Note: This is the first in a series of articles analyzing the top medal winners from the world’s most competitive meets. Here, we focus on the Long Course World Championships, first held in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, in 1973, which limits the discussion to swimmers of the more modern era. But stay tuned for analyses of the Olympics and the Long Course European Championships, both of which have been around much longer.
Extra note: Medal counts may be slightly off, due to difficulties tracking down prelim relay participants and consolidating women’s married and maiden names. If you notice an error, please let me know in the comments. Updated a couple times since publishing thanks to astute readers!
It’s difficult to truly quantify the dominance of particular athletes, but medal counts are a great place to start. It’s no surprise that of all Long Course World Championship participants, Michael Phelps and Natalie Coughlin sit atop the men’s and women’s medal counts, respectively. What’s amazing about Phelps, though, aside from his mind-blowing 33 medals, is his medal distribution: 26 gold (79%!!), 6 silver, and 1 bronze. By comparison, Coughlin, the most dominant swimmer in history for the women, has 19 total medals, with 7 gold (37%), 7 silver, and 5 bronze.
Things start to get interesting pretty quickly when comparing the top men’s and women’s medal-winners. The women generally haven’t had a single totally dominant swimmer. The women at the top of the list (with a notable exception, which I’ll get to) have had relatively long and steady careers, consistently earning medals in multiple events, but not with Phelpsian flair. Coughlin is a great example of this. Libby Trickett, with 15 total medals, is another, sitting just ahead of the similarly consistent Jenny Thompson and Leisel Jones with 14 medals each.
Coughlin won multiple medals in 2001, 2003, 2005 (5), and 2007 (5), gave herself a well-deserved break in the crazy suit circus of 2009, and then came back to win medals in 2011 and 2013. That’s an incredible 6 appearances at World Championships. And though she’s not the multiple medal threat she once was, if she stays in the sprint freestyles, she’s got the potential to tack a few more onto her total. Thompson, Jones, and Trickett all have similar patterns – Thompson and Trickett spread their medals over 4 championships, and Jones over 5. Thompson’s medal count would probably have been considerably higher had there been more instances of the championships during her career. Between 1991, her first championships, and 2003, her last, there were only 5 contested. Contrast that against the 7 contested in the same time span between 2001 and 2013, during which time they’ve been biannual. What makes Jones’ haul all the more impressive is the fact that she could really only swim one relay at each championships. That’s the benefit afforded freestylers – medal opportunities abound for great freestylers from swimming-dominant countries. 12 of Coughlin’s medals came from relays, 9 of Thompson’s, 8 of Trickett’s, and just 5 of Jones’.
|Natalie Coughlin (USA)||19||7||7||5||6|
|Libby (Lenton) Trickett (AUS)||15||8||3||4||4|
|Jenny Thompson (USA)||14||7||5||2||4|
|Leisel Jones (AUS)||14||7||4||3||5|
|Missy Franklin (USA)||11||9||1||1||2|
|Jessicah Schipper (AUS)||10||5||4||1||4|
|Kornelia Ender (GDR)||10||8||2||0||2|
|Shirley Babashoff (USA)||10||2||7||1||2|
|Jessica Hardy (USA)||10||3||5||2||4|
|Dana Vollmer (USA)||10||4||4||2||4|
|Antje Buschschulte (GER)||9||2||4||3||3|
|Kristin Otto (GDR)||9||7||2||0||2|
|Mary T. Meagher (USA)||9||2||5||2||2|
|Ranomi Kromowidjojo (NED)||9||3||1||5||4|
Of the top women’s medal-winners (again, with one exception – patience!) two patterns emerge: the patient and consistent type, and the concentratedly dominant type. The four women at the top won many medals of all colors. They were dominant, sure, but they didn’t win every time they dove in. They didn’t have the Phelps Cushion where not going a best time could still result in a win. Kristin Otto and Kornelia Ender fit the other type. These two pretty much won every event they swam (though we now have the benefit of history to help understand why this might be), but they concentrated this into a shorter time span. To date, no woman has combined these two characteristics – longevity and total dominance.
Until now. (Probably.) The norm of steady consistency for the women is in serious danger with the explosion of the Missy Franklin and Katie Ledecky freight trains onto the swimming scene. I mean, really, they’re frightening (in a good way!). Ledecky especially. She’s got a few more meters in which to gain a lead, and she makes full use of ’em. One could imagine Ledecky getting so much better than the rest of the world that if she stays in the sport long enough, she could coast her way to victory in 2-3 (4?) events at every major meet she swims at. Throw in a relay, and that’s a pretty solid haul. In the meantime, Franklin has already shot to the top of the gold medal count with her 9 gold medals. I’ll let you digest that for a second: the TOP. She’s competed in exactly 2 championships (the first of which she qualified for a full year before the 2011 event, in which her leadoff split in the 800 free relay would easily have earned her gold in the individual 200 freestyle) and still has more gold medals than any other woman in history. Her total medal count isn’t topping the charts yet, but save for something totally unforeseen happening, I think it’s safe to assume that she’ll keep adding to her tally. With Ledecky and Franklin, we could now be seeing the beginnings of the outliers that the men’s side has in Phelps and Ryan Lochte.
Just as an aside here, before I launch into the baffling magnitude of Phelps’ and Lochte’s dominance, I’m not intentionally talking solely about American swimmers. It just so happens that American swimmers have been these outlier performers across the history of the event, and of the sport. European swimming fans rejoice – when I talk about the European Championships, the spotlight is all on you.
Where to start with Phelps and Lochte… The two have combined for 56 total medals, 41 of them gold. I have to giggle typing that – it sounds absolutely ridiculous. As a country at World Championships, since the meet’s inception, this would place them 10th, just ahead of France (53) – for combined mens and women’s medal counts for all aquatic sports. And if we look only at gold medals, it gets even more absurd. They would place 6th, behind only the USA, China, Germany, Russia, and Australia. Again, for ALL SPORTS. Men AND women combined. This is astounding.
Phelps’ dominance spanned an entire decade, with a “humble” single-gold performance in 2001. He got his act together by 2003 (sarcasm, people!) and won no fewer than 6 medals at any World Championships in which he swam since then, winning an unprecedented 7 in both 2007 and 2011. Know who hasn’t won 7 total WC medals in his entire career? César Cielo. Or try Fred Bousquet. Or Gary Hall Jr, Geoff Huegill, Jason Lezak, Nathan Adrian, Ous Mellouli, Paul Biedermann… This is an extraordinarily elite group. Again, this is astounding.
I could go on (and on) about Phelps and Lochte, but bringing in the rest of the top medal winners helps highlight an intriguing difference between the men and the women at World Championships. Grant Hackett comes in at #3 on the list with an unbelievable, if somewhat overshadowed, 18 total medals over 5 appearances, 10 of them gold. And 6 of those golds in races 800m or longer. Ian Thorpe and Michael Gross (a West German swimmer from the 1980’s, for those of us who were in diapers or not yet on this planet during his heyday) follow with 13 medals each. This is where we start to see differences emerge between these prolific swimmers. Comparing Thorpe and Gross is more apples to apples because each participated in exactly 3 championships. Thorpe was an utterly dominant swimmer, with 11 golds out of 13 total medals. The guy simply didn’t lose. However, this was helped along by the fact that he had guys like Michael Klim and Matt Welsh as part of his relay supporting casts. In 2001, Australia swept the relays. Sure, Thorpe was amazing individually, but you don’t win 13 medals in 3 appearances only swimming individual events. Then, we have Gross, who won 5 gold, 5 silver, and 3 bronze. 2 of his silver and all of his 3 bronze medals came in relays. Thorpe has 5 relay medals, all of them gold. If we do a little theoretical relay medal switch-a-roo, Gross would have an extra 5 golds and a 10g/3s/0b breakdown, whereas Thorpe would be at 6g/3s/4b . Ah, the importance of relays.
|Michael Phelps (USA)||33||26||6||1||6|
|Ryan Lochte (USA)||23||15||4||4||5|
|Grant Hackett (AUS)||18||10||6||2||5|
|Ian Thorpe (AUS)||13||11||1||1||3|
|Michael Gross (FRG)||13||5||5||3||3|
|Aaron Peirsol (USA)||12||10||2||0||5|
|Kosuke Kitajima (JPN)||12||3||4||5||5|
|Alexander Popov (RUS)||11||6||4||1||3|
|Matt Biondi (USA)||11||6||2||3||2|
|Michael Klim (AUS)||10||6||2||2||4|
|Pieter van den Hoogenband (NED)||10||0||8||2||4|
Of the top 11 medal-winning men, 8 display extreme top-heaviness, as the majority of their medals are gold. At an average of 4.1 total appearances (vs. 3.4 for the women) and a 63% gold medal-winning percentage (vs. only 47% for the women), these men had longer and more dominant runs at world championships than the women. Matt Biondi and Pieter van den Hoogenband are outliers in this group – Biondi with only 2 appearances at the championships, an exception to the longevity rule, and van den Hoogenband with his ridiculous 8 silver medals and no golds. He picked a really awesome time to be a middle-distance freestyler.
Over the whole population, the distribution of medal winners isn’t so different between men and women. Of the approximately 1200 total medals for each gender, there are approximately 500 unique medalists (slightly fewer women than men), ~250 of whom have exactly one medal. Both genders claim ~200 unique gold medalists. The distribution of overall medals looks very similar for both women and men, and even more so when you chop off the outliers at the front of the pack. While there are certainly differences in men’s and women’s medal-winning tendencies at the championships, the thing to remember is that there’s nothing “normal” or “typical” about being the best in the world. By studying these populations, we’re already studying the outliers, and anything we glean is just gravy. And fun. Fun gravy.
World Championships is an interesting meet to analyze because its beginnings are so recent. In doing these comparisons, it’s clear that swimmers before 2001 are at an automatic disadvantage in the counts – the earlier the swimmer, the greater the disadvantage. Swimmers generally didn’t stick around in the sport for very long prior to the 90’s for various mostly economic reasons; there were fewer events in which to compete (the stroke 50’s weren’t introduced until 2001); and prior to the biannual schedule introduced in 2001, World Championships didn’t happen that often. Even still, it’s unlikely we would have seen another Phelpsian performer or anything else that would significantly change the medal distributions, but it’s fun to ponder what might have been.
Stay tuned for the next installment, and in the meantime, please leave your own theories and observations in the comments.