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!
#20 – MEN’S 1500 FREE
The 1500 will see Robert Finke in his true element. At the 2018 Pan Pacs, Jordan Wilimovsky won gold (14:46.93), Zane Grothe won silver (14:48.40), and Finke finished third (14:48.70). There was no opportunity for bronze for Finke, since just two per country are eligible for medals. But, as we know, Finke took a massive leap past all the big records (by over six seconds!) in the 1650 yard free in February.
Besides the aforementioned three, only IU redshirt sophomore-t0-be Michael Brinegar (15:00), incoming Harvard freshman Arik Katz (15:05) and Cal alum Nick Norman (15:09) were under 15:10 in 2019. Finke’s potential, alone, is definitely worth getting excited over.
#19 – WOMEN’S 50 FREE
Besides Simone Manuel, the American women haven’t had a sprinter step up to legitimately contend for international medals in this event.
That said, we just saw a massive NCAA season (albeit an incomplete one) from both Abbey Weitzeil, who went 20.90 in the 50 flat-start free, and Erika Brown, who nearly broke 21, too (21.03). In long course, Weitzeil was 24.4 at 2019 Worlds and Brown was 24.5 at the Knoxville PSS stop in January 2020. Weitzeil has fought past some minor injuries and had her best LCM season in a long time after plateauing a bit in long course while at Cal, while Brown has had a major upward trajectory the last couple of seasons.
Manuel, of course, is always an incredible performer to watch. And then there’s Gretchen Walsh, whose youth suggests she can leap down at least a few tenths and make this really tight. Walsh was 24.7 last summer.
#18 – MEN’S 400 FREE
In this event, Zane Grothe will be in the mix, while more endurance-oriented stars like Wilimovsky and Finke won’t be quite as lethal (Finke is definitely better down to the 400 than Wilimovsky is, though).
But here comes the intrigue: 500 freestyler American/NCAA/U.S. Open record holder Kieran Smith. The rising University of Florida junior embodies the idea of ‘long and strong’ in the water, and exploded last NCAA season alongside with a 4:06 in the 500 free at SECs. Smith sounded very confident about his Olympic chances when I spoke to him for the 2021 Olympic Preview edition of SwimSwam Magazine, but I don’t need to hear him speak to believe that he is going to shake things up next summer. He and Finke were 3:47 and 3:48 in 2019, while Grothe (3:45.7) and incoming Michigan freshman Jake Mitchell (3:47.9) are still worthy contenders. Townley Haas has focused on the 200 in long course, but he was 3:46 in 2017 (then just 3:53 in 2018 at Pan Pacs).
Smith has zeroed in on the 200 and 400 free in long course; his 2021 will be big.
#17 – WOMEN’S 400 IM
This event is truly wide-open, which makes it kind of a mystery. We had the era of Elizabeth Beisel and Maya Dirado, which gave way to Leah Smith proving her credentials as an IM’er (and Katie Ledecky, though Ledecky hasn’t done this race at a Trials). We’ve seen Ella Eastin do incredible things in yards, but hit multiple roadblocks in long course, including an untimely bout of mononucleosis and a controversial DQ in this event at 2017 Worlds Trials. Ally McHugh and Brooke Forde have gotten into the mid-4:30’s. Emma Weyant went from a strong UVA recruit to the 2019 Summer National champion (4:35.4) in her first time under 4:40.
Then, in March, the versatile Melanie Margalis dropped a 4:32.5 in Des Moines. It was a huge performance and an unexpected swim; as skilled as Margalis is, she had never broken 4:35 before and typically has focused on the 200 IM/200 free at trial meets. The American women haven’t had a consistent face in this event in several years, and 2021 will see who rises to the challenge.
#16 – WOMEN’S 1500 FREE
This will be the first time that the American women will compete for an Olympic roster spot in this event, as the event has been added to the Olympic slate for the first time in history. In the all-holy Olympic year, we finally, FINALLY, *finally* get to see women race this event.
Katie Ledecky‘s WR in the 1500 is the most recent of her WR collection; her 15:20.48 from a PSS stop is from 2018, while her other two WRs are from 2016. I don’t know what that means for 2021, though.
Meanwhile, as I noted earlier about Erica Sullivan, that mile performance in December was really outstanding. Leah Smith has shown her excellence in the 200/400/800 range but the 1500 feels like a bit of a stretch for her, and she didn’t even compete in it at 2018 Summer Nationals (the qualifier for Pan Pacs and 2019 Worlds). Sullivan is setting herself up for a fantastic race here, and she’s closest to making the team in the pool in this event as she’s firmly ranked #2 behind Ledecky since summer 2018. Watch out for open water stars like Ashley Twichell and Haley Anderson, though.
#15 – WOMEN’S 200 BACK
It’s Regan Smith‘s world, and we’re just living in it. Last summer, she blasted a 2:03.35 in this event to win the 2019 World title and take down Missy Franklin’s 2012 WR, and it’s scary how far ahead of the world (and the country) she is right now.
Only Kathleen Baker (2:06.14) and Lisa Bratton (2:07.91) have even been under 2:08 for the Americans since Rio, too. While Baker had a lull after Pan Pacs, she was quite good in the 2019-20 season, including a 2:06.4 in this event in Des Moines in March, just off her best.
Isabelle Stadden and Alex Walsh are two members of the teenage uprising in American women’s backstroke right now, and both are knocking on the 2:08 barrier. We can’t forget about Rye Ulett, either; at 14 last summer, she dropped a 2:09.70 at Nationals, becoming the #9-ranked U.S. performer in this event between fall 2018 and now. She had never been under 2:13 until that meet.
#14 – MEN’S 400 IM
It feels like not too long ago that Chase Kalisz took the reigns from iconic American IMers Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte. He’s done well, too, over the last few years, with golds in both IM events at the 2017 World Champs. He was 4:05.90 in 2017, well ahead of the next-best American this Olympic cycle: Jay Litherland, who was 4:09.22 in 2019.
The gap has closed on Kalisz, though, who slipped significantly last year. A shake-up is due in this event.
At 2019 Worlds, while Litherland nearly unseated Japan’s Daiya Seto for gold, Kalisz was 4:15-plus in a lackluster prelims performance and missed the final altogether.
The door is open, then, for Charlie Swanson, the 2019 Pan Ams champion (4:11.46). It’s open for Ryan Lochte, if he goes for this event again next year; he went 4:18.95 in Des Moines in March, though he hasn’t been under 4:12 since 2016 Trials where he was 4:11.9. Robert Finke could pull something off here, as could teenage phenom Carson Foster or former World Junior Record-holder Sean Grieshop. All three were at 4:13’s last year.
#13 – WOMEN’S 200 FLY
Hali Flickinger is consistently very good, and we’ll see if her move to Bob Bowman and the ASU pro group will pay off. Katie Drabot is also consistently very good. But the big question is: will Regan Smith include this event in her Omaha lineup? And, if so, just how fast can she go? One would think Smith is capable of a 2:04 or better; she went a 2:07.2 at U.S. Nationals after her WR-setting backstroke performances at Worlds all the way out in Gwangju. Then, in Des Moines this spring, she dropped a 2:06.3; if she swims this, she’s a huge contender for an Olympic team spot.
The youth talent in this race is remarkable, too. Last Trials, we saw 16-year-olds Cassidy Bayer and Ruby Martin just miss the Olympic team, finishing third and fourth, respectively. In that race, only the top four women actually broke 2:10. Between Flickinger, Drabot, and Smith, high school-ers Lillie Nordmann (2:07.4), Charlotte Hook (2:07.6) and Justina Kozan (2:09.6), and the slew of other college kids (your Dakota Luthers, Olivia Carters), it could take a 2:08 or better to even make the final.
Bonus storyline: At 29, Leah Gingrich went a lifetime best 2:09.8 at 2019 Summer Nationals. She took six years off the sport after finishing her career with Texas at the 2012 NCAA Championships. Should she compete at 2021 Trials, it’ll be her first OTs since 2008.
#12 – WOMEN’S 200 BREAST
Annie Lazor has had an incredible post-NCAA glow up in this event and leads the way with a 2:20.7 from the 2019 PSS stop in Bloomington. This race has a crowded field, and it’s an event where the Americans have not had the same domination they’ve had in the 100. Several women have played musical chairs with major international roster spots here; Lilly King and Molly Hannis were top two in Omaha in 2016 but neither made the Olympic final, King and Bethany Galat were top two in 2017, and Galat went on to snag silver at Worlds while King settled for fourth. Micah Sumrall came out of the woodwork in 2018 to win the Pan Pacs gold with King grabbing silver, but a disastrous 2019 saw King DQ in the prelims and Sumrall miss the final.
King has made every team in this event since Rio, despite her performances being inconsistent. There’s big competition here, though. Sumrall has had a resurgence after several quiet years, and Emily Escobedo is following a similar post-grad trajectory to Lazor. Since summer 2018, behind Lazor are King (2:21.3), Galat (2:21.8) and Escobedo (2:22.0).
#11 – MEN’S 100 FLY
Who will join Caeleb Dressel up top?
Maxime Rooney unearthed a 50.68 last summer, and he progressed in most of his events in a cut-short season at Texas after three years at Florida. That could become a 49 by next summer. Jack Conger was 51.00 at a PSS meet in 2018 and has been 51.2 since.
Then there’s Cal post-grad Andrew Seliskar, mid-major Towson alum Jack Saunderson, and Michael Andrew who were all 51.3’s last season. Seliskar has the 200 free and MA the 200 IM/100 breast/50 free to prioritize, though.
What I’m most excited about is potentially seeing more than one 49 out of a somewhat young leading group. Plus, Tom Shields had a strong 2019 with a 51.5 in this race at Pan Ams. His 1:38.8 lifetime best in the 200y fly from February suggests he’s still got some fight in him, too.