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 have built up the most excitement. 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!
So, without further ado, here is every 2021 U.S. Olympic Trials event, ranked from least to most highly anticipated. We’ll start with #28 through #21 today, then get to #20 to #11 on Wednesday and finish with #10 to #1 on Friday.
#28 – MEN’S 200 BREAST
Will Licon and Andrew Wilson dropped 2:07-mids in this event in 2019, and while Kevin Cordes and American record-holder Josh Prenot have been a bit quicker than that in their careers, the latter two have not been able to match their prime these last couple of seasons. An Andrew Wilson Olympic berth would be the first NCAA Division III-grown Olympic berth, and young names like Joshua Matheny, Daniel Roy and Reece Whitley are lurking, but I’m not chomping at the bit for this race. There has to be a #28 on this list, and this is it.
#27 – MEN’S 50 FREE
Before you all come for my throat, let me state that I am wholeheartedly excited for each and every race at the 2021 Trials! Now, having said that, Caeleb Dressel and Michael Andrew are the only Americans to have broken 21.80 since the last Olympics. This is by no means a shoo-in; I am well aware of the U.S. sprint machine. And Dressel is never boring to watch. But this race really does not have the heart-pounding implications that the 100 and 200 free have on the men’s side.
#26 – WOMEN’S 100 BREAST
This is one of the races where we don’t have to think too hard about one of the Olympic team slots, as all signs point to another dominating year of Lilly King in this event. While King hasn’t gone a best since 2017, she still popped a 1:04.9 in 2019, and no other Americans broke 1:06 last year. While better in the 200, Annie Lazor‘s 1:06.0 last year put her at the #2 slot ahead of Molly Hannis (1:06.4) and Breeja Larson (1:06.7), while incoming USC freshman Kaitlyn Dobler put herself on the map with a 1:06.9 at World Jr Champs. It’ll be fun to see who can push through for the second spot, but Lazor has a lot of momentum here.
#25 – WOMEN’S 400 FREE
We know! We know, we know, we know. Obviously, Katie Ledecky could get sick (she did last year at Worlds!). We cannot discount what fate has in store. But we know with almost complete certainty what will happen here, and we can be pretty darn sure about who will get second (Leah Smith). What could be fun is seeing Smith challenge the four-minute barrier, and with Ledecky and Smith as good as they are, we could see several other women go under 4:05 and still miss the team.
#24 – MEN’S 800 FREE
Caught between the long sprint of the 400 free and the trek that is the 1500, we have the 800 free. Indeed, this is the first time the men will compete in this race after this and the women’s 1500 (finally) were added to the Olympic program. I’m really interested in seeing Robert Finke in this race after he wiped out the 1650 free American, NCAA and U.S. Open record at the 2020 SEC Championships. Can the old-ish guard of Jordan Wilimovsky and Zane Grothe keep up? I don’t know if I care as much as I do about the men’s 1500.
#23 – WOMEN’S 800 FREE
The push for the 800 over the 400, for me, comes down to where the #3 is at. One of the most exciting young swimmers in America right now is Erica Sullivan, and she is better the longer the race. It would be very cool to see three U.S. women under 8:20 in one race, and Sullivan was 8:26.1 in the fall (ranked third among American women since summer 2018). Keep in mind her insane improvement curve — don’t forget she erupted for a 15:23.81 in December in the 1650 yard free, making her the #2 yards miler in history. Sullivan is a fearless racer who poses a much more legitimate threat in this race than in the 400.
#22 – MEN’S 100 BREAST
Michael Andrew being in the mix puts this event higher than the longer breaststroke race. A 59.14 at the Des Moines PSS in March was a quick swim for MA and his lifetime best. Fast mid-season swims are not surprising for him, but he was #2 for the 2019-20 season behind top American Andrew Wilson (58.93). If they are the top seeds in the final in Omaha, their last names next to each other will read ‘Andrew Wilson.’ It won’t be that easy for them to hit #1 and #2 next summer, though; five other American men went 59-plus in 2019, and that list doesn’t even include American record-holder Kevin Cordes (1:00.04 in late 2018, but lifetime best is the AR: 58.64).
A crowded field with the intrigue of Wilson repping DIII, and Andrew seeking his first Olympic team spot, is big.
#21 – MEN’S 200 BACK
The Cal legacy in this event is at stake, with Ryan Murphy and Jacob Pebley back after going 1-2 in Omaha in 2016. They’ve repped Team USA at ever major LC champs since then, though Pebley was edged out by Austin Katz for the Pan Pacs A-final spot behind Murphy, and Pebley was just sixth in the 2019 Worlds final. The fourth major player here is Shaine Casas. Longhorn Katz has steadily risen since his age-group days, while Casas has erupted through 1.9 seasons with Texas A&M. With Pebley fading last year and Murphy being better in the 100, I wouldn’t write off the possibility of Katz and Casas both usurping the Cal boys.