In this modern age of social media, the number of Twitter follower’s a person has is often viewed as directly correlated to their popularity. In nearly every genre of popularity, “Twitter” races have popped up: Ashton Kutcher beat CNN to 1 million followers; most recently Lady Gaga became the first Tweeter to 9 million followers. But swimmers have been picking up steam on Twitter as well. While none of them are anywhere near Shaq’s 3.7 million followers or Kaka’s 3.4 million, there are many who have put up some surprisingly impressive totals. This is especially true as swimmers have increasingly stepped outside of the pool into more main-stream endeavors.
We’ve scoured the Twittersphere to track down the 20 most popular swimmers on Twitter. We kept our definition of “swimmer” to those who have had some level of elite success, and tried to limit it just to (REAL), personal accounts. While we did our best to find every swimmer that could be on the list, I’m sure we missed at least one. It took at least 5,000 to crack our top 20, which is an impressive total.
Big thanks to David Rieder and Catherine Lee for helping make sure that the list was as complete as possible.
20. Ryk Neethling-5,532 followers–Neethling is a South African veteran of 4 Olympics who was a member of the World Record setting 4×100 free relay at the 2004 Athens Olympics. Other members of that relay: Roland Schoeman (4,390 followers), Lyndon Ferns (485 followers), and Darian Townsend (453 followers). I wonder how many Twitter followers he would have had he accepted Qatar’s multi-million dollar offer to purchase his services for the 2008 Olympics.
19. Thiago Pereira-5,690 followers–Pereira is a Brazilian IM’er who has, among other honors, 6 Pan Am Games medals to his name. He was also the 2004 World Champion (SCM) in the 200 IM.
18. Cullen Jones-6,129 followers–Jones is well known for his exploits in the pool, including as a part of the famed Jason-Lezak-400-free-relay from Beijing that is now the most famous race in swimming. He deserves even more respect for his exploits outside of the pool with USA Swimming’s Make a Splash program.
17. Ranomi Kromowidjojo-6,434 followers–Kromowidjojo seems to pop up on every list we do these days, including the world rankings. She’s only 20 years old, but has already scored 10 European golds and 5 World Championships. Her number is bound to increase after London…if her fans can spell her name!
16. Libby Trickett-6,718 followers–This Aussie is currently on the comeback trail, and is a current or former holder of 5 different World Records. I wonder how many followers she gained after announcing her comeback?
15. Mark Foster-7,496 followers–Foster was a sprinter in the truest sense of the word. In the 1990’s, and 2000’s he won 6 short-course World Championships in the 50 free and 50 fly, and rarely pushed himself beyond 50 meters, except for the occasional relay appearance. Foster was the original “ageless one,” winning his last World title at 34. Since his retirement, his celebrity has grown as a frequent reality TV participant and big-time philanthropist.
14. Summer Sanders-8,622 followers–Sanders is a legend in American swimming. She is a back-to-back NCAA Swimmer of the Year at Stanford, and in her only Olympic Games (1992) she won four medals (including two gold). But there is a generation of Americans (that is likely Twitter’s biggest demographic) who grew to know Sanders as she slimed celebrities on Nickelodeon and keeping Ahmad Rashad in line on NBA Inside Stuff. Now she mostly Tweets about her life as a mom (though she does leave the occasional Tweet wishing the new generation good luck).
13. Albert Subirats-8,891 followers–Subirats carries the spirits of a continent. Outside of the Brazilian crew, he’s at (or very near) the top of the list of the best South American swimmers ever. Even with the Brazilians, he’s probably in the top 5. Among his accomplishments are a gold at the Dubai World Champs in the 50 fly (short course), and a 2007 World Championship bronze in the 100 fly.
12. Eamon Sullivan-11,317 followers-An Australian, World-Record holding, swimmer? In a country where swimmer’s are treated like rockstars, it’s no surprise that Sullivan, the 2008 Olympic silver medalist in the 100 free, made many mainstream headlines thanks to his 2-year relationship with Stephanie Rice. Rice got the upper hand on the breakup: she has almost twice as many followers as her former beau.
11. Abigail Anderson-13,498 followers-Anderson is the highest-ranked swimmer on this list without an Olympic gold medal, yet she has probably been the most frequently faked personality on the list. Why? No big deal, she’s just the best friend of country/pop superstar Taylor Swift (6,000,000 followers). Her first heartbreak is actually acknowledged as the inspiration for Swift’s song “Fifteen“. She’s no slouch in the pool though: in her junior season at Kansas last year, Anderson scored A-final points at Big 12’s in both the 100 back and 100 fly.
10. Kosuke Kitajima- 15, 647 followers-Shockingly, Kitajima is the only Asian swimmer to make this list. This is despite Japan being the 3rd most active Tweeting nation (with roughly 8% of the international Tweeting market). There might be no better swimmer to carry that mantle though: Kitajima seems to be almost a lock to be the 1st man to ever win an Olympic event in 3 straight Games (he’ll have 2 chances, in both the 100 and 200 breaststroke).
9. Amanda Beard- 16,677 followers- Amanda Beard has ranged the full-spectrum of the American consciousness. Our first glimpse of her was as a 14-year old in Atlanta, clutching a teddy bear as she approached the blocks to win 3 Olympic medals. More than 10 years later, she earned a whole new set of fans thanks to her nude pictorial in Playboy. Now, at 29-years old, she’s made a shocking comeback to the top levels of swimming as a mother, with son Blaise and husband Sacha in tow. And all-the-while, she’s got 7 Olympic medals in her trophy case.
8. Rebecca Adlington-17,704 followers-Adlington is the top European swimmer on the list. Her huge Twitter legion is probably fueled by her two golds at the 2008 Olympics (in the 400 and 800 freestyles), and the UK’s rising interest in the sport ahead of the 2012 Olympics in London. She has led the British invasion of the sport: Since the 1970’s, the British women had won 3 total individual Olympic swimming medals. In 2008 alone, they won 5.
7. Natalie Coughlin-18,386 followers-Within the swimming world, Coughlin is known for her versatility: In 11 Olympic events, she’s won 11 medals. She was also the first swimmer ever to qualify for U.S. Nationals in all 14 events. Her star really exploded, though, when she appeared on ABC’s Dancing With the Stars. She has made numerous other mainstream appearances, including revealing herself as a serious foodie as a judge on an episode of Iron Chef. She’s part of a long list of swimmers who love to eat, including Garrett Weber-Gale (4,848 followers) and Brooke Bennett (373 followers).
6. Stephanie Rice-18,557 followers-Rice is the highest-ranked Australian on the list (it’s almost all Americans from here-on-out), and just barely holds off Coughlin for 6th. She of the 3 Beijing golds is a huge personality in Australia: having modeled everything from Jaguars, to Davenport underwear (with ex-boyfriend #12 Eamon Sullivan-11,317 followers). She is stunning in both.
5. Ryan Lochte-18,834 followers–Lochte, as declared by Bob Bowman (1,975 followers), is the best swimmer in the world right now. Lochte has 6 Olympic medals, and 21-World Championships, to his name already, and is performing at an all-time high. If he does any less than match his medal total in London, I would be shocked. Lochte has been popping up at all sort of events lately, including front-row press from the NBA All-Star game. Phelps may have more medals than Lochte, but Ryan’s got one-up on Twitter: His official-unofficial fan club (Reezy Nation-420 followers) has more followers than Phelps’ official-unofficial fan club (the Phelps Phive & Phriends-267 followers).
4. Mel Stewart-22,898 followers–Stewart’s alter-ego gives away his swimming credentials: he has built a miniature-media empire around his alter ego: Gold Medal Mel. He has 3 individual Olympic medals, including a gold in the 200 fly, from the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. His effervescent personality has led to his well-known Gold Medal Minute spots, as a reporter for ESPN, and even as a film-writer, in penning the remake of the comic-based flick The Phantom.
3. Michael Phelps-24,164 followers–What? The greatest swimmer in the history of time is only 3rd on this list? Well, in all fairness, Phelps was a late-arriver to the game, having only started Tweeting in December, 2010. Even after that, it took him a few months to get “verified” and earn the confidence of his hoards of fans. I’d expect his number of followers to take a jump this summer after the World Championships, and then again during the run-up to the London Olympics (when most of the world remembers that competitive swimming exists).
2. Cesar Cielo-83,144 followers–Cielo is the fastest man to ever enter the pool, and is currently the 50 and 100 freestyle World Record holder. He became so fast so quickly, that it feels like he’s been around a lot longer than he actually has, but 2008 was actually his first Olympics (where he took gold in the 50 free). He’s the second Brazilian on the list, along with #19 Thiago Pereira, which was surprising to me. It shows how far the sport of swimming has ascended in that country.
1. Dara Torres-83,685 followers-Is it really any shock that Torres tops the list? She appeals to so many demographics, not the least of which is swim fans that have been watching her win Olympic medals since 1984. She also has a huge following amongst single mothers (of which she is one), mothers trying to juggle a career with raising children, weekend-warriors, people who believe that their physical fitness doesn’t have to disappear with their 30th (or 40th) birthday, and doesn’t the latter of those encompass just about all of us? Torres has been an inspiration to 10-fold over her number of Twitter followers, and has made people sit up and say “hey, if she can swim at the Olympics at 41, then I can certainly go for a jog in the park!”
Bonus: Cody Simpson-673,872 followers–Haven’t heard of this 14-year old? Well, you soon will: whether you like it or not. Simpson has been hailed as Australia’s response to Justin Bieber (8.8 million followers), though he currently resides in the United States. If you’re wondering how he got on this list, consider the following endorsement from Denis Cotterell, who coached Grant Hackett to the top of the swimming world: “It’s just a matter of whether he can take a sabbatical and give himself two years before the 2016 Games,” he says. “I’d say he’s good enough that he could probably do it.” Simpson broke a 25-year old Queensland Record, and in 2009, his last year as a full-time swimmer, he finaled in 9 events at the Queensland Championship meet, including at least 1 of every discipline, and won 3. As a 12-year old, he posted a 2:24.44 200 butterfly, and a 1:03.6 100 butterfly (in long course meters). Those marks are simply astounding. Here’s to hoping that he’ll return and realize his full potential prior to the 2016 Olympics, because that would truly lift the entire sport to new heights.