The United States got off to a tough start at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games in swimming, finding themselves in a battle for the top of the medal table with the Australians.
But a strong back-half of the meet, led by 3 individual golds from Caeleb Dressel and a pair of distance wins from Katie Ledecky, left Team USA on top of the medals table for the 8th-straight Olympics (regardless of the outcome of open water).
The new distance freestyle events, which were won by Katie Ledecky (women’s 1500 free) and Bobby Finke (men’s 800 free) and netted the Americans 3 total medals helped pump up the medal counts a bit here, though even without those races they will would have topped the table (albeit be tied for gold with Australia).
But in total, the U.S. will leave this meet with BIG questions to answer about team selection and relay selection following what was probably the United States’ worst Olympic relay performance in recent memory.
There were definitely highlights of the meet. Caeleb Dressel won 3 individual gold medals and 5 total, plus a World Record in the 100 fly, was definitely one. He lived up to the hype coming in, even if he wasn’t put in positions to succeed in the 800 free relay or mixed medley relay.
Katie Ledecky continued to be unbeatable in the longest distance races, and was able to realize the full value of her 1500.
The men’s medley relay finished the meet with a win and World Record (perhaps an unexpected one) in the 400 medley relay too, which healed a lot of wounds. That relay featured three swimmers in Ryan Murphy, Michael Andrew, and Zach Apple, who had difficult meets for one reason or another. Murphy for the response to some anti-doping comments he made that he says weren’t targeted at anyone specifically, but which were read as such anyway. Andrew for his controversial comments about masks and vaccines combined with missing individual podiums in all three races, being left off the mixed medley where it could have earned a medal, and lots of questions about whether he belonged on the men’s medley relay final. Apple for having a bad swim on the 800 free relay, that didn’t medal.
On top of the prelims group coming dangerously close to not making the final, there was some pressure on that team, and those three, along with the new “Captain America” Caeleb Dressel, acquitted themselves marvelously in the final.
But in spite of the final numbers being not that bad, I think there are two primary factors driving this taste of disappointment in the hoi polloi of American swimming.
One is most obvious, and that’s the men’s 800 free relay and mixed 400 medley relay. Their 4th and 5th place performances, respectively, are the lowest-ever performances by American relays at the Olympic Games and the only ones to not medal.
I think the other is more nuanced.
When we think about American swimming at the Olympics, we think about the swimmers who rise to the moment and grab medals that maybe we didn’t think they were going to win. In 2016, that included names like Anthony Ervin in the 50 free, Cody Miller in the 100 breast, David Plummer in the 100 back, Simone Manuel in the 100 free, and Maya DiRado in the 200 back.
In a normal Olympics, those “pleasant surprises” are additive to the long roster of favorites holding serve.
In Tokyo, we certainly got some pleasant surprises from the Americans. Bobby Finke winning the 800 and 1500 both was arguably the stunner of the week. Lydia Jacoby upsetting Lilly King in the 100 breast was huge.
But there were so many “could’ve beens” that didn’t come true that those pleasant surprises were just kind of bringing us back to neutral. Murphy didn’t win either backstroke. Ledecky was upended by Ariarne Titmus in both the 200 and 400 freestyles and didn’t medal at all in the 200 free. Just 1 bronze in the women’s backstroke races. A 2-3 finish in both IMs but neither of the possible golds came through. The women’s medley getting silver after having the slowest aggregate relay exchanges in the field.
None of those are bad finishes by any account. Even Olympic silver and bronze medals are huge accomplishments that should be celebrated. The other 450,000+ American swimmers would give anything asked for even an Olympic final swim, let alone a medal.
But, it leaves this sense of melancholy for American fans that there were opportunities left on the table. It was a good meet for a country for which the standard is dominance.
Part of this is owed not to American slips, but to the Australians, who swam exceedingly well. After two-straight Olympic flops, Australia, through investigation and sanction and massive culture shift and the hiring of Olympic champion and administrative master Alex Baumann to remake the organization, Australia shone. They made swimming cool again in Australia for something beyond their battles with China. They polished their program and put the Americans on notice that the world order in swimming is not permanent.
And that’s where the Americans can have hope. It’s only 3 years until Paris, but this isn’t something that can’t be turned around for Team USA. There are a lot of really good young pieces – Regan Smith, Lydia Jacoby, Torri Huske, Claire Curzan, the Sandpiper distance girls, Bobby Finke and Kieran Smith on the men’s side – and the Americans just need to figure out how to iron out the cracks that came in Tokyo.
This has happened before. 1988, the aforementioned last time the U.S. didn’t win the medals table, was a bad meet for the Americans that was salvaged by huge performances from Matt Biondi and Janet Evans, who were the Dressel and Ledecky of their day.
That led to the creation of the USA Swimming National Team Director position: essentially a super-elite coach at the top of a pile of elite coaches to guide policy, to unify strategy, to focus the American team, to capture innovation like USRPT, and to figure out how this massive American swimming juggernaut can come together as the 50 best to perform at the Olympics.
That role has been changed in the last quad, with Lindsay Mintenko taking on a different set of responsibilities, and pushing more of those traditional NT duties to a college of coaches, so to speak.
Now the US will have to decide how they’ll move forward with this one. As Dressel, the leader, said after the race, in the U.S., 5th place in an Olympic relay is “unacceptable.” And that seems like a harsh word, a word that can run counter to initiatives of mental health that are going to dominate Olympic sport between now and Paris. But that’s his word – that’s the mentality of the athlete that won 5 Olympic gold medals. So there’s a balance to be struck between “pressure makes diamonds” and teaching athletes how to deal with that pressure in a positive and healthy way and not crack beneath its weight.
The U.S. has three years to figure it out. The swim industry in America is predicated upon being the best team at the Olympics. That’s a pressure that exists whether we like it or not.
This is one of a number of tests that will face USA Swimming CEO Tim Hinchey in the next three years of his tenure. Many of his challenges have nothing to do with elite sport, but this one will arguably be the most visible of those challenges. He doesn’t have to have all the answer, but CEOs are paid to lead the effort – and so ultimately he needs to create the atmosphere to fix the problems.
Individual US Olympic Medals Table, Tokyo 2020 Olympics:
Note: these totals don’t add to the same as the by-country medals table, because each prelims and finals swimmer on a relay is counted as 1 medal below, versus 1 medal in aggregate per country in the primary medals table. So, for example, the American women will receive 20 total medals for relays, though in the country table that only counts as 3.