Levelled Up: McKeon and Dressel Earn “Legend” Status After #Tokyo2020 Results

Within the world of top-end competitive swimming, there are different clubs, and I hear them talked about with my SwimSwam partner Gold Medal Mel Stewart.

There are “Elites,” which generally encompass National Teamers, near-National Teamers, and swimmers who compete at international meets for their country of all kinds – from Pan Ams and World University Games up through the Olympics.

Then there’s a certain status in the hierarchy when you make an Olympic Team (by qualification criteria, especially), that gets you a different status. You’ve been to the big show. You know what the pressure is like under the brightest lights. You get the tattoo and to sign your name OLY afterward. You get more votes in the unions, and you get higher speaking fees, and you get invited to better events and for longer.

Then there are new clubs once you earn a medal, once you earn an individual medal, and once you earn Olympic gold.

But there’s another tier that transcends all of these wildly-accomplished athletes, each of whom in their own right are already one-in-ten-thousand, or better.

There are the Legends. The swimmers who will be brought up in debates and conversations for decades to come. The answers to the trivia questions. The comparisons for future generations.

Where these lines are drawn are not entirely clear, but we know the names when we hear them. Missy Franklin, Michael Phelps, Katie Ledecky, Johnny Weissmuller, Ian Thorpe, Shane Gould, Grant Hackett, Kosuke Kitajima, Jenny Thompson, Natalie Coughlin, Krisztina Egerszegi, Katinka Hosszu, Janet Evans. The athletes who are brought back to award medals at future Olympic Games. The athletes who old coaches tell their young athletes about.

Everyone’s list for inclusion in this most elite tier will be a little different, but I suspect that if most swim nerds sat down and wrote up a list, it would be somewhere in the neighborhood of 70 or 75 names – about 3 per Olympic quad.

And if there are two from the Tokyo 2020 Games who have propelled themselves with clear intention into that Legend tier, it’s Australian Emma McKeon and American Caeleb Dressel.

Entrance into this tier isn’t wholly predicated on success at the Olympic Games, though a huge run of Olympic success is definitely a part of it. World Records, World Championships, and the names of swimmers you beat matter too. But nobody from the modern era can get into this tier without at a minimum of multiple Olympic gold medals, and either some individual golds or a whole lot of relay golds.

Both swimmers checked that criteria at this meet, which is really just the icing on their very powerful resumes.

Those resumes, in brief:

Emma McKeon

  • Tokyo medal count: 4 gold, 3 bronze
  • Overall medal count: 5 gold, 2 silver, 4 bronze
  • Australia’s most-medaled Olympian in history, surpassing Ian Thorpe
  • 7 Olympic Record swims in Tokyo
  • 1 World Record swim in Tokyo (relay)
  • First female swimmer, and second woman in any sport, to win 7 medals at the same Olympic Games
  • 4 World Championships, 17 total World Championship medals
  • 1 active World Record (400 free relay)

Caeleb Dressel

  • Tokyo medal count: 5 gold
  • Overall medal count: 7 gold
  • World Championships: 13 gold, 2 silver (LCM)
  • World Championships: 6 gold, 3 silver (SCM)
  • 6 Olympic Record swims in Tokyo
  • 2 World Record swim in Tokyo
  • 9 active World Records (the next closest is Kliment Kolesnikov with 4)

For Dressel, the progress we’ve seen from him since Rio, where he earned medals only in relays, seemed inevitable, almost a formality where he just needed to continue doing what he’s been doing in the 5-year interim. He dominated the ISL, and he’s felt almost-unbeatable at meets that matter for about 3 years now.

McKeon, on the other hand, came into the last 2 years with a ton of Australian relay medals, some individual silvers and bronzes, but a general sense that she was just at the top of the supporting cast of a rising Australian women’s group moreso than the star of the show.

The first real signs we got that McKeon was lined up for something special actually came in the 2019 International Swimming League season. Starting with her first meet in Lewisville, she started popping up at the top of lots of races, winning lots of meet MVP awards, and eventually finished 3rd in the overall MVP scoring behind Sarah Sjostrom and Caeleb Dressel.

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1 year ago

Individual Medals
Summer Olympics – 3G, 1S, 0B
World Championships – 9G, 1S, 5B
World Records – 2

Individual Medals
Summer Olympics – 1G, 2S, 1B
World Championships – 8G, 5S, 3B
World Records – 8

Individual Medals
Summer Olympics – 2G, 0S, 2B
World Championships – 0G, 2S, 1B
World Records – 0

My god, McKeon is a fraud compared to Hosszu and Sjostrom.

Reply to  Smith-Jacoby-Huske-Weitzeil
1 year ago

Sorry, I can feel you are so hurting Mckeon 2 golds, Manuel choked at trials, oh sorry OTS.

Reply to  Robbos
1 year ago

Even Simone Manuel has outperformed Emma McKeon at the FINA World Aquatics Championships.

Individual Medals
World Championships – 3G, 0S, 1B

Individual Medals
World Championships – 0G, 2S, 1B

Reply to  Smith-Jacoby-Huske-Weitzeil
1 year ago

I really feel your pain!!!!!!
Olympics Tokyo.
W50 Free champion Australia
W100 Free champion Australia
W200 Free champion Australia
W400 Free Champion Australia
W800 Free Silver Australia

That is impressive & very sad for you.

1 year ago

The title of Olympic legend is a combination of speed, medals and perseverance. I grew up being a pretty big fan of Pablo Morales – someone who maybe doesn’t have a crazy high number of Gold medals due to his upset year in 1988. But his improbable redemption in 1992 I believe cements his “legend” status.

1 year ago

Multiple Golds, Multiple WR’s, Multiple Olympic Games. They should be qualifiers.
Then there are the anomalies…like:
Jason Lezak. May be one of the greatest anchor legs in Olympic history.

Reply to  Bevo
1 year ago

Legendary performances category, but not a legend as himself. Still he was really good…

1 year ago

Slightly off topic, but I think worth discussing.

What’s the verdict on if Sjostrom should’ve swam the 100fly?

It probably wouldn’t have made the difference between gold and silver in the 50free, but she may have been able to bump Campbell for bronze in the 100free

Reply to  John26
1 year ago

I don’t think it would have made a difference. On the whole SS swam faster than Rio, but Cate swam faster than her in all 3 hundreds.

1 year ago

Australia’s most-medaled Olympian in history, surpassing Ian Thorpe” AND LEISEL JONES (9), who btw deserves the legend status: 9 Olympic medals – 3 Gold, 5 Silver and 1 Bronze, 7 World Championships titles, 10 Commonwealth Games Gold medals and 23 National titles.

Reply to  Clanfa
1 year ago

According to Yozih & the guy with the Olympic Silver medley name;
Dressel win 5 golds, including 3 individuals = greatest since Phelps. Maybe missed a minor medal due to relay coaching decisions
Mckeon win 4 Golds & 3 Bronze = FRAUD despite matching Dressel in same events, except 100 butterfly gets 3rd by 0.14 away from gold, also adds 2 more bronze medals in relay & misses gold medal due to coaching decisions.

Some just can’t see past their own nose.

Gogo bibi
1 year ago

Tokyo olympics showed us as well how hard it is to defend an individual title back to back, those who did are legends as well (Ledecky, Peaty, Kitajima, PVH,..)

Last edited 1 year ago by Gogo bibi
1 year ago

Maybe add iconic swims or iconic performances, along with durability, as well, not just the multi-medal hauls:

Kohanomoku, Weissmuller, Schollander, Fraser, Gould, Spitz, Burton, Mathes, Goodell, Naber, Shirley Babashoff, Salnikov, Evans, Bionid, Popov, Thorpe, Perkins, Hackett, Phelps. Hosszu, Dressel, McKeon.

About Braden Keith

Braden Keith

Braden Keith is the Editor-in-Chief and a co-founder/co-owner of SwimSwam.com. He first got his feet wet by building The Swimmers' Circle beginning in January 2010, and now comes to SwimSwam to use that experience and help build a new leader in the sport of swimming. Aside from his life on the InterWet, …

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