know Seto wants to perform on home soil for his people.

The men’s 400 IM will be the first final of the competition, which could very well set the tone for both Seto and the rest of Japan’s swimming team at the Games. If Seto can get the job done, and win the country’s second straight gold in the event, it’ll be a huge moment for him and the entire country.

6. The Russian (ROC) Situation

Russian swimmers are going to win some medals in Tokyo. Maybe a lot. But they won’t have their flag hung during medal ceremonies, and their national anthem won’t be played if they win.

Due to being in the midst of serving a four-year doping ban, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) and International Olympic Committee (IOC) agreed to institute these restrictions on Russia in order to compete at the both the Tokyo and Beijing (2022 Winter) Games.

The Russian uniforms still feature the country’s colors—red, white and blue—which will form one big flag, but the actual flag nor the word “Russia” will be on them.

The official Olympic paperwork will attribute Russian results to “ROC”, not even fully spelling out Russian Olympic Committee, and gold medalists will get music by Russian composer Tchaikovsky instead of the country’s national anthem.

Anton Chupkov. Photo: Rafael Domeyko

Among the swimmers from Russia in serious contention for gold in Tokyo include Kliment Kolesnikov in the men’s 100 freestyle and 100 backstroke, Evgeny Rylov in the men’s 100 and 200 backstroke, Anton Chupkov in the men’s 200 breaststroke, Martin Malyutin in the men’s 200 and 400 freestyle, and Evgeniia Chikunova in the women’s 200 breaststroke. The men’s 4×100 free relay also has a great chance.

7. Australia Could Put A Dent In U.S. Medal Haul

The United States has absolutely steamrolled the swimming medal table over the last few Olympics, winning 12 golds and 31 total medals in 2008 before consecutive Games with 16 golds and 31 (2012) and 33 (2016) total medals (totals including open water).

Australia had a solid six gold, 20-medal haul in Beijing, but fell all the way to seventh on the medal table in 2012, only winning one gold (they tied for third in overall medals with 10). In Rio, the Aussies won three golds, four silvers and three bronze.

But in Tokyo, Australia looks poised to put a serious dent in the American haul we’ve seen over the last two Games.

Australian women’s 4×200 free relay at the 2019 World Championships. Photo: Rafael Domeyko

The Aussie women in particular look phenomenal, including a legitimate chance to sweep the women’s 50-400 freestyle. Emma McKeon and Cate Campbell rank 1-2 in the world this year in the 50 and 100 free, and Ariarne Titmus owns the top time in the 200 and 400.

We know all about Kaylee McKeown, who could very well sweep the women’s backstroke events, and McKeon is also a major player in the 100 fly.

The men’s side is also stacked with gold medal threats in the form of Kyle Chalmers (100 free), Elijah Winnington (400 free), Zac Stubblety-Cook (200 breast) and Mitch Larkin (200 IM), with several more in contention to get on the podium.

The Australian relays are also in position to do some serious damage, with the women looking like locks in both freestyles and the men a medal factor across the board.

8. Campbell, Sjostrom Looking To Bounce Back

Two of the best female freestyle sprinters in history, Cate Campbell and Sarah Sjostrom are both looking to rebound from struggles and find some Olympic glory in Tokyo.

For Campbell, her seek of redemption goes back five years to Rio, where she was a huge favorite to win the women’s 100 freestyle. Campbell had set the world record at 52.06 shortly before the Games, and looked well on her way to gold, pacing the semis in a new Olympic Record of 52.71 and also having led the Aussie women to a new world record in the 400 free relay earlier in the meet.

But the final ended up being a nightmare for Campbell, as she went out way too fast and struggled on the second 50, finishing sixth in a time of 53.24. Two nights later in the 50 free, where Campbell was also among the favorites for gold, she finished fifth.

The 29-year-old has consistently been among the best in the world since Rio, including ranking second worldwide in 2021 for both the 50 and 100 free. Despite all of her accolades, Campbell still only owns one individual Olympic medal, a bronze from the 50 free in 2008 when she was 16.

Can she overcome the pressure and get her Olympic redemption?

Sjostrom’s story is entirely different, as she thrived in Rio, winning the women’s 100 butterfly in a world record (55.48) that still stands today. The Swede also won silver in the 200 free and bronze in the 100 free, and has been the most dominant female sprinter on the planet since.

However, Sjostrom broke her elbow in early February, forcing her to have surgery and undergo a lengthy recovery process which only allowed her to return to full training, including swimming fly, in May.

Sarah Sjostrom 58th Settecolli Trophy, Rome, Italy Courtesy of Mine Kasapoglu

Sarah Sjostrom. Photo: Mine Kasapoglu

Sjostrom has been hesitant about racing the 100 fly in Tokyo, not wanting to take it on if she wasn’t able to compete with the best, but after going 57.34 in June, she looks like she’ll defend her title.

Also the world record holder in the 50 and 100 free, Sjostrom’s times are back to an elite level there, too, so her chances to get on the medal stand multiple times are very much in play.

If she could do so after what she’s been through this year, it might be even more impressive and significant than what she did in Rio.

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2 years ago

Adam peaty and the medley relay is a huge story to follow IMO. If they win, it’ll be because of him, and we’ve never seen an individual stroke specialist elevate a medley relay at the elite level the way he is doing it. He’s elevated British swimming and of course his splits speak for themselves. How far can he push their success? Will the 2019 WC win be a fluke, or not? How long is the USA streak here that may be broken? Big one to watch!!

VA Mom
2 years ago

Hot Take: Bella Sims on the 4×200 Free Relay will be in finals, after splitting a 1:55.92 in the heats.

VA Mom
2 years ago

My predictions nobody asked for!
*These times are based on how swimmers historically responded to a big taper.

Women’s Edition
50 Free

  1. Emma McKeon 23.84 *OR
  2. Sarah Sjostrom 23.85
  3. Cate Campbell 23.91

100 Free

  1. Emma McKeon 52.01 *OR
  2. Cate Campbell 52.17
  3. Penny Oleksiak 52.28

200 Free

  1. Ariarne Titmus 1:52.66 *WR
  2. Katie Ledecky 1:53.96
  3. Yang Junxuan 1:54.34

400 Free

  1. Ariarne Titmus 3:56.31 *WR
  2. Katie Ledecky 3:58.75
  3. Li Bingjie 3:59.96

800 Free

  1. Katie Ledecky 8:09.09
  2. Ariarne Titmus 8:13.04 *OC
  3. Katie Grimes 8:14.79

1500 Free

  1. Katie Ledecky 15:36.67 *OR
  2. Madeline Gough 15:41.64
  3. Simona Quadarella 15:45.64

100 Back

  1. Kaylee McKeown 57.08 *WR
  2. Kylie Masse 57.59 *CR
  3. Regan Smith
… Read more »

Reply to  VA Mom
2 years ago

I don’t agree with the following predictions:
Women’s 1500 free: Don’t see Gough beating Quadarella or Köhler
Women’s 200 breast: Absolutely don’t see the US going 1-2 + where is Renshaw?
Women’s 200 IM: Where is Wood?

2 years ago

Off topic: Nice tribute to Laszlo Cseh – male flag bearer for Hungary. An era comes to an end 🙂

Last edited 2 years ago by Kim
Lex Soft
2 years ago

Anastasia Gorbenko of Israel… I think she is the only Israel hopeful to get medal in swimming for the 1st time, from 200m IM, after winning gold at Euro 2021, beating Katinka Hosszu.

2 years ago

For me …

Best race: Men’s 100 freestyle: Really deep field, 16 year olds, Chalmers vs Dressel.
Best swimmer: I’m really looking forward to Milak. He’s the most talented swimmer in the water for me. Could go sub 1.50 and I fancy he might push Dressel in the 100.
Best youngster: Obviously Popovici but he’s already ‘popped’ in Rome, so I’m going with Summer McIntosh.
Best story: Sjostrom’s elbow.
Best confrontation: Titmus vs Ledecky will be like Tommy Hearns vs Marvin Hagler.
Best relay: Men’s 800. Very tight between Britain, Russia, Australia and you can never rule out the US.
Outside tips: Syndey Pickrem, Siobhan Haughey, Hwang Sun Woo.

Can’t wait.

2 years ago

Only 8?

2 years ago

What about Milak´s potential sub 1.50 in the 200 fly? That would be the performance of the Games.

Reply to  Kim
2 years ago

Not a question.

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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