More US Trials Awards: The Most Improved Olympians At Omaha 2021


There is never a shortage of exciting storylines to follow at the United States Olympic Swimming Trials, both as they go down and after the racing concludes. The 2021 Olympic Trials were particularly interesting as they took place 1 year later than they were intended. 2021 was the first year since 2000 that Michael Phelps wasn’t racing at the meet and it the first time we got to see the women’s 1500 and men’s 800 freestyles take place at the biggest meet in America.

The storylines continued in the form of Allison Schmitt racing her way to a 4th Olympic squad, the introduction of rookies such as Claire Curzan, Torri Huske, Hunter Armstrong, and many more. We also saw some of USA Swimming’s greatest including Ryan Lochte, Anthony Ervin, and Nathan Adrian just miss their shot at one final Olympic Games.

While those storylines are all top of mind, an interesting phenomenon that we thought would interesting to take a look at is the greatest-improvers at the 2021 US Olympic Trials as compared to their results at the 2016 version of the meet.

We’ve put together some awards for the swimmers who came into Trials and pulled off Olympic-qualifying swims as a result of a massive jump in the rankings from their efforts 5 years ago.

Note: These awards only include swimmers who raced the event at both 2016 Trials and 2021 Trials. There are of course swimmers who didn’t race their 2021 Olympic events back in 2016.

Biggest Climber Award (Women): Kate Douglass – 200 IM

2021 US Olympic Trials silver medalist in the 200 IM Kate Douglass objectively had the biggest improvement in the event she qualified to race at the 2021 Olympics.

At the 2016 version of the meet in Omaha, 14-year-old Douglass entered the 200 IM with a 2:18.65 and came out with an 81st place finish in a 2:20.54. That swim by Douglass was 1 of 4 races that Douglass swam at 2016 Trials and was her worst finish placement-wise. She also swam to 32nd place in the 50 freestyle (25.84), 48th in the 100 breaststroke (1:10.43), and 77th in the 200 breaststroke (2:35.82).

As is the case with many elite-level IMers, Kate Douglass is widely known for her versatility and has been at the top of the national rankings in several strokes for a number of years. 2 years after her Olympic Trials debut, Douglass appeared as the #2 ranked swimmer of SwimSwam’s Top 20 NCAA Recruits in the High School Class of 2019 and it was written that she is “hyper-versatile, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see her develop in free, breast or fly.” At the time of that article, Douglass was the top-ranked high schooler in the short course yards 50 freestyle with a 22.04.

Her 50 freestyle prowess also showed up in long course as she was named to both the 2017 World Junior Championships and the 2018 Youth Olympic Games teams. At 2017 World Juniors she placed 11th overall in the semis with a 25.73 and a year later at the Youth Olympics she wound up placing 7th with a 25.83.

While continuing to perform well in the 50 freestyle, Douglass didn’t limit herself to that 1 event and stayed true to her versatility. As she joined forces with the University of Virginia Cavaliers in the fall of 2019, Douglass was named an All-American swimmer in the 200 breast, 100 butterfly, and 200 IM as a freshman. During the 2020-2021 season, Douglass stayed focused on the sprints and picked up ACC gold and NCAA silver in the 100 free, along with NCAA gold in the 50 free.

Heading into 2021 Trials, Douglass had earned national recognition in the 50 free, 100 free, 100 fly, 200 breast, and 200 IM.

Fresh off a dominant sophomore season in Virginia, Douglass was pegged as one of the swimmers with the most shots at Olympic qualification. In fact, Douglass made her way on to a total of 4/14 of SwimSwam’s US Olympic Trials previews as #6 pick in the 50 free, #10 in the 100 free, #5 in the 200 IM, and #6 in the 100 butterfly.

Douglass got close to qualifying early on in the meet when she placed 3rd in the 100 fly to Torri Huske and Claire Curzan but then managed to get the job done in the 200 IM by placing 2nd overall to Virginia teammate Alex Walsh in the 200 IM. Douglass was a 2:09.32 for the silver medal which was just 0.02 behind Walsh’s winning 2:09.30 and 0.02 ahead of Madisyn Cox’s 2:09.34 for third.

While a top 2 finish at any event Trials is a significant accomplishment, her journey from 81st place finisher 5 years ago to Olympic qualifier in 2021 is an exceptional feat, worthy of this official 2021 US Olympic Trials High Climber Award.

Honorable Mention: Erika Brown – 100 Freestyle

While she didn’t make quite as much of a jump as Douglass, Erika Brown made a similar improvement from 2016 to 2021 in the 100 freestyle which can’t go without mention on this list.

At Omaha 2016, Erika Brown only swam in the prelims of the 100 freestyle, placing 76th overall with a 57.09. That swim was nearly a full second slower than her best time heading into the meet of 56.24 which, had she matched at Trials, would have given her a 40th place finish.

Months after Brown’s 2016 Trials appearance, she made the move to Tennesee to swim for the Vols women’s swim team. Brown made an immediate impact at Tennessee as a member of their 18th placing 400 medley relay and 20th placing 800 free relay. Over her 4 years in the NCAA, Brown steadily improved her free and fly and by 2020, at her final collegiate meet, helped her team to the 2020 SEC title. There, she won SEC titles in the 50 free, 100 fly, and 100 free and was named SEC Female Swimmer of the Year.

Brown transitioned to the International Swimming league after graduating from Tennessee and found continued success in the short course meters events. Brown joined the Cali Condors for their second season and as she did in Tennessee, was a key member of the team en route to their 2020 ISL team victory.

While she didn’t collect any individual wins for the Condors, she regularly scored points in numerous events at each meet both individually and in relays. Notably, Brown was a member of the women’s 4×100 medley world record-breaking swim along with Olivia Smoliga, Lilly King, and Kelsi Dahlia during the ISL finale. Brown finished the 2020 ISL season 40th overall in the MVP standings with 134 points.

A few months after her debut ISL season Erika Brown entered the 100 fly as 20th seed, the 200 free as 12th, the 50 free as 6th seed, and the 100 free as 4th at 2021 Olympic Trials. Brown had a bit of a slow start to the meet, having placed 32nd in the 100 butterfly and 25th in the 200 free. By the time the 100 freestyle came around at Trials, Brown was not looking like a favorite to qualify.

Brown didn’t let her first few events break her spirit, however, and managed to qualify for the 100 freestyle by placing 7th in the prelims (54.61) and 8th in the semi-finals (54.15). As the slowest entrant in the final, Erika Brown pulled off an impressive #2 finish and booked her spot on the team with a 53.59 to Abbey Weitzeil‘s 53.53 for 1st.

That silver medal, Olympic-qualifying swim for Brown was a 74-place improvement from the 2016 Trials to the 2021 Trials and is a

Highest Climber Award (Men): Patrick Callan – 200 Freestyle

At 16 years old at the 2016 US Olympic Trials, Patrick Callan swam a 1:51.97 during the prelims of the 200 freestyle for 67th place overall, getting within half a second of his 1:51.48 entry time. That time for Callan was 6.31 seconds off the 1:45.66 that Conor Dwyer swam to win the event and just under 5 seconds slower than the 1:47.52 that Clark Smith swam to finish 6th and qualify for the 4×200 freestyle relay.

Fast forward 5 years and Patrick Callan has replaced Clark Smith as 6th place finish at Trials and was actually more than a second faster than Smith was with a 1:46.49 for 6th. That was a good enough swim for Callan to book himself a spot on the official Tokyo 2020 USA Olympic roster. Callan is expected to only race the prelims of the 4×200 freestyle in Tokyo as top 4 finishers Kieran Smith, Townley Haas, Drew Kibler, and Andrew Seliskar will likely take care of the final.

Tokyo 2020 won’t be the first time that Callan has represented the USA internationally, having raced at the 2017 World Junior Championships. There he swam the men’s 200 freestyle individually and was on track to medal with a 2nd place finish in the heats but fell to 4th overall in the final with a 1:47.61. He also raced on the men’s 4×200 freestyle relay, however, and delivered a 1:47.33 opening split to help the USA to a silver medal finish to Hungary.

Between 2017 World Juniors and the 2021 US Olympic Trials Callan only got back under 1:48 in the long course 200 freestyle at 2 meets when he posted a 1:47.68 and a 1:47.36 at 2019 US Nationals and a 1:47.38 at the 2020 US Open. Heading into 2021 Trials, he would have known that it would take a best time of 1:47 or faster to guarantee a spot on the Olympic roster.

In the lead-up to the 2021 Olympic Trials, Callan swam a new PB in the short course yards version of the 200 free at the 2021 NCAA Championships. There he raced a 1:32.98 during the prelims of the event and went on to place 13th overall in the B final with a 1:33.19.

A few months later in Omaha Callan was a bit of a question mark heading into the prelims of the 200 free prelims after having scratched the 400 freestyle earlier on the meet. Callan was 9th seed originally but decided not to race in the heats. The decision clearly paid off as Callan came into the 200 freestyle and notched a 1:46.96 for 3rd place in the prelims, a 1:47.00 for 8th in the semis, and then an Olympic-qualifying 1:46.49 in the final.

Even though he didn’t qualify individually in the 200 free, he did improve his entry time in the event of 1:47.36 and also managed to break seed and jump up from his 12th rank heading into Trials. Callan’s improvement from 67th in 2016 to 6th in 2021 is an impressive feat and earns him this greatest improvement award.

Comeback Award: Natalie Hinds – 100 Freestyle

Natalie Hinds is among few US Olympians to qualify for an Olympic swim team after officially retiring from the sport and making a subsequent comeback. Among those who come to mind that has pulled off the feat at swimming legends Michael Phelps and Dara Torres.

Hinds swam collegiately for the University of Florida from 2012 until 2016. In 2013 she became the SEC Champion in the 100 butterfly and was named Female SEC Swimmer of the year. That year Hinds also collected hardware on the national level by picking up a bronze medal in the women’s 100 freestyle at NCAA Championships. She picked up SEC Championship titles twice more in 2015 and, both in the 100 freestyle and took bronze again in the 100 free at NCAAs in 2015.

Months after her final NCAA podium finish, Hinds entered the 2016 Olympic Trials as 28th seed in the 100 freestyle with a 55.35. Hinds didn’t make it past the first round of racing in 2016, posting a 56.31 to tie Veronica Burchill for 40th overall. Hinds also race the 50 free at 2016 Trials and placed 55th in a 26.08 and was 70th in the 100 butterfly in a 1:01.08.

Since that swim, Hinds has candidly discussed how disappointed she was with her performance at the 2016 Trials and that the race was a contributing factor to her retirement from the sport later that year.

2 years after she left the sport, Natalie Hinds made the decision to make the move to Georgia and begin training with Jack Bauerle‘s elite pro training group. Hinds’ first long course 100 freestyle back came in January of 2019 when she posted a 55.44 at the TYR Pro Swim Series in Knoxville. After that comeback swim, Hinds continued to make progress in the event, working her way to a 54.29 which would eventually make her 14th seed in the event at 2021 Trials.

Concurrently with her long course strides, Hinds decided to race in the 2020 International Swimming League as a member of the Cali Condors. While Hinds was predominantly a relay swimmer during the 2020 ISL season, she got the chance to race the individual 100 free 2 nice and managed to pull off a 52.12 PB for 5th place at Match 1. Hinds finished the 2021 ISL season with 80 total MVP points which was good enough for 99th overall.

Hinds traveled to Omaha in June 2021, one year later than she had planned when she made her comeback to the sport, with one goal in mind: qualifying for the 2021 US Olympic Team. She certainly wasn’t a lock for the team as 14th seed in the 100 free, 17th in the 100 fly, and 17th in the 50 free.

None of that mattered to Hinds, however, and she knew exactly what she needed to do. Hinds and got her hand on the wall with a 54.34 in the 100 freestyle prelims to qualify in 4th place for the semi-finals. In the semis, she was even quicker and managed to tie training partner, fellow Cali Condor, and good friend Olivia Smoliga for 1st place with a 53.55.

In the final, she didn’t manage to pull off a top 2 finish but she was nevertheless successful in her goal to qualify for Tokyo, hitting a 53.84 for 4th place. Hinds was selected to swim the women’s 4×100 freestyle relay, thus adding her name to her first-ever US international swim team, let alone her first Olympic team.

After an illustrious NCAA career, a disappointing 2016 Trials, and a well-earned 5-year-later Olympic qualifying swim, Natalie Hinds is the recipient of the 2021 Trials Comeback Award.

Eye Of The Tiger Award (Women): Rhyan White – 100/200 Backstroke

Note: This ‘Eye of the Tiger’ award is being given based on 2 criteria:

  1. Improvement from 2016 Olympic Trials performance
  2. Caliber of the field in Olympic-qualifying event(s)

Rhyan White wasn’t necessarily an underdog in either of the women’s 100 backstroke events, coming into the 2021 US Olympic Trials as 3rd seed in the 100 back and 4th seed in the 200. Additionally, she collected 2 silver medals in those events the 2021 NCAA Championships in the short course yards version of the event with a 50.21 100 back and 1:48.99 200.

Back in 2016, things looked a little different for White at Olympic Trials when she hit a 1:02.82 in the 100 for 61st overall and a 2:12.36 200 for 18th. 2 years later, still as a high school student, Rhyan White said knew that she could improve upon her results from 2016 and discussed her Olympic aspirations and preparations with a local news team in Utah:

That same year, White represented the USA at the 2018 Youth Olympic Games in Buenos Aires and walked away with a bronze medal in the 100 back (1:00.60) and a 4th place finish in the 200 (2:10.95).

Rhyan White came into 2021 Trials with big goals, little international experience, and an extremely difficult field. Between the 2 backstroke events, White was set to go up against former 100 and current 200 backstroke world record holder Regan Smith, 2016 Olympians Olivia Smoliga and Kathleen Baker, fellow NCAA standouts Phoebe Bacon, Isabelle Stadden, and Katharine Berkoff, and many more.

As the pressure mounted, White first took to the 100 backstroke and qualified for the semis with a 58.88 to tie Berkhoff for 2nd behind Smith. White fell slightly in the semis to tie Stadden for 4th with a 58.99 heading into the final. Joining one of the most stacked fields of the meet, Rhyan White rose to the occasion during the final and took second place overall with a 58.60 for the silver medal and qualified for the Olympic Games.

Using the momentum she gained from her 100 back statement, White posted a 2:08.92 in the 200 back heats for third to Smith (2:07.81) and Bacon (2:08.71). She was third again in the semis with a 2:08.39 in the semi-finals, again trailing Smith (2:07.23) and Bacon (2:07.46).

As we all know, however, all that matters at Trials is the final. In her final swim of the meet, White put it all on the line and delivered a massive PB of 2:05.73 to win the Olympic Trials A final and add a second event to her Olympic program. White took out returning Olympians, World Champions, NCAA Champions and was the only swimmer at the meet to win an event in which the current world record holder was also racing.

She will be one of the USA’s biggest breakout stars heading to Tokyo and is the recipient of the SwimSwam US Trials Eye of the Tiger award.

Eye Of The Tiger Award (Men): Bryce Mefford – 200 Backstroke

Note: This ‘Eye of the Tiger’ award is being given based on 2 criteria:

  1. Improvement from 2016 Olympic Trials performance
  2. Caliber of the field in Olympic-qualifying event(s)

Bryce Mefford is another example of a 2021 US Olympian who pulled off a significant improvement in Omaha this year from his performance at the meet 5 years ago. Back in 2016, Mefford didn’t qualify for any A final and wound up in 22nd overall in the 100 backstroke (55.70), 20th in the 200 backstroke (2:01.21), and 104th in the 100 butterfly (55.34). Fast forward to 2021 and he was ready for redemption.

Just like Rhyan White, Bryce Mefford had his work cut out for him in the backstroke events at 2021 US Olympic Trials. While he qualified to race the 200 backstroke, as opposed to the 100/200 double, Mefford was up against fierce competition in the form of 2016 Olympic Champ and world record holder Ryan Murphy, 2021 NCAA Champion Shaine Casas, 2017 NCAA, and 2019 World University Games gold medalist Austin Katz, 2019 WUGS bronze medalist Clark Beach, and many more.

Prior to 2021, Mefford did have much international experience aside from his appearance at the 2019 World University Games. At that meet, Mefford actually didn’t even race the 200 backstroke and was instead selected for the 50 and 100 backstroke. In the 50 he finished 13th in the semi-finals with a 25.59 and in the 100 he got the to final and wound up in 5th with a 54.42. At 2019 WUGS, 2021 competitors Austin Katz and Clark Beach actually picked up gold and bronze, respectively in the 200 back.

Collegiately, Mefford swam at the University of California, Berkeley, following in the footsteps of world record holder Ryan Murphy. Mefford raced at NCAAs in 2018 and 2019 and then picked up his first individual medal at the 2021 version of the meet with a bronze in the 200 backstroke (1:38.31).

Mefford missed out on his first shot at qualifying for Tokyo when he placed 4th overall in the men’s 100 backstroke final (52.91), a disappointing result after finishing 1st in the heats (52.99).

Mefford returned with a vengeance in the 200 and hit a 1:57.51 during the prelims for 2nd overall to 2021 NCAA silver medalist and fellow Cal Bear Destin Lasco (1:56.88). During round 2, Mefford was a little bit slower with a 1:56.57 to rank 3rd overall heading into the finals to Murphy (1:55.60) and Katz (1:56.26).

In his last shot at making the team, Bryce Mefford pulled off a 1:54.79 200 backstroke in the final to trail Ryan Murphy‘s winning 1:54.20 by only 0.59. Mefford’s swim was a major PB and allowed him to beat 3rd place finisher Katz (1:55.86) by more than a second.

His gutsy Olympic-qualifying 200 backstroke made Bryce Mefford one of many first-time Olympians on the Tokyo squad and the recipient of this official SwimSwam Eye of the Tiger award.

Brown, Callan, Hinds, White, and Mefford represented some of the most impressive performers at the 2021 US Olympic Trials as compared to their 2016 performances. Another few swimmers, however, earned honorable mentions by also moving up significantly in the ranks to qualify for the team:

Other Top Improvers From 2016 To 2021

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2 years ago

The lead balloon award goes to Stanford Cardinal head coach Greg Meehan for the miserable display of the Stanford Cardinal swim team at the 2021 U.S. Olympic Team Trials.

Bartel – failed to qualify for 200 BR final
Drabot – failed to qualify for 200 FL final
Gormley – failed to qualify for 400 IM final
Manuel – failed to qualify for 100 FR final

Goeders? Nordmann?

2 years ago

Phelps did compete in the meet in 2000 and made the team, this was the first time since 1996 he hasn’t competed.

cheesehead swim
2 years ago

Hunter armstrongs short course yards 100 back time in 2016 would not have made olympic trials. That has to count for some award right?

Reply to  cheesehead swim
2 years ago

that’s actually insane, his 2016 LCM time wouldn’t even have been a trials cut on the women’s side for this year

Reply to  cheesehead swim
2 years ago

Armstrong is the GOAT

2 years ago

Drew Kibler swimming a 1:45 in the 200 free was a big plus for the relay prospects.

He went by Apple and Seliskar on the final 50 to get third at 1:45.92.

2 years ago

Y’all sleepin on Bowe Becker! Honor the man! 〽️

2 years ago

Paige Madden went from 4:09 to 4:04 in the 400 to make the team…..