Forecasting the road to next year’s Rio Olympic Games

Though we’re still well over 12 months away from the 2016 Rio Olympic Games, the new year means that for the first time, the Rio Olympics are officially “next year.” In the spirit of looking forward, though, we’re looking back: using the last Olympic cycle to help us know what to expect over the next year and a half until international swimming’s biggest show.

Olympic predictions are being made both in articles and in the comments section on nearly a weekly basis here at SwimSwam. But the great joy of sports, of course, is that nothing ever goes exactly how you’d expect it. We looked back to this exact point in the last Olympic cycle (January of 2011 heading into the 2012 London Olympics) to see what major surprises affected the ultimate swimming landscape in London.


The obvious destroyers of predictions are the “breakouts,” the athletes who rise from obscurity, sometimes from practically nowhere, to become the world’s elite by Olympic time.

Some seem obvious in hindsight – a young athlete dropping huge chunks of time who happens to hit international-level times right as his or her country is selecting its Olympic team. But picking which specific athlete will have that kind of a breakout is difficult.

Consider this case: in the United States at the start of 2011, a 13-year-old female freestyler held top times of 8:58.86 in the 800 free and 4:20.30 in the 400. Great times for being barely a teenager, but hardly a factor for an Olympic roster spot in the U.S.

That swimmer, of course, was named Katie Ledecky, however, and she went on to absolutely explode over the next 18 months, ultimately going 8:14.63 and 4:05.00 and winning an Olympic gold medal in the 800 in a veritable landslide.

Some similar stories of rapid ascension from New Year’s 2011 until the London Olympics:

  • Ruta Meilutyte: Meilutyte (who, oddly enough, is just two days younger than Ledecky) broke her first-ever national records in 2010, but still had yet to make many international waves outside of Lithuania. Those first waves turned into tsunamis as Meilutyte rose to win Olympic gold in the 100 breast, upsetting American star Rebecca Soni.
  • Ye Shiwen was already on the rise in China as of January, 2011, but her 2010 Asian Games-winning time of 4:33.79 was far from what she’d ultimately go: a world-record 4:28.43 that blew out a very tough field for Olympic gold.
  • On the men’s side, Japan’s Kosuke Hagino made his international debut at the 2010 Pan Pacific Championships, but only took 7th in the 200 IM and failed to break two minutes. He was relegated to the B final of the 400 IM, where he took 12th. By 2012, though, Hagino was the Olympic bronze medalist in the longer IM race in a new Asian record.
  • Maybe the best story of all is American Olympian Breeja Larson. In January of 2011, Larson was a raw college freshman with lifetime-bests of (get this:) 1:12.13 and 2:42.82 in the long course 100 and 200 breaststrokes. A year and a half later, Larson had dropped those times to 1:05.92 and 2:26.95, plus earned an Olympic gold medal with the American 4×100 medley relay.

The Comeback Kids

At the other end of the age spectrum are the career comebacks, athletes who ruin swimming fans’ calculated predictions by coming up with a career resurgence to smash onto the international stage.

Consider this: at this time in 2011, Anthony Ervin had been out of competitive swimming for the better part of a decade and was hardly on anyone’s radar to be an Olympic possibility in 2012. Yet Ervin started quietly training and made a few meet appearances in the fall of 2011 before completing one of the best stories of the 2012 Olympics by making the U.S. Olympic team and taking 5th in London in the 50.

In the same vein, breaststroker Brendan Hansen didn’t make his comeback until the summer of 2011, and turned out to be the top American at Olympic Trials, plus a surprise bronze medalist in the 100 breast at the London Olympics.

This time around, it seems most of our “comeback kids” have gotten the ball rolling a little earlier. Michael Phelps is the obvious name, though he’ll almost get a second ‘comeback’ when he returns from suspension later this year. In the U.S. alone, we’ve got Katie Hoff and Lara Jackson making serious comebacks among many others.

But could we see more former stars come out of the woodwork before Rio? If history holds true, this summer will be the biggest possibility. Already we’ve heard rumblings of a return from Aussie distance legend Grant Hackett, a comeback that could see its next steps taken in the coming year.

This is one of the more exciting areas of speculation because every prediction has an inherent bit of craziness in it. Could we see Hackett’s Australian counterpart Ian Thorpe make a run at a relay slot? What about American butterflyer Dana Vollmer, who never officially retired, but hasn’t competed since the 2013 World Championships? Let’s throw caution to the wind: how about Rowdy Gaines? Hey, a guy can dream, right?

Dropoffs and other factors

But perhaps the biggest factors are the ones that have almost no warning at all. Who could forget how drastically the world breaststroking landscape shifted when Norway’s Olympic silver medalist Alexander Dale Oen passed away unexpectedly just a few months before the London Olympics? At this point in 2011, Dale Oen still had his first World Championships gold medal ahead of him, and his tragic passing didn’t occur until April of 2012.

Other changes are more gradual. In 2010, South Korea’s Park Tae-hwan was still arguably the best Asian freestyler in the world, winning the 400 at Pan Pacs and the 100, 200 and 400 at Asian Games. But by 2012, he was passed up by China’s Sun Yang, who erupted in London for golds in the 400 and 1500 and even tied Park in the 200 while smashing the world record in the mile.

Then there are the dropoffs: swimmers who are in the title hunt as of now, but who will fail to repeat their bests come Rio.

The best example of this would be France’s Camille Lacourt, who won the 2010 European Championship in the 100 back, going 52.11 and rattling the super-suited world record set by Aaron Peirsol. But Lacourt missed medaling entirely in London, going just 53.08 for fourth. He’s never bettered that 52.11 in the four years since.

Whether its injuries, illnesses, struggles with the intense Olympic spotlight or just plain burnouts, there are always swimmers who fail to live up to their hype come Olympic time.

Who might those swimmers be this time around? Predicting specifics is tough. One guy’s opinion? The events to look at might be the ones that have gotten incredibly deep. It’s simple probability: an event with lots of contenders seems more likely to have one of those contenders struggle. The men’s 100 back and men’s 200 breast might be two potential events where one of the many, many contenders fails to swim their best in the summer of 2016.

World Champs Predictors

One last short point before we close. With the 2014 Short Course World Championships just recently wrapped up in Doha, it’s worth looking at how often swimmers are able to follow up both short course and long course world titles with Olympic gold medals.

It’s no surprise that the Long Course World Championships the year directly before the Olympics are a much better predictor than the Short Course Worlds two years out. But neither are perfect. In fact, during the last cycle, less than half of gold medalists at either World Championship meet were able to defend their titles in London.

From the 2010 Short Course World Championships (which correspond to last month’s Doha Worlds within the Olympic cycle), only 8 of 32 events saw their gold medalist go on to win gold in London:

2010 Short Course World Champs who won gold in the same event at the London 2012 Olympics

  • Men (5/16 events)
    • Cameron van der Burgh, 100 breast
    • Chad le Clos, 200 fly
    • Ryan Lochte, 400 IM
    • France, men’s 4×100 free relay
    • USA, men’s 4×100 medley relay
  • Women (3/16 events)
    • Ranomi Kromowidjojo, 50 free and 100 free
    • Rebecca Soni, 200 breast

The numbers from Long Course Worlds are significantly improved as predictors, but still less than half of gold medalists were able to repeat the feat less than a year later at the Olympics:

2011 Long Course World Champs who won gold in the same event at the London 2012 Olympics

  • Men (7/16 events)
    • Sun Yang, 400 free and 1500 free
    • Daniel Gyurta, 200 breast
    • Michael Phelps, 100 fly
    • Ryan Lochte, 400 IM
    • USA, 4×200 free relay and 4×100 medley relay
  • Women (7/16 events)
    • Missy Franklin, 200 back
    • Rebecca Soni, 200 breast
    • Dana Vollmer, 100 fly
    • Jiao Liuyang, 200 fly
    • Ye Shiwen, 200 IM
    • USA, 4×200 free relay and 4×100 medley relay

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Roger von Oech
5 years ago

It would be neat if Rowdy Gaines made the 2016 Oly team. That would mean that he wouldn’t be doing NBC’s color commentary for the swimming, right?

Reply to  Roger von Oech
5 years ago


Reply to  Roger von Oech
5 years ago

Only if he breathes to the right side.

Reply to  NickH
5 years ago

but then he can’t see the guy in Lane 8!!!!!!

Reply to  Durham
5 years ago

and maybe the guy he can’t see in lane 8 is the one he was the biggest fan of … that would shake things seriously . LOL

Reply to  Roger von Oech
5 years ago

Rowdy is colorful. You need a commentator like him for the LOL worthy moments, especially there are some (still) considered swimming as a boring sport.

Roger von Oech
Reply to  pol
5 years ago

Rowdy has been a great ambassador for the sport of swimming — both in and out of the pool. That said, I think it would be good if NBC and Universal got some “new blood” in the broadcast booth. I’ve heard both Mel Stewart and Josh Davis provide commentary, and believe that either one would be an improvement. The “gold standard” for informative commentary can be found on NBC’s track and field side with Ato Bolden and Dwight Stones.

Reply to  Roger von Oech
5 years ago

Oh Yeah! Ato & Dwight are so good! Every Olympics their commentary is something I eagerly anticipate.

Reply to  pol
5 years ago

Rowdy is an awesome ambassador for swimming and, I believe, one the reasons the general public enjoys watching swimming and that swimming coverage has increased. I adore him and think he should stay around for awhile longer. Mel would be awesome too, maybe he could join Rowdy for a transition. At some point Rowdy will have to pass the baton, as Jim Naber did. But I don’t think that time is here quite yet.

Philip Johnson
Reply to  Roger von Oech
5 years ago

Maybe it’s just me but I like Rowdy. Sure he gives layman-type explanations that us swimming fans can find annoying, though that should be expected with a not well-known sport like swimming.

5 years ago

Dana Vollmer is currently pregnant. Now THAT would be a comeback story!

Lane Four
Reply to  CoachP
5 years ago

It wouldn’t be the first. Back in 1988 at Seoul, Tania Dangalakova (????) returned a year after giving birth and won the women’s 100 meter breast just missing the WR. SO, COME ON DANA!!!!!!!! 🙂

Reply to  Lane Four
5 years ago

We had a recent example of that in T&F, too. 40 year-old Brit Jo Pavey won the European 10000m title just 10months after giving berth to her second child. Now, that is incredible.

5 years ago

The U.S. Men didn’t win the 400 free relay at either the 2011 WC’s or 2012 Olympics.

Reply to  Sven
5 years ago

That was probably meant to be the 4×200. It would still be 7/16 events.

About Jared Anderson

Jared Anderson

Jared Anderson swam for nearly twenty years. Then, Jared Anderson stopped swimming and started writing about swimming. He's not sick of swimming yet. Swimming might be sick of him, though. Jared was a YMCA and high school swimmer in northern Minnesota, and spent his college years swimming breaststroke and occasionally pretending …

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