The Olympic year is here. Again. Maybe. And we’re kicking off the year 2021 with a countdown of the top 100 women and top 100 men in world-level swimming heading into the Olympic year.
Who are the top 100 male and female swimmers you need to know about, you need to watch, with the biggest event in swimming less than 6 months away.
We’ll break down the list into multiple installments, so stay tuned as we continue with our lists.
We’ve placed a heavy priority on individual Olympic medal potential and world record potential, but we’ve also weighed potential for impact at other world-level events like Short Course Worlds, the ISL season, and the World Cup. These lists are, by nature, subjective. If you disagree, leave your thoughts/ranks in the comments.
Well, we’ve arrived at our top 10. All ten of these women are as close to medal-locks as we’ll get, and it’s very likely that most will walk away with at least one gold medal in Tokyo.
#10: Ariarne Titmus, Australia – Not many people can say they have beaten Katie Ledecky in a 400 free. In fact, Titmus is the only one who has done so at a major international championship. Her 3:58.76 from the 2019 Worlds final, garnering her the gold medal, also made Titmus the #2 performer in history, leap-frogging Federica Pellegrini‘s pre-Ledecky WR of 3:59.15. Titmus is also the only non-Ledecky name out of the top 13 performances in history, sitting at #8. The Australian took silver in the 200 free and 800 free at 2019 Worlds, and she’s already at Ledecky-threatening speed in the 200 free and 400 free as it is. In SCM, Titmus holds the WR in the 400 SCM free; any team would be lucky to have her this upcoming ISL season, as do-everything talents like Hali Flickinger, Siobhan Haughey and Melanie Margalis had free reign in the 400 free during the 2020 ISL season without Titmus or Ledecky.
#9: Zhang Yufei, China – Zhang has looked like a different swimmer lately, just a year and a half since she missed the 100 fly final (57.93 in semis) and didn’t even make semifinals in the 200 fly (2:14.20 in prelims) at Worlds. She’s the fastest swimmer in the world in both of those races this season, though, at 55.62 in the 100 fly in September and 2:05.49 in the 200 in January. In the 100, Zhang became the #2 performer in history behind Sjöström’s 55.48 WR, the fourth woman ever under 56 in the event, and she snapped Liu Zige’s super suit 2009 Chinese record (56.07). Now a gold medal contender in both butterfly events, Zhang also became the first Chinese woman under 53 seconds in the 100 free in September (52.90). Zhang hasn’t proved herself yet at an Olympics or long course Worlds, but if she’s on form, she looks like a medal lock in both fly events. Meanwhile, she’s right on Sjöström’s WR, and there’s a chance both she and Maggie MacNeil crack it in the same race this summer.
#8: Maggie MacNeil, Canada – MacNeil broke out on the big stage at 2019 Worlds, surprising Sarah Sjöström (and the world) in the 100 fly to crush a 55.83. Going into the meet, her lifetime best was well back at 57.04 from the spring’s Canadian Trials, and she beat that with a 56.52 in semifinals. At her first Worlds, going up against the World Record-holder, MacNeil only performed better as the 100 fly rounds went on, taking down Sjöström in the final by almost four-tenths. At Worlds, she split 53.1 anchoring Canada to bronze in the 400 free relay and had the best fly split (55.56) in the medley relay final, where Canada took bronze, too. Since Worlds, she’s gone on to break the Big Ten conference record in the 100-yard free (46.57) and hit lifetime bests in the 50 free (21.30), 100 fly (49.26) and 100 back (50.04). If we see a little progression from her in the LCM 100 fly, Sjöström’s WR is in trouble.
#7: Yulia Efimova, Russia – The only active swimmer to have broken 2:20 in the 200 breast in long course, she’s the Olympic favorite in that event. Her lifetime best 2:19.41 has her as the #2 performer in history, and she has quite the track record: in the 200 breast, she has won gold at the last two World Championships, while she won the 100 breast at 2015 Worlds and took silver in the 100 in 2019. She took silvers in the 100 breast behind Lilly King in Rio at the 2016 Olympics, and while she hasn’t gone a best in the 200 since 2013, she was 2:19 twice in 2017 and 2:20.12 at 2019 Worlds. This Olympic cycle, she has logged the six fastest performances in the 200 breast in long course, and she owns 14 of the fastest 20 showings. In the 100, she was only 1:05.49 in 2019, but she’s been under 1:05 several times in her career, most recently in 2018, so she’s a medal threat in the 100, too. The 200 breast is a wide-open field, and it’s hard to doubt Efimova’s record.
#6: Cate Campbell, Australia – While Campbell has yet to put it together in an individual race at Worlds or the Olympics since her 100 free gold at 2013 Worlds, she has been 23.78 in the 50 free and 52.03 in the 100, one of the fastest women in history. Further, she’s been ridiculous on relays, including a 50.93 split to anchor the Australian team to gold in the mixed medley relay at 2018 Pan Pacs. That meet is where Campbell shined, winning the 50 free and 100 free individual golds over Simone Manuel, who has otherwise beaten her in the 100 free at the 2016 Olympics and in both the 50 and 100 free at 2019 Worlds. Campbell’s initial speed is lethal, and at 52.87 this season, she’s the #2 swimmer in the world behind countrymate Emma McKeon (52.46). For Campbell, it’s not about if she can swim fast enough to win; it’s about if she brings the right mindset to let her body do the work.
#5: Simone Manuel, United States – If there was a sprinter you had to put money on for a clutch performance, it’s Simone Manuel. She tied with Canada’s Penny Oleksiak for gold in the 100 free in Rio (52.70), then dropped .6 from her semifinals swim to win gold at 2017 Worlds (52.27). She did lose to Cate Campbell at the 2018 Pan Pacs, 52.66 to 52.03, but then she had her best meet yet, winning Worlds gold in both the 50 (24.05) and the 100 (52.04), while she also split 51-high twice on Team USA relays. At 23.9/52.0, Manuel is behind Campbell on paper in the 50 and right in-line in the 100, though Campbell has split 50.93 before and 51-low several times. Sjöström is the other factor here, as she’s been 23.67 in the 50 and 51.71 in the 100, both WRs, though with her broken elbow, it’s not clear if she’ll be able to get back to that form (those times are from 2017, too). In a major meet final, Manuel defies seed times, and at the end of the day, she has the track record to prove her greatness. Meanwhile, she hasn’t raced in the ISL yet, but her SCM speed is there; she’s been 51.69 in the 100, and that was way back in 2015. In yards, obviously, we know she’s incredible.
#4: Lilly King, United States – Out of everyone on this top 100 list, King is probably the safest bet for an Olympic gold besides Katie Ledecky in the 800 and 1500 free. She is the WR-holder in both the 50m and 100m breast in long course, and she’s been perfect in the 100 breast since her Rio gold, winning the event at 2017 and 2019 Worlds and 2018 Pan Pacs. She’s been an invaluable asset to Team USA’s medley relays, helping the women’s medley win in Rio and at every major international meet since, while she put down the top times in the ISL season in all three breaststroke events, a force in the 50 breast skins, too. While her 1:04.13 in the 100 breast has her well ahead of anyone else, the 200 breast is an interesting story. She’s the fastest woman ever in yards (2:02.60) by over six-tenths, and she’s been 2:21.39 in LCM at the FINA Champions Series in May 2019. She was fourth, just off the podium, at 2017 Worlds in the 200, then she won silver at 2018 Pan Pacs. In 2019, she was called for a controversial DQ for a non-simultaneous touch in the 200 breast prelims. What we can go off of, recently, is her 2:15.55 in SCM during the ISL Final, which moved her to the #4 performer slot ever, a second off of Rebecca Soni’s WR and faster than any other active swimmer has ever been.
#3: Kaylee McKeown, Australia – McKeown is one of the most impressive swimmers the world has ever seen. Despite the global backstroke field being the best it’s ever been, McKeown is in prime position to challenge Regan Smith for golds in both, having recently dropped a 57.93 in the 100 back in December after going a 2:04.49 in the 200 back in November. She’s just the second woman under 58 in the 100, coming behind Smith’s WR of 57.57, while she’s about a second off of Smith’s 200 WR (2:03.35) but knocking on the door of the former WR and #2 in history time, Missy Franklin’s 2:04.06 from the 2012 Olympics. McKeown’s third event is arguably stronger than Smith’s 200 fly, as the Aussie teen unloaded a 4:32.73 400 IM the same session as her 57.9 back. This past fall, she posted lifetime SCM bests of 26.00/55.68/1:58.94 in the backstrokes, snapping the WR in the 200, while she also clocked a 2:03.68 in the 200 IM. If she chooses to race in the ISL, she’ll have an impact similar to that of Katinka Hosszu in her prime.
#2: Regan Smith, United States – Smith made everyone’s jaws drop in 2019 at the World Championships, demolishing Missy Franklin’s 200 back WR (2:03.35) and becoming the first woman under 58 in the 100 back (57.57) to help Team USA break the 4×100 medley relay WR. Smith instantly became one of the greats with her 2019 summer breakout performance, and she’ll have the target on her back this summer. She’ll have to fend off the likes of Kaylee McKeown, Minna Atherton, Kylie Masse, Margherita Panziera and more, that is after she faces brutal competition at the Olympic Trials, namely Kathleen Baker, Olivia Smoliga and Phoebe Bacon. Smith is also an exceptional butterflier at 57.3/2:06.3, and the 200 fly is where she’ll be a medal contender if she swims it and can make it through Trials. To cap it off, Smith totes a 1:58.44 in the 200 free, albeit from a June 2019 meet where she was 58.45 in the 100 back; there’s a good chance that she’s capable of a 1:56 or so, and she could be on the prelims 4×200 free relay in Tokyo for Team USA per the coaches’ discretion.
#1: Katie Ledecky, United States – Katie Ledecky is an extremely special swimmer. Aside from her World Records and mind-bending times, she has changed the sport since her breakout 800 free upset of then-WR holder Rebecca Adlington as a 15-year-old at the 2012 Olympics. Her stroke and stroke rate are voracious, and every distance race she’s in (until recently) feels like a foregone conclusion within the first 30 seconds. 2019 was a down year for Ledecky, who was sick during the 2019 World Championships, causing her to scratch the 200 free and 1500 free, while she was off her game and fell to Ariarne Titmus in the 400 free, 3:59.97 to 3:58.76. The 800 free was one of the most memorable athletic feats in the sport, though. A clearly ill Ledecky trailed for the back-half of the race, something we rarely see from her, but dug in with a 29.19 final 50 to overtake leader Simona Quadarella and claim the gold (8:13.58). A healthy Ledecky is still a lock for the 800 and 1500 golds this summer, though the world is catching up, and she has Titmus to worry about in the 400 and several swimmers in the 200 free. With Sjöström and Ikee’s performance questionable in the 200 free, she’s still a medal lock in that along with the 400 free, and she’s definitely capable of golds in both.