While we work our way through another week of the pandemic, the 2021 U.S. Olympic Trials are (hopefully) just a year away. What better way to pass the time than by culling a list of the most highly anticipated Trials races, ranked based on excitement value?
The data is backlogged since we haven’t seen anyone race in months, and we have yet to find out how negatively swimmers have been affected, training-wise, due to COVID-19. But if there’s one thing I can still do, it is make grand speculations on a meet 12 months away.
Author’s Note: This list is based on a solid understanding of the players poised to make the U.S. Olympic team in each pool event. Top times and performances throughout this Olympic cycle have been taken into consideration. Past that, it is purely this writer’s opinion and speculation around which events are most anticipated. If you find yourself typing a comment angrily, I would highly advise you to take a look at the world around you and get a little perspective on why you’re getting so heated about a LIST about a SPORT (for FUN). But I do expect plenty of understandable disagreement; some events are going to be more exciting than others based on your own opinion!
#10 – MEN’S 100 BACK
Perennially a major event for the American men, WR-holder Ryan Murphy has yet to relinquish a roster spot in the 100 back since he made the Rio team.
So, could we see another legendary name (Matt Grevers) alongside Murphy for Tokyo 2021? It’s very possible. Grevers, the 2012 Olympic champion and 2008 Olympic silver medalist in this event, just missed the Rio team. Since then, though, he was back and competing for Team USA at both the 2017 and 2019 World Champs and the 2018 Pan Pacs. His 52.26 from 2017 puts him as the second-fastest American since Rio behind Murphy, and his 52.75 from last summer proves that he’s still got it. He’ll turn 36 next March ahead of Trials, however, and he has someone to worry about: Shaine Casas.
Casas, who has erupted into Olympic team conversation, put together a 52.72 in this race last summer. Both Murphy and Grevers whiffed at Worlds last summer, taking fourth (52.7) and fifth (52.8), respectively. Casas’ 52.72 from 2019 Nationals would’ve been better than both of them and it would’ve been enough to edge out Worlds bronze medalist Mitch Larkin (52.77).
Casas has the hot hand. And Grevers, as exceptional as he’s been in an international career now spanning well over a decade, is not getting younger.
Justin Ress, Michael Andrew and Daniel Carr have shown flares of potential, and all of them were 53.3-53.5 last year. Jacob Pebley doesn’t look to have the pure speed to be a huge factor here, but he was 53.4 last year, too. And we’d be remiss not to mention Dean Farris here, who nearly broke Murphy’s yards American record with a 43.66 at 2019 NCAAs. Farris is back at Harvard this coming NCAA season (the house that built him) and he was 53.9 last year in long course; I’m not sold on him being as big of a factor here as in the 100/200 free, but I will be watching out for him nonetheless.
#9 – MEN’S 200 FLY
The major draw here is Luca Urlando, who all through 2019 built a favorable case for an Olympic team spot in (at least) this event. He broke Michael Phelps’ 200 fly 17-18 NAG record at a PSS stop in June, after all. Urlando wound up dislocating his shoulder in January, sidelining him from regular workouts for a couple of months before he could resume full training a little over a month ago. He’s a swimmer with indomitable talent, and the swimming world was ready to see what he could do in the 2020 Olympic year.
Assuming he continues to full recovery, we could see a magic performance from him in Omaha. And, what’s more, there is going to be a real scramble for the other roster spot. Justin Wright and Zach Harting repped the USA at the 2018 Pan Pacs and 2019 Worlds, though the Americans didn’t earn medals at either Worlds in the few years since Rio. Tom Shields had a strong 2018, was a little quieter in 2019, then dropped a 1:38.8 in this event in yards in February– a lifetime best. Jack Conger has been better in sprint free/fly lately, but he has been 1:54 in the past in this event.
Chase Kalisz and Andrew Seliskar will likely prioritize other events but could be a factor here, and there’s a smattering of in-college swimmers (Miles Smachlo, Jack Levant, Nicolas Albiero, Trenton Julian, Sam Pomajevich) who are not that far back, either.
#8 – WOMEN’S 100 FLY
Kelsi Dahlia has been the face of American sprint fly since Dana Vollmer‘s prime, and while she has not been in top form since 2017, no other American woman has been in 56-second range here. I wouldn’t count Dahlia out in the slightest.
But even the prepared, seasoned pros can go down. And even if Regan Smith doesn’t swim this event (she told NBC that she wouldn’t in January, not that this event really conflicts much with her other events), the age group stars have put the pressure on.
Torri Huske and Claire Curzan have quickly become big threats to Dahlia, both venturing into 57-second territory last summer (along with Lillie Nordmann at 57.9) as Huske torched Mary T. Meagher’s 38-year-old 15-16 NAG record and Curzan, at 15, also edged the record right behind Huske. Youth improvement curves can be terrifying; it is very possible that these teenagers are all down into the 56’s next summer. It’s harder to predict their trajectory, too, with COVID-19 keeping us from getting a litmus test on where they’re all at right now.
In total, between summer 2019 and now, nine American women have been 57-seconds in this race, led by Dahlia at 57.0. The resilient Katie McLaughlin (57.2) and Smith (57.3) track right on Dahlia’s heels, but all eight behind her are well within striking distance, including Amanda Kendall (57.5), Kendyl Stewart (57.5) and Aly Tetzloff (57.7). Plus, Erika Brown was 49.3 in yards at SECs (the fastest American ever in yards) and hit a lifetime best 58.7 at Des Moines; she’s shown better progress so far in long course free, though, than fly.
#7 – WOMEN’S 100 FREE
There is no questioning the pure talent of Simone Manuel‘s sprinting; she decimated the field at 2019 Worlds with an American record 52.04, putting her well clear of any other American performance in history. Only Mallory Comerford has joined Manuel under 53.1 since Rio, and Comerford still stands as the only other American woman to break 53 seconds, ever.
Comerford hasn’t matched or improved upon her 52.5 from 2017, but she was 52.9 in both 2018 and 2019. Meanwhile, Abbey Weitzeil, whose 53.18 last summer made her the #4 American all-time, is back on an upswing. Weitzeil was a teenage sprint phenom who had trouble improving in LCM in college, but her time last summer was her first improvement in the event since 2016. After a very strong final NCAA season, too, Weitzeil is whittling down to that 52-second range.
It seems reasonable to say those three are safe bets for a relay spot at least, and the most in contention right now for the two individual spots. When we talk about momentum, though, it’s Erika Brown and Gretchen Walsh to really look out for.
Brown became the #2 SCY performer ever in this event with a 45.83 at 2020 SECs, putting her just behind Manuel’s record time of 45.56. It’s certainly not as shiny as when Manuel broke 46 for the first time, but that was a remarkable swim. She went 53.42 in this event in LCM at the U.S. Open in December.
Walsh, meanwhile, has continued to climb the ranks. She’s gone from 56.12 in 2017, to 54.38 in 2018, to 53.74 last year; she’s the #7 performer out of all American women in this event since Rio and the #5 performer since summer 2018, just ahead of Allison Schmitt‘s 53.80 from Des Moines in March. The rising high school senior has a long, strong stroke, and like I’ve noted for other young stars, another year to develop can make all the difference.
Margo Geer and Lia Neal have been inconsistent the last couple of seasons, but they both have 53-mid potential, which could be enough to squeak into sixth. Then there’s Kelsi Dahlia, Olivia Smoliga, the back-and-better Natalie Hinds, Katie McLaughlin and Catie Deloof who sit on the 53/54 bubble.
And, just when you thought this blurb was done, let me remind you that Katie Ledecky has been 53.7 flat-start (in-season) and split a 52.64 in Rio.
#6 – WOMEN’S 200 FREE
While she’s been off in her longer races, Katie Ledecky can usually throw down at least a 1:56-low in the middle of the season at a non-championship meet, and this race is certainly hers to lose at OTs. It’ll always be fun to see her race a 200 free, though there’s more to this race than Ledecky.
Allison Schmitt still holds the Olympic record from her gold medal-worthy performance in this event in London in 2012, but her journey since then has been rocky. Fighting through missed international rosters and mental health issues, Schmitt battled back onto the Rio team before going quiet again in 2017. Then, she finished second in this race at 2018 Nationals with a 1:55.82, securing her spot on the 2018 Pan Pac roster and 2019 Worlds roster.
In January at the Knoxville PSS Stop, Schmitt’s 1:56.01 shows that she’s still got it.
Last summer at Worlds, Simone Manuel dropped a lifetime best 1:56.09 leading off the 4×200 free relay, and she’s never claimed an individual roster spot in this event. Neither has Katie McLaughlin, whose 1:56.48 from the Santa Clara International Meet ranks her as the fourth-best American since summer 2018, well ahead of fifth-place Leah Smith.
Smith has been as fast as 1:55.9, though, while Gabby Deloof and Melanie Margalis have been 1:56-mids since Rio and Mallory Comerford was 1:56.9 in 2017. Then there are a few 1:57’s in the mix — NCAA standouts Paige Madden and Brooke Forde, plus recent grad and yards sprint sensation Erika Brown, who continues to develop her long course prowess.
The young crowd is big, too. Regan Smith was 1:58.4 at a non-focus meet in 2019, and she could be deadly if she swims this event at Trials (though it doesn’t seem super likely). Claire Tuggle was 1:58.21 last summer at 15 years old, Justina Kozan was 1:59.21 at 15, and Erin Gemmell was 1:59.85 at 14. One more year of development could be all the difference.
#5 – MEN’S 200 IM
Chase Kalisz was not on in this event in 2019, but he was much better here than in the 400 IM. That said, between the resurgent Ryan Lochte (who probably has his best [and maybe, really, his only?] Olympic shot in this event), a Michael Andrew who is figuring out how to pace this race, and the pure rising talent of the young Carson Foster, this event is going to be a huge battle.
MA had a breakthrough in this event at the Des Moines PSS in March, going 1:56.83. He hasn’t yet put together a roaring free leg in this race, and in this field, that could truly spell his demise. But he was still able to go a 1:56 with a 30-plus final 50, so at a certain point, we’re going to have to get over his sluggish finish. Foster continues to climb his way to the big leagues, having gone 1:57.59 at the U.S. Open in December, while Lochte is actually tied this season with the quiet but dangerous Sam Stewart (1:57.76). Stewart has been attached to the YMCA Hub Fins in Mississippi after swimming 3.5 seasons with Texas; whatever he’s doing, it’s been working.
Andrew Seliskar hit a lifetime best 1:58.01 in Des Moines, though the fly and free are still where he’s found his speed in LCM. But with a 1:45 in the 200 free, a 51.3 100 fly, a 1:01 100 breast from high school, and 46.8/1:41 SCY back speed from high school, it isn’t difficult to imagine him around a 1:56 next summer.
We haven’t seen him at his best since 2017, but Abrahm Devine‘s 1:56.79 from three years ago still ranks him as the best American behind Kalisz since Rio, for what that’s worth. He has been 1:57.7 since. And, finally, Shaine Casas cannot be overlooked. He’s been 1:58.5 (from the Art Adamson mid-season invite last NCAA season), and his 1:39.9 from 2020 SECs made him the #4 American performer in yards history.
#4 – WOMEN’S 200 IM
Like in the 400 IM, there are a bunch of major players in this event, and the view of what this event will look like next summer is murky. Melanie Margalis has been consistently peaking in the 2:08-2:09 range at major meets, and she can be considered a favorite based on her dependability in this event. With her speed in the 200 free and her recent drops in the 400 IM, it’s hard to bet against Margalis coming home on that free leg.
Then there’s Kathleen Baker, who went 2:08.7 at the FNN Golden Tour stop in Nice, France, in February. It’s not surprising that Baker is an incredible IM’er; we’ve known that since she was an exceptional high school backstroke recruit who casually brought a 59.3 100y breast time to the table. But she broke 2:11 for the first time in 2018 with a huge 2:08.3 at 2018 Nationals, which added another event (and discipline) to her international meet lineup. That February 2:08 proves that her 2018 Nats swim was not a fluke, and she does look to be back from her 2018-19 plateau.
Cox’s 2:09.0 from Des Moines surpassed her previous top two performances ever from 2017 Nationals and 2019 Worlds, and this is her best event in long course. After a doping ban for taking Trimetazidine (which she claims she did not know was present in a multivitamin she ingested) initially threw a wrench in her 2020 Olympic plans, Cox had her ban reduced and has been back in training. Now that the Olympics (and Trials) are in 2021, she has to figure out if the timing still allows for her to attend med school in fall 2021; if Cox is swimming at Trials, though, there’s no denying her grit and determination to make this team.
Walsh, meanwhile, dropped her 2:09.0 at the U.S. Open in December, going head-to-head with Margalis in a very tight race (Margalis won in 2:08.8). Walsh went from 2:11.8 to 2:11.2 between summer 2018 and summer 2019. Since last summer, though, she’s cleared the 2:10 mark and nearly the 2:09 barrier. Walsh is the least-proven of the other three leading women, but her U.S. Open swim showed her ability to hang with a great finisher like Margalis.
Ella Eastin was 2:10.7 last year and has been as fast as 2:09.9, while young names Justina Kozan and Torri Huske (both 2:11 last year) and the buzz-worthy Kate Douglass (2:12.1 in December, dropped five seconds in yards to 1:51.3 in her NCAA debut season) linger.
#3 – MEN’S 200 FREE
This event has a very, very concentrated field. It’s going to be the tightest final, in my opinion, behind only the men’s 100 free.
There have been 13 American men under 1:47 since Rio, and only one (Conor Dwyer) is out of commission. If you don’t remember, it came out last year that Dwyer had testosterone pellets surgically inserted and was consequently slapped with a 20-month ban that will life in August of this year. Feasibly, he could compete at 2021 Trials, but it doesn’t seem like that is in the cards.
Meanwhile, Townley Haas and Andrew Seliskar have led the American men; both have dipped into 1:45 range at least five times (Haas five, and Seliskar six) since Rio. Haas also hit 1:45’s on multiple occasions in 2016. Since summer 2018, Seliskar’s 1:45.71 from 2019 Worlds leads all Americans, with Haas the only other sub-1:46 since then with a 1:45.92 from the 2019 U.S. Open in December.
Internationally, the Americans have lost control over the 4×200 free relay in which they’d been so dominant, and they haven’t been a major medal threat in the 200 free individually in a long time. The pressure is on to change that next year, and there are plenty of rising talents ready to step up.
Kieran Smith had already made enormous leaps in long course last summer before his historical 500 free (and overall spectacular meet) at 2020 SECs. He was the top American at 2019 Nationals with a 1:46.21, and he may well break 1:46 before Trials next year (if competitions resume by then, of course). Then there’s the famed Dean Farris, the SCY American, NCAA and U.S. Open record-holder who has galvanized the SwimSwam comment section. Memes aside, Farris brings a lot of front-end speed in his approach to this race, and his 1:46.4 from last summer puts him at #4 since summer 2018.
Luca Urlando was 1:46.5 last summer, and the young mid-distance stalwart is so dangerous over the back-half of a 200. He’s back training from his shoulder dislocation injury and is ranked fifth here since 2018 (by the way, he didn’t break 1:50 until 2019).
It’s a testament to the depth here that I’ve gone this long without mentioning Blake Pieroni, the only other American to break 1:46 since Rio besides Seliskar and Haas. He was 1:45.93 at 2018 Nationals and 1:46.62 last year. Then, there’s hardly a drop-off in the next group of sprinters with legitimate potential for individual spots: Zach Apple (1:46.7), Maxime Rooney (1:46.7), Drew Kibler (1:47.1), Mark Theall (1:47.1), Caeleb Dressel (1:47.3), Patrick Callan (1:47.3), Carson Foster (1:47.4), Trenton Julian (1:47.7).
I’m not even going to try to guess whether or not Dressel swims this next year, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he threw down a 1:45 or better next summer if he swims it. This list simply gets better when considering swimmers who weren’t great in this event since summer 2018 but were really good in 2017 and 2018: Zane Grothe was 1:46.3 in 2017, Jack Levant was 1:46.3 in 2018, Jack Conger was 1:46.8 in 2018 and Grant House was 1:46.9 in 2018.
#2 – WOMEN’S 100 BACK
Few races could more exciting than a showdown between the two fastest 100 backstrokers in history, and this race is shaping up to be between four world-class swimmers, meaning two Olympic medal contenders in this event could get left home.
Regan Smith comes in at 57.57, her WR time from leading off the U.S. WR-setting 4×100 medley relay last summer at Worlds. It’s hard to imagine, but at 2018 U.S. Nationals (the qualifier for 2018 Pan Pacs and 2019 Worlds), Smith only made the team in the 200 back.
Before Smith’s rise to backstroke fame, it was Kathleen Baker in 2018 who broke the WR with a 58.00, her most impressive performance to date. Despite her plateau in the year or so following, Baker has righted the course with a big Des Moines PSS showing, which included a 58.56 in this event.
Since Rio, Baker and Olivia Smoliga have been top two at every trial meet in this event. Smoliga broke through to make her first major international roster by winning at the 2016 Trials and went on to take sixth in this race in Rio. She’s competed in this event at 2017 Worlds, 2018 Pan Pacs and 2019 Worlds (bronze), and she’s the reigning 50 back world champion. At the 2019 PSS stop in Richmond, she hit her PR 58.73, but will almost definitely need to be better than that to make the team next year.
The fourth major contender here is Phoebe Bacon, another teenager who has quickly risen to world-class status. Bacon was on the radar, like fellow teenagers Isabelle Stadden and Katharine Berkoff, until she stunned Smith at the 2019 U.S. Open and became an Olympic-level threat. Dropping a 58.63, she knocked off Smith (58.68) in a gutsy swim just four months after Smith’s earth-shattering Worlds performance. Bacon sits right in between Baker and Smoliga at third in this Olympic cycle among Americans.
Stadden, who will have a season at Cal under her belt by next summer, is more of a 200 backstroker. That said, she was 59.69 last summer, breaking 1:00 for the first time in 2019. Berkoff, who is heading into her sophomore year at NC State, capped off her summer 2019 with a 59.29 in this race and a gold medal at the 2019 World University Games. Butterfly specialist Claire Curzan, who only turns 17 next summer, was 1:00.00 in 2019 shortly after she turned 15, and Gretchen Walsh is another young name to bookmark here; she was 1:00.26 last summer.
To throw one more name out there, Amy Bilquist was third at 2016 Trials (59.37), and despite leg injuries that have plagued her, she was 59.64 last summer and again 59.9 at the U.S. Open.
#1 – MEN’S 100 FREE
In addition to featuring Caeleb Dressel, one of the best swimmers in history, this event’s top two/six is going to be impossible to predict. To save some words, we’re going to list out the top Americans in this event from the 2019 calendar year alone:
AMERICAN 100 FREE RANKINGS, 1/1/2019 – 12/31/2019
- Caeleb Dressel – 46.96 (2019 Worlds)
- Ryan Held – 47.39 (2019 U.S. Nationals)
- Maxime Rooney – 47.61 (2019 U.S. Nationals)
- Zach Apple – 47.69 (2019 U.S. Open)
- Blake Pieroni – 47.87 (2019 Worlds)
- Tate Jackson – 47.88 (2019 Summer Nationals)
- Dean Farris – 48.07 (2019 Summer Nationals)
- Nathan Adrian – 48.17 (2019 Pan Am Games)
- Robert Howard – 48.37 (2019 Summer Nationals)
- Jack Conger – 48.47 (2019 Summer Nationals)
- Daniel Krueger – 48.55 (2019 Summer Nationals)
- Townley Haas – 48.60 (2019 Worlds)
- Michael Chadwick – 48.70 (2019 PSS – Clovis)
- Andrew Seliskar – 48.80 (2019 FINA World Cup – Tokyo)
- Bowe Becker – 48.85 (2019 U.S. Nationals Time Trial)
- Jacob Molacek – 48.86 (2019 North Carolina LC Senior Champs)
Indeed, the entire cast of semifinalists here may well be under 49 seconds. Several 48’s might not even make it to the semifinals. A 47 might not even make the final!
As for who will snag the two individual spots… can we even predict Dressel will be top two *that* safely? If he’s absolutely on, there’s little doubt that he’d win this. But, if he’s saving a bit in the tank, he could be vulnerable. what if a 47-low isn’t enough to be top two?
This field is so interesting; there’s American relay hero and a longtime face of the sport, Nathan Adrian, who has beaten testicular cancer and is back to his typical consistency. This could be it for his career, though, if he doesn’t make the team here. There’s a huge crop of recent NCAA grads at varying points of their prime; some have been very good at the beginning of the Olympic cycle and have fallen back a bit, some have been up and down, and some have been gaining momentum lately.
Two of the contenders here with major recent upswing are Ryan Held and Maxime Rooney. Held rose to international acclaim with his help on the U.S. 4×100 free relay gold in Rio, his podium tears immortalized in that iconic photo with a grinning Michael Phelps by his side. But in 2017, Held was just seventh in this event at Worlds Trials, and he was relegated to the WUGs roster. He missed again in 2018, costing him roster spots for 2018 Pan Pacs and 2019 Worlds.
But late in summer 2019, Held showed up. He won the U.S. Nationals title with a 47.43, breaking the U.S. Open record and going faster than his relay split from Rio. At that meet, Rooney was 47.61, another huge swim out of the recent Texas grad. Rooney, like Held, set high expectations for his career before falling short for a few seasons. The former Longhorn (and former Florida Gator) was a major age group standout whose progressions faltered in long course in college. He was more of a 200 freestyler, too, but the 100 free and 100 fly have all but emerged as his primary events.
Most of the recent (or current) college guys here have been built by powerhouse D1 programs. Except, of course, for Harvard’s Dean Farris. Farris’s swimming has now matched his fan hype, and he’s right in the mix for a relay spot here, if not an individual spot.
Lastly, if there’s someone down the list to root for to break into this incredibly crowded upper tier, look no further than Brooks Curry. Last summer, between high school and college, he went 50.08 to take third at U.S. Junior Nationals. His best time before 2019 was 53.87. At his first SECs for LSU, Curry went 41.81 in this race in yards and won the SEC title (he came to college with a 44.53). SCY progression doesn’t always mean the same improvements in long course, but don’t be surprised if you see his name in the final next summer.