Making the US Olympic Team vs. Making the Podium at the Olympics, a Statistical Review

“It’s harder to make the US Olympic Team than to medal at the Olympics.”

“There are six swimmers in this final (at Trials) who could medal at the Olympics.”

For anybody who spends enough time around American swimming people of a certain vintage, these sort of statements are thrown around pretty commonly. Likely born out of the decision at the 1984 Olympic Games to begin limiting countries to two swimmers per event, I’ve always had the sense that this felt more like pride and patriotism than reality.

The most objective way to read those statements is the implication that the bronze medalist from the Olympic Games would place 4th-or-worse at the US Olympic Trials. Ignoring any bloviating about who would have gone faster at the Olympics if they had the chance (I bet everyone who stays home wishes they had tapered a little harder for Trials, if they saved something for the Games), this is a measurable thing.

I pored over the data back to the 2008 Olympic Games, and there was only one instance in the last four Olympic Games where the bronze medalist at the Olympic Games would have placed lower than 3rd at the US Olympic Trials, and interestingly it happened in Tokyo.

There, Japan’s Yui Ohashi won in 4:32.08, USA’s Emma Weyant was silver in 4:32.76, and USA’s Hali Flickinger was bronze in 4:34.90. Flickinger’s time at the Olympic Games would have placed her 5th at the US Olympic Trials.

Besides her own time (4:33.96) and Weyant’s (4:33.81), two other swimmers were faster: Melanie Margalis (4:34.08) and Leah Smith (4:34.55). So ironically in this one edge case, where we can objectively say that the above statements are true, she was faster at Trials than at the Olympics.

In fact, in that time period, there were only 17 other occasions where bronze at the Olympic Games would have been any lower than top two at the US Olympic Trials.

Of course we all know that the U.S. is the deepest swimming nation on earth. No other country’s Trials would hold up even this well against the results at the Olympic Games.

This is just one way of parsing these claims, and the only other objective data-driven way I could think of was doing something with best times – but even that didn’t really feel right, because it ignores what the Olympic Trials and Olympic Games are: pressure cookers.

So by at least this measure, claims that it’s harder to make the US team than it is to medal at the Olympics seems to at best be stuck in the past and at worst disrespect the quality of swimming when the world comes together.

US Data is Below

2021 Trials

Event Swimmer Bronze Medal Time Place at 2021 US Olympic Trials
Men’s 50m Freestyle Bruno Fratus 21.57 3rd
Men’s 100m Freestyle Kliment Kolesnikov 47.44 2nd
Men’s 200m Freestyle Fernando Scheffer 1:44.66 1st
Men’s 400m Freestyle Kieran Smith 3:43.94 1st
Men’s 800m Freestyle Mykhailo Romanchuk 7:42.33 1st
Men’s 1500m Freestyle Florian Wellbrock 14:40.91 1st
Men’s 100m Backstroke Ryan Murphy 52.19 1st
Men’s 200m Backstroke Luke Greenbank 1:54.72 2nd
Men’s 100m Breaststroke Nicolo Martinenghi 58.33 1st
Men’s 200m Breaststroke Matti Mattson 2:07.13 1st
Men’s 100m Butterfly Noe Ponti 50.74 2nd
Men’s 200m Butterfly Federico Burdisso 1:54.45 1st
Men’s 200m IM Jeremy Desplanches 1:56.17 2nd
Men’s 400m IM Brendon Smith 4:10.38 3rd
Women’s 50m Freestyle Pernille Blume 24.21 1st
Women’s 100m Freestyle Cate Campbell 52.52 1st
Women’s 200m Freestyle Penny Oleksiak 1:54.70 1st
Women’s 400m Freestyle Li Bingjie 4:01.08 1st
Women’s 800m Freestyle Simona Quadarella 8:18.35 2nd
Women’s 1500m Freestyle Sarah Kohler 15:42.91 2nd
Women’s 100m Backstroke Regan Smith 58.05 1st
Women’s 200m Backstroke Emily Seebohm 2:06.17 2nd
Women’s 100m Breaststroke Lilly King 1:05.54 3rd
Women’s 200m Breaststroke Annie Lazor 2:20.84 1st
Women’s 100m Butterfly Emma McKeon 55.72 2nd
Women’s 200m Butterfly Hali Flickinger 2:05.65 1st
Women’s 200m IM Kate Douglass 2:09.04 1st
Women’s 400m IM Hali Flickinger 4:34.90 5th

2016 Trials

Event Swimmer Bronze Medal Time Place at 2016 US Olympic Trials
Men’s 50m Freestyle Nathan Adrian 21.49 1st
Men’s 100m Freestyle Nathan Adrian 47.85 2nd
Men’s 200m Freestyle Conor Dwyer 1:45.23 1st
Men’s 400m Freestyle Gabriele Detti 3:43.49 1st
Men’s 1500m Freestyle Gabriele Detti 14:40.86 1st
Men’s 100m Backstroke David Plummer 52.40 3rd
Men’s 200m Backstroke Evgeny Rylov 1:53.97 2nd
Men’s 100m Breaststroke Cody Miller 58.87 1st
Men’s 200m Breaststroke Anton Chupkov 2:07.70 2nd
Men’s 100m Butterfly Laszlo Cseh 51.14 (tie for silver) 2nd
Men’s 200m Butterfly Tamas Kenderesi 1:53.62 1st
Men’s 200m IM Wang Shun 1:57.05 3rd
Men’s 400m IM Daiya Seto 4:09.71 2nd
Women’s 50m Freestyle Cate Campbell 24.11 1st
Women’s 100m Freestyle Sarah Sjostrom 52.99 1st
Women’s 200m Freestyle Emma McKeon 1:54.92 2nd
Women’s 400m Freestyle Leah Smith 4:01.92 3rd
Women’s 800m Freestyle Boglarka Kapas 8:16.37 2nd
Women’s 100m Backstroke Kylie Masse 58.76 1st
Women’s 200m Backstroke Hilary Caldwell 2:07.54 2nd
Women’s 100m Breaststroke Katie Meili 1:05.69 2nd
Women’s 200m Breaststroke Shi Jinglin 2:22.28 1st
Women’s 100m Butterfly Dana Vollmer 56.63 2nd
Women’s 200m Butterfly Natsumi Hoshi 2:05.20 1st
Women’s 200m IM Maya Dirado 2:08.79 1st
Women’s 400m IM Mireia Belmonte 4:32.39 1st

2012 Trials

Event Swimmer Bronze Medal Time Place at 2012 US Olympic Trials
Men’s 50m Freestyle Cesar Cielo 21.59 1st (tie)
Men’s 100m Freestyle Brent Hayden 47.80 1st
Men’s 200m Freestyle Sun Yang 1:44.93 1st
Men’s 400m Freestyle Peter Vanderkaay 3:44.69 1st
Men’s 1500m Freestyle Oussama Mellouli 14:40.31 1st
Men’s 100m Backstroke Ryosuke Irie 52.97 3rd
Men’s 200m Backstroke Ryan Lochte 1:53.94 1st
Men’s 100m Breaststroke Brendan Hansen 59.49 1st
Men’s 200m Breaststroke Ryo Tateishi 2:08.29 1st
Men’s 100m Butterfly Chad le Clos 51.44 3rd
Men’s 200m Butterfly Takeshi Matsuda 1:53.21 1st
Men’s 200m IM Laszlo Cseh 1:56.22 3rd
Men’s 400m IM Kosuke Hagino 4:08.94 3rd
Women’s 50m Freestyle Marleen Veldhuis 24.39 1st
Women’s 100m Freestyle Tang Yi 53.44 1st
Women’s 200m Freestyle Bronte Barratt 1:55.81 2nd
Women’s 400m Freestyle Camille Muffat 4:03.01 2nd
Women’s 800m Freestyle Rebecca Adlington 8:20.32 2nd
Women’s 100m Backstroke Aya Terakawa 58.83 1st
Women’s 200m Backstroke Elizabeth Beisel 2:06.55 2nd
Women’s 100m Breaststroke Satomi Suzuki 1:06.46 3rd
Women’s 200m Breaststroke Iuliia Efimova 2:20.92 1st
Women’s 100m Butterfly Alicia Coutts 56.94 2nd
Women’s 200m Butterfly Natsumi Hoshi 2:05.48 1st
Women’s 200m IM Caitlin Leverenz 2:08.95 1st
Women’s 400m IM Ye Shiwen 4:32.91 2nd

2008 Trials

Event Swimmer Bronze Medal Time Place at 2008 US Olympic Trials
Men’s 50m Freestyle Alain Bernard 21.49 2nd
Men’s 100m Freestyle Jason Lezak 47.67 1st
Men’s 200m Freestyle Peter Vanderkaay 1:45.14 2nd
Men’s 400m Freestyle Larsen Jensen 3:42.78 1st
Men’s 1500m Freestyle Ryan Cochrane 14:42.69 1st
Men’s 100m Backstroke Arkady Vyatchanin 53.18 2nd
Men’s 200m Backstroke Arkady Vyatchanin 1:54.93 3rd
Men’s 100m Breaststroke Hugues Duboscq 59.37 1st
Men’s 200m Breaststroke Hugues Duboscq 2:08.94 1st
Men’s 100m Butterfly Andrew Lauterstein 51.12 2nd
Men’s 200m Butterfly Takeshi Matsuda 1:52.97 2nd
Men’s 200m IM Ryan Lochte 1:56.53 3rd
Men’s 400m IM Ryan Lochte 4:08.09 3rd
Women’s 50m Freestyle Cate Campbell 24.17 1st
Women’s 100m Freestyle Natalie Coughlin 53.39 1st
Women’s 200m Freestyle Pang Jiaying 1:55.05 1st
Women’s 400m Freestyle Joanne Jackson 4:03.52 2nd
Women’s 800m Freestyle Lotte Friis 8:23.03 2nd
Women’s 100m Backstroke Margaret Hoelzer 59.34 3rd
Women’s 200m Backstroke Reiko Nakamura 2:07.13 3rd
Women’s 100m Breaststroke Mirna Jukic 1:07.34 2nd
Women’s 200m Breaststroke Sara Nordenstam 2:23.02 2nd
Women’s 100m Butterfly Jessicah Schipper 57.25 1st
Women’s 200m Butterfly Jessicah Schipper 2:06.26 1st
Women’s 200m IM Natalie Coughlin 2:10.34 3rd
Women’s 400m IM Katie Hoff 4:31.71 2nd


In This Story

Leave a Reply

Notify of

oldest most voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Bill I
27 days ago

My assumption has always been that saying came from the 70s and 80s when it might have been true some of the time. 1976 particularly. But even by the early 90s, I don’t think it was true and certainly it’s not true now as shown the simple fact that not all Americans swimmers medal. If 3rd at the Olympics was “easier” than 2d for the US, every single US swimmer would medal in every individual event. And that doesn’t happen of course.

27 days ago

CURIOUSLY, I’ve always formulated this ‘question’ a bit differently. Here goes:

“The two swimmers from US Trials have a better chance than the entries of any other nation simply because the
U.S. Trials are the toughest to place 1st or 2nd in – ergo, your likelihood of getting a medal out of U.S. Trials
competitors is much higher than any other country’s Olympic top two.”

Paul Jacob
27 days ago

Michael Phelps notwithstanding, parity came to swimming long before 2008. One would have to go back to the era when the rule was changed to see if the rule change was justified. I suspect your results would be different than evaluating recent history.

27 days ago

Wow 4 IM got way slower

27 days ago

Top 2 at trials makes the team. Top 3 at Olympics medals. 2<3, therefore it's harder to make the team than it is to medal. So really, every country's trial is harder!

27 days ago

I think the first comment at least when a swimmer makes it Not a commentator doesn’t mean it is literally faster to make the US team but harder as it is more intense, more on the line, more pressure.
The pressure to make the team is greater than the pressure to medal. For many US athletes this is probably true. Once you have made the team you will always be an Olympian.
So I love the stats because it proves what we all objectively know which is the Olympics are obviously faster.
As for us old timers we do remember a time when this was literally true. 3rd American was a potential medalist. See 1976 for stats.… Read more »

27 days ago

Thank you for putting this together! Could you continue the exercise and go back to 1984? Would love to see the more comprehensive view. 🙏🏻

28 days ago

Of course they’re gonna keep saying it. Just like Americans will keep claiming swimming is the most popular sport in Australia.

Reply to  Troyy
27 days ago

It’s not? Lol I am an American

Reply to  Troyy
27 days ago

Only one saying it, is Rowdy. And he sounds stupid each time

Genevieve Nnaji
Reply to  Troyy
27 days ago

We now fake news are very popular in the US.

Reply to  Troyy
27 days ago

Well it’s probably more popular than in the US

Reply to  Braden Keith
27 days ago

Swimming Australia uses the term “participation sport” to capture every instance of someone getting in water. This includes literal babies having their first swim survival lesson, people that go for a dip at the beach and 85 year olds doing aqua classes. Of that 5.9 million, 597,000 participants are disabled. We don’t have 6 million people swimming 6 days a week and ready to jump into Olympic trials.

If you wanted to use a similar comparison to USA, about 50 million “participate”, or around double the entire population of Australia.

Americans on here, including you, constantly insist swimming is Australia’s “national sport” to downplay our achievements. My comment was removed when I criticised the article stating that swimming in Australia… Read more »

Last edited 27 days ago by Sub13

About Braden Keith

Braden Keith

Braden Keith is the Editor-in-Chief and a co-founder/co-owner of 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, …

Read More »