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.
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:
- 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)
- 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.