As we kick off the year 2016, SwimSwam is taking a multi-faceted look at the biggest storyline of the coming season: rosters for the Rio Olympic Games.
We already took a bird’s-eye look at the top contender in each event with our formcharts (men’s and women’s) for the year 2015, and we’ll be looking closer at each individual event as Olympic Trials draw nearer.
But for now, let’s take a different approach, dealing more with the traditional makeup of the U.S. Olympic swim team based on age and Olympic experience before looking at the specific swimmers who could fit into those categories.
We broke down every U.S. Olympic swim team going back to the 2000 Sydney Games based on two categories: age and experience. Specifically, we looked for how many 18-and-under swimmers made each team, as well as how many 30-and-older swimmers did the same, plus broke the teams down into athletes with previous Olympic appearances and “new” Olympians.
*Note: ages are based on the historic Olympic rosters on usaswimming.org, which typically calculates an athlete’s age during the Olympic Games themselves, rather than during the Olympic Trials. We’re using that cutoff for our lists of 2016 contenders as well, which eliminates a few big names like Katie Ledecky, Katie McLaughlin and Kathleen Baker.
Predicting Olympic Team Composition By Age
18 & Unders
- Men’s Average: 1 per Olympic team
- Women’s Average: 4.75 per Olympic team
Every year since 2000, the U.S. Olympic team has featured a small handful of young talents, though much more frequently on the women’s side than the men’s. In fact, only 4 men 18 years old or younger have made the U.S. Olympic team in the 21st century, three of them in the year 2000. That team featured 17-year-old Ian Crocker, 17-year-old Aaron Peirsol and a 15-year-old Michael Phelps. The most recent 18-and-under male on the U.S. Olympic team was Larsen Jensen in 2004.
Since then, the youngest age of a member of the men’s team has gone up significantly. In 2008, a 19-year-old Nathan Adrian was the most youthful member of the U.S. men’s Olympic team, and in 2012, it was a pair of 21-year-olds (Andrew Gemmell and Connor Jaeger) on the lower end of the age spectrum.
On the women’s side, though, there are typically many more spots for under-18 athletes. Since 2000, the team has averaged just under 5 juniors per Olympic cycle, including 4 in London.
Further, each women’s Olympic team from 2004 onwards has featured at least one swimmer 16 years old or younger: 15-year-old Katie Hoff and 16-year-old Dana Vollmer in Athens, 15-year-old Elizabeth Beisel and 16-year-old Chloe Sutton in Beijing and 15-year-old Katie Ledecky in London.
The number of under-18 women on the Olympic team has dipped some since 2000, but not nearly as much as on the men’s side. 7 juniors made the women’s Olympic team in 2000, and though the number sank to 2 in 2008, it doubled again to 4 in 2012.
Let’s lay out some of the top contenders, then select some way-too-early predictions based on the averages discussed above.
As much as young talents have captivated have captivated SwimSwam readers of late, it would be a major historical shift for a large number of 18-and-under boys to make the U.S. team for Rio. Still, though, with the explosion of age group swimming over the past few years, 2016 might finally be the year junior men break their way back onto the U.S. Olympic team.
(ages as of the end of the 2016 Olympic Games)
- Maxime Rooney (18): 100 free, 200 free
- Ryan Hoffer (18): 100 free
- Michael Andrew (17): 100 breast
- Sean Grieshop (17): 400 IM
- Reece Whitley (16): 200 breast
With only 1 swimmer to pick, we’ll go with Rooney, the junior world record-holder in the 200 free. Rooney seems somewhat more likely than the field given his best two events are relay selection races that will select up to 6 swimmers each for the Olympic team.
If history holds on the women’s side, it’s less a question of “if” and more a question of “who” regarding juniors on the Olympic team. But the list is fairly wide open, especially with World Champs team members Katie Ledecky, Kathleen Baker and Katie McLaughlin all turning 19 before the end of the Olympic Games. With that in mind, here are some of the top female contenders.
- Becca Mann (18): 800 free
- Amy Bilquist (18): 50 free, 100 free
- Claire Adams (17): 100 back, 200 back
- Cassidy Bayer (16): 200 fly, 100 fly
- Alex Walsh (14): 200 back
- Sierra Schmidt (18): 400 free, 800 free
- Erin Voss (18): 200 back
- Lauren Case (18): 200 fly, 100 fly
- Meghan Small (18): 200 IM
- Erin Earley (17): 200 back
- Courtney Harnish (17): 200 fly, 400 free
- Hannah Kukurugya (17): 200 fly
- Eva Merrell (16): 100 fly
- Grace Ariola (16): 200 back
Picking 5 out of this wide crew is difficult. The backstrokes seem the most loaded with young talent, but with Missy Franklin and Natalie Coughlin at the top, it’s far from wide open to the host of young guns. Still, former junior world record-holder Adams seems like the best bet there. We’ll go with Walsh to keep the streak of 15-and-unders making the team, as she’s currently the top contender out of that age group. Bilquist gets the relay bump for her 100 free, and Mann was nearly an open water Olympian and has a great shot at the 800. Tough call between Merrell and Bayer for a fly spot, but we’ll take Bayer at this early juncture because she has solid opportunities in two events to Merrell’s one.
30 & Overs
- Men’s Average: 1 per Olympic team
- Women’s Average: 0.75 per Olympic team
The men’s team has the exact opposite trend with older swimmers compared to its under-18s. Where juniors have grown scarce on the men’s Olympic team, swimmers 30-and-older had a huge run in 2012, nabbing 3 spots after taking just 1 in the previous three Olympiads combined.
The three were concentrated very much around sprints: Anthony Ervin (31) and Jason Lezak (36) in the freestyles and Brendan Hansen (30) in breaststroke.
The only previous over-30 since 200 was Lezak, who made the 2008 team at age 32.
Meanwhile for the women, there has seemed to be one “token” older swimmer in each Olympic meet. Dara Torres was 33 in 2000, Jenny Thompson 31 in 2004 and Torres 41 in rejoining the 2008 team. In 2012, Natalie Coughlin was the oldest female at 29, and she looks like a good bet to retain the role in 2016.
- Ryan Lochte (32): 200 IM, 200 free, 100 free, 200 back
- Michael Phelps (31): 100 fly, 200 fly, 200 IM, 100 free
- Matt Grevers (31): 100 back, 200 back, 100 free
- David Plummer (30): 100 back
- Anthony Ervin (35): 50 free, 100 free
- Cullen Jones (32): 50 free, 100 free
- Marcus Titus (30): 100 breast
Looking at that list of names, it seems incredibly likely that the number of over-30s increases with the 2016 Olympic team. Phelps and Lochte are very probable Olympians. Grevers and Plummer are both strong bets, though the backstrokes are loaded domestically. Titus is in a similarly crowded breaststroke, but the unlike backstroke, there isn’t a world-class standout there yet. Ervin had a rough 2015 World Championships but a 2016 bounce-back wouldn’t be a surprise at all, and Jones is a swimmer one should never count out in an Olympic qualifying year.
We’ll cheat on our own self-imposed rules here and pick 4, because only 1 over-30 swimmer making the men’s team would be a pretty huge surprise at this point.
- Natalie Coughlin (33): 50 free, 100 free, 100 back
- Amanda Weir (30): 50 free, 100 free
The women’s side appear pretty close to recent history, with only a pair of swimmers putting up 2015 times that keep them in the hunt. The plus side for both: Coughlin and Weir both swim the relay-event 100 freestyle, which boosts chances of making the Olympic team in 2016.
Experience – Does It Matter?
We also looked at Olympic experience on the previous four iterations of the team, finding that repeat Olympians are on the rise since 2000. Here’s the data itself:
Based on these numbers, we should expect to see 25-30 brand-new Olympians anointed this summer between the two genders, with 20-25 previous Olympians making return trips to the squad.
For reference: based on last year’s U.S. National Team qualifying times, a hypothetical U.S. Olympic Team selected from those times would feature 8 returning male Olympians and 9 returning female Olympians. To complement them, the team would feature 18 new male Olympians and 13 new females.
We broke down the idea of international and Olympic experience further in a separate piece from last fall. You can find that here.