Elite Swimmers Are Getting Older and Peaking Later – Or Are They?

This article originally appeared in the 2022 Year In Review edition of SwimSwam Magazine. Subscribe here to the SwimSwam Magazine here.

During 2022, two teenagers impressed the world of swimming with their amazing performances.

Canadian Summer McIntosh and Romanian David Popovici already had made a statement in 2021. McIntosh, a 14-year-old girl then, reached the final in the women’s 400 freestyle at the Tokyo Olympics and almost medaled by finishing in fourth place. Popovici, then 16, also almost medaled in the men’s 200 freestyle.

In 2022, they became superstars of swimming. At 15, Summer McIntosh won the 200 butterfly and the 400 IM during the World Championships in Budapest, becoming the youngest swimmer to win two individual events since American Tracy Caulkins in 1978. She also won two gold medals in individual events during the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham.

David Popovici, 17, also won two events at the World Championships, 100 and 200 freestyle. Since 1975, when Americans Andy Coan and Tim Shaw won those events in Cali, no man under 18 had won the 100 and 200 free at World Championships. Not only that, he broke long-standing Cesar Cielo’s world record from 2009 in the 100 freestyle during the European Championships in Rome.

So, what’s happening in the world of swimming? After all, in the last two decades, we have been seeing swimmers staying at the top of their game for a long time and keep medaling into their 30s – which was previously very rare.

The fastest swimmers are getting older

A prime example of that is Brazilian Nicholas Santos. At 42, he became the oldest medal winner in the history of World Championships by winning a silver medal in the men’s 50 butterfly in Budapest. He owns four medals in the event in long course meters, and another four in short course meters, and all of them were won when he had passed 30 years of age. He is truly a phenomenon, but he is not alone as a decorated 30-something swimmer. The 10 oldest swimmers who have won medals in individual events at World Aquatics Championships — all of them over 32 years old — reached the podium starting from the year 2000. And eight of them won medals after 2010, which is an indicator that the age of elite swimmers is increasing.

The graph below shows the average age, by year, of all swimmers who have made the top 10 in world rankings in long course meters since 2001.

It is pretty clear that the average age of the fastest swimmers in the world is indeed increasing. In 2001, the average age for men was 22.7 years and for women 20.5. In 2022, it was 23.8 and 22.4, respectively.

The following table shows the average age of the top 10 swimmers by event in 2022.

Event Men Women
50 Freestyle 25.6 23.1
100 Freestyle 22.1 22.9
200 Freestyle 21.9 22.2
400 Freestyle 22.5 21.4
800 Freestyle 23.8 21.8
1500 Freestyle 24.2 22.8
50 Butterfly 27.1 23.7
100 Butterfly 23.0 23.5
200 Butterfly 22.0 21.1
50 Backstroke 21.8 22.9
100 Backstroke 23.6 21.7
200 Backstroke 22.5 21.4
50 Breaststroke 27.8 21.2
100 Breaststroke 25.8 23.4
200 Breaststroke 25.0 24.3
200 Medley 22.8 21.8
400 Medley 23.3 22.3
Overall Average 23.8 22.4

How can we explain the success of teenagers like Summer McIntosh and David Popovici in a sport dominated by grown-ups?

Actually, we can see that the average age in 2022 decreased in comparison to 2021 (24.2 for men and 23.2 for women). It might be just a random fluctuation. But it also can be explained by some great performances of swimmers like McIntosh, Popovici, Katie Grimes (16), Lorenzo Galossi (16), Ksawery Masiuk (17), and Lana Pudar (16) — all of them already winning medals at senior international meets.

The overall trend is the increasing age of many top world swimmers. But if we look closer at some events, we can identify some very interesting patterns.

Teenagers are changing the game

For example, take a look at the graph of the average age of the 10 fastest swimmers in the world by year in the men’s 100 freestyle. Actually, the average age is decreasing.  In 2010, the average age was more than 26 years, and now it is 22.1 years. Seventeen-year-old Popovici is surely responsible for this decrease, but he’s not alone. After all, in 2022, we have another 17-year-old among the top 10, Pan Zhanle from China, and 19-year-old Joshua Liendo from Canada.

The trend observed in the men’s 100 freestyle is atypical. And raises the question: Why have we been seeing more and more teenagers swimming fast in this specific event? And it is a sprint event. More mature athletes tend to be the top swimmers in sprint events. That’s why this trend is so interesting.

For example, in the following graph of the men’s 400 IM we have the general pattern of most of the individual events: an increasing trend in the average age of the fastest swimmers in the world.

Another interesting trend can be seen in the women’s 400 IM in the graph below. Here we also have a clear increasing pattern, even more than in other events.

In the last few years, swimmers like Katinka Hosszu, Mireia Belmonte, Hali Flickinger, Leah Smith and Melanie Margalis — all of them around 30 years of age or more — took the average age of the top in the event very high. But in 2022 15-year-old Summer McIntosh and Ageha Tanigawa from Japan, and 16-year-old Katie Grimes from the U.S. set very fast times and took down the average age.

We’ve known for a while that swimmers, or at least the best ones, are getting older and peaking later. Nicholas Santos is 42 and still at his peak. But it seems that there will always be room for some phenomenal teenagers. Some thought that we would never see swimmers like Ian Thorpe and Michael Phelps again, who were among the best in the world at 16-17, or even a 15-year-old girl winning international titles like Katie Ledecky and Ruta Meylutite did 10 years ago. David Popovici and Summer McIntosh are there to prove them wrong.

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5 months ago

<i>Actually, we can see that the average age in 2022 decreased in comparison to 2021 (24.2 for men and 23.2 for women). It might be just a random fluctuation. But it also can be explained by some great performances of swimmers like McIntosh, Popovici, Katie Grimes (16), Lorenzo Galossi (16), Ksawery Masiuk (17), and Lana Pudar (16) — all of them already winning medals at senior international meets.</i>

The average age pretty always drops the year after the Olympics because a lot of the older athletes retire.

5 months ago

Can you put error bars corresponding to the standard deviation of each average calculation?

Armchair BR'er
5 months ago

It is inspiring to see individuals pushing the upper limit of what we think is the peak. Brandon Fisher, Steve West, and James Fike, among others, may not be competing at the elite level discussed in this article but are older BR’ers that are still mixing it up with younger athletes and, in some cases, throwing up PRs while still qualifying for bigger meets. I think that is pretty cool.

Last edited 5 months ago by Armchair BR'er
5 months ago

I think athletes peak whenever their own personal lives are going the best, and they are able to relax the most. I mean, of course this expires at a certain age, but for the most part any athlete can be a world champ well into their 30s. I think it’s safe to say that physical fitness is largely based on internal motivation, and that comes with comfort. Obviously, there’s an age that there’s a true, physiological peak…but to say that if an athlete is that age and their personal life is in the s***ter, they’re probably not going to perform well. Take that same athlete 10 years later and they’re doing well, then they’ll probably be able to throw down… Read more »

Last edited 5 months ago by swimfast
5 months ago

Physically athletes peak around 30 but swimming is more of a mental thing. The sport has no money in it and it requires a huge time commitment compared to other sports. This is why most people graduate university then retire.

5 months ago

The general trend in all sports is for elite athletes to retire later. Improvements in sports science and better economic opportunities largely explains the trend. It was noticeable in the FIFA World Cup just how many star players were in their mid 30’s.

5 months ago

The graphs show that swimmers are remaining elite longer but nothing shows that they are peaking later. The age that they went best times shows their peak

5 months ago

The charts can also be explained by the fact that Lochte and Phelps got older and still dominated a sport meant to be dominated by 25 and unders

Reply to  Andrew
5 months ago

Lochte didn’t win an individual senior international medal after 2015. The chart for men hits its peak in a year where Phelps and Cseh medaled as swimming senior citizens, but the last few years are still significantly older than the early aughts, and 2 guys who weren’t swimming at that point aren’t the reason why.

Reply to  Andrew
5 months ago

Phelps never set a PB in one of his 6 primary events (100/200 fly; 100/200 free; 200/400 IM) after 2011. (His 1:54.16 in the 200 IM final at the 2011 WCs was a slight improvement over his entry time.) It’s worth noting that the 51.14 100 fly he swam in Rio to tie for silver would have gotten 8th place in Tokyo. In the latter part of his career, he was fortunate to swim at a time when few generational swimmers were emerging.

Reply to  Snowbound
5 months ago

I’d agree with what you have said here but it’s not all black and white. Phelps had retired for 2 years, this break in his training would have affected this. Personally I think he would have peaked in London if it wasn’t for the fact he didn’t want to do it anymore. So to say he wasn’t that fast and that’s it’s age related isn’t necessarily true. His brief retirement would have made a huge impact and therefore you cannot assume he is a good example to tell you what age people peak at.