More Swimmers Beat Their Seed Times at U.S. Olympic Trials in 2020 Than in 2016

A pandemic and an Olympic postponement separated the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials and 2020 U.S. Olympic Trials. Surprisingly, they did not have a significant negative impact on the amount of times that were faster than seed times posted at the 2020 Trials in comparison to in 2016.

Thanks to Barry Revzin for crunching the numbers on this and to SwimSwam photographer Jack Spitser for pitching this idea.

The 2020 U.S. Olympic Trials were unique in that there were two “Waves” of racing that were separated by qualifying times. This was to limit the number of athletes competing at the same time to promote COVID-19 health and safety protocols.

Wave I had slower qualifying times than Wave II and was contested only as prelims and finals.

Wave II was the top 40 swimmers in each event, under the qualifying standard. It took place at the same venue as Wave I, CHI Health Center in Omaha, the following week. Wave II had the typical Olympic Trials setup of prelims, semifinals, and finals.

Since Wave II contained the top 40 swimmers in each event, to compare the two Olympic cycles more accurately we put the percentage of times faster than seed times at the 2020 U.S. Olympic Trials Wave II against the percentage of times faster than seed times at the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials for people seeded in the top 40.

Looking at only the top 40 seeds in each cycle, each meet put up a similar percentage of times faster than seed times with 2020 having slightly more. 2020 competitors posted 29.6% best times while in 2016 the top 40 seeds posted 26.1% best times:

Percentage of Times Faster Than Seed Times at 2020 U.S.Olympic Trials Wave II

Prelims Overall
Men 34.50% 36.80%
Women 19% 22.20%
Total 26.80% 29.60%

Percentage of Times Faster Than Seed Times at 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials (Top 40 Seeds)

Prelims Overall
Men 23.9% 29.6%%
Women 18.5% 23%
Total 21.1% 26.1%

The percentage of times faster than seed times was higher on the men’s side for both cycles, most significantly with 2020 Wave II men cracking 30 percent. Note that seed times do not always mean lifetime best times.

This comparison is interesting because multiple factors made 2020 an abnormal Olympic Trials year. Besides the fact the meet was postponed by a year due to the coronavirus pandemic, health safety protocol limited both training and competition opportunities for months.

And surprisingly, swimmers still dropped an average of 29.6% of times faster than their seed times at Wave II.

At Wave I, however, only 18.3% of the swims were faster than the swimmers’ entry times. This may seem low, but if you compare it to the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials as a whole it only trails their percentage of beating seed times by 2.6 percent:

Percentage of Times Faster Than Seed Times at 2020 U.S. Olympic Trials Wave I

Prelims Overall
Men 18.7% 20.5%
Women 13.8% 15.6%
Total 16.5% 18.3%

Percentage of Times Faster Than Seed Times at 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials Overall

Prelims Overall
Men 21.8% 24.5%
Women 15.2% 17.5%
Total 18.4% 20.9%

What does this information tell us? 

That a pandemic did not have a significant negative impact on the overall improvement of times compared to the improvement of times (upon entry times) at the 2016 Olympic Trials. 

It is important to note that this does not indicate that the overall speed of swimmers was not affected. For example, It took a 53.28 for Abbey Weitzel to win the 2016 100 free final, but she won in 2020 with a 53.53. 

On the other hand, Regan Smith won the 100 back final with a 58.35, about .7 faster than the time that won Olivia Smoliga gold in 2016. A deeper look into the results would have to be done in order to make any assertions about the speed of 2016 Trials versus 2020 Trials.

There was also a significantly smaller amount of swimmers competing at the 2020 Trials. There were 3057 athletes at the 2016 Trials and 2285 at the 2020 Trials (with both Waves combined.)

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2 years ago

Women’s 50 meter freestyle
2016 – 24.28, 24.33
2021 – 24.29, 24.30

Women’s 100 meter freestyle
2016 – 53.28, 53.52
2021 – 53.53, 53.59

Women’s 200 meter freestyle
2016 – 1:54.88, 1:56.18
2021 – 1:55.11, 1:56.79

Women’s 400 meter freestyle
2016 – 3:58.98, 4:00.65
2021 – 4:01.27, 4:04.86

Women’s 800 meter freestyle
2016 – 8:10.32, 8:20.18
2021 – 8:14.62, 8:20.36

Fire Greg Meehan!

2 years ago

This is especially amazing considering there were no 2020 trials 🙂

2 years ago

I wonder if the pandemic and the two waves cut down on tourist swimmers, who likely wouldn’t go best times. By tourist swimmers I mean swimmers who have stopped training seriously but still attend trials to participate and enjoy the meet atmosphere. The extra year makes it harder to hold on on little training and unless they were Wave II, they wouldn’t get the same Olympic Trials atmosphere/experience as they would have in 2016. I know this analysis was only for top 40 swimmers, but I wonder if the trend continued overall.

Reply to  DMSWIM
2 years ago

Ed Moses?

2 years ago

So it basically shows women were the same as 2016 but the men were more likely to drop times?

Steve Wierhake
2 years ago

It’s 2021. Why are we referring to the trials as 2020 Olympic trials?

Reply to  Steve Wierhake
2 years ago

Because it’s for the 2020 Olympics.

2 years ago

Is there a breakdown by event? Would be curious to see amount of best times in sprint vs distance events.

VA Steve
2 years ago

Great to have the data. Sure defeats story lines and comments that were aplenty.

Reply to  VA Steve
2 years ago

I mean we were faster across the board, it’s the just the reset of the world was much faster across the board as well

2 years ago

Could this also be explained by the lack of taper meets last year? Swimmers had fewer chances to go fast times during the qualifying period.

Reply to  ACC
2 years ago

That has seemed to be the case around the world. Some young swimmers who faced limited disruption are essentially putting up 2yrs worth of work and physical development now, hence some of the huge drops (Popovici, Huske & Curzan etc).

Last edited 2 years ago by Dee
Reply to  ACC
2 years ago

That was my first thought.

About Annika Johnson

Annika Johnson

Annika came into the sport competitively at age eight, following in the footsteps of her twin sister and older brother. The sibling rivalry was further fueled when all three began focusing on distance freestyle, forcing the family to buy two lap counters. Annika is a three-time Futures finalist in the 200 …

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