The official nominations and details for the 2021 USA Swimming Golden Goggles Awards gala have been announced, and so it’s time for us to present our official SwimSwam ballot.
Note that these votes are based on who we think should win, not who we think will win, because the award winners are usually fairly predictable and mass-market.
The Golden Goggles Awards will be hosted in Miami on Decemebr 7.
2021 GOLDEN GOGGLES NOMINEES
Breakout Performer of the Year
This award is given to the athlete whose performance(s) stand out in relation to other years, with special emphasis on the 2020 Olympic Games.
This is a really tough one, because there were so many breakout performances in 2021 (a well-told story of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics). If I’m thinking through, I first cut down totwo. One is Bobby Finke, who was on nobody’s radar internationally after some injuries, but who with matching Olympic gold medals in the 800 and 1500 may have single-handedly revived American men’s distance swimming. The other is Lydia Jacoby, who is such a great story to come out of Alaska and knock off one of the true juggernauts of world swimming, Lilly King, in her best event. Ultimately, the Jacoby story carries the day for us, the long trips to find a long course pool, the incredible improvement curve, and the upset.
This award is given to the athlete who came back from adversity, retirement, sickness, injury, etc., to have an outstanding performance(s) in 2021, with special emphasis on the 2020 Olympic Games.
This one is always a tricky award, because it feels like USA Swimming always has a different definition of ‘perseverance’ than we do.
Annie Lazor’s story is about the magic moments at the Olympic Trials and Olympic Games, where she won a bronze medal just 3 months after her father died, and especially how it played out through her relationship with her training partner Lilly King.
Erica Sullivan’s story is similar, having lost her father in 2017 when she was only 16 years old, and her grandather a year later in 2018, both to cancer. She has been outspoken about the mental health challenges this has caused her and the PTSD she’s experienced from the loss of a parent at such a young age.
Tom Shields’ story is about a suicide attempt in 2018 and a redemption path to an Olympic Team that not many thought he would make, and eventually a second Olympic gold medal on the men’s 400 medley relay (plus a second career as a short course superstar in the ISL and the World Cup).
All are worthy, and all play into narratives that have been at the forefront of sports, and the world, over the last two years.
For us, the winner is Shields because of the way that he has wilfully and purposely turned his redemption arc into one that is relateable and impactful for many, many young athletes, specifically. Giving him another platform to continue that work is a good thing.
Coach of the Year
This award is given to the coach whose athlete(s) performed at the highest level throughout the year, with special emphasis on the 2020 Olympic Games.
- Ron Aitken
- Jack Bauerle
- Todd DeSorbo
- Greg Meehan
- Anthony Nesty (SwimSwam Official Selection)
- Gregg Troy
This one is really hard, though I’m a little disappointed that Lydia Jacoby’s coach Meghan O’Leary wasn’t nominated. A lot of the United States’ success this season was centered in a few groups, so that means there are a lot of coaches whose athletes did a lot of really fast things this year.
So when narrowing it down, the factors I consider most heavily are, which coaches’ athletes had their ‘best years ever’ in 2021 (because this is a single-year award, not a lifetime achievement award); which coaches’ athletes performed their best at the biggest meets; and which coaches showed a lot of depth to their athletes’ results.
Running through the list, Ron Aitken of Sandpiper had the most breakout swimmers and a women’s distance group with success like we haven’t seen from a single such group in decades; Jack Bauerle had a bounceback performance from Chase Kalisz to win the 400 IM, and he also put 4 other men on the team; Greg Meehan was the head coach of the women’s team and primary coach of Katie Ledecky, who while not quite at her best still won 2 gold and 2 silver medalist in Tokyo; Anthony Nesty, the coach of Bobby Finke and Kieran Smith who both parlayed big NCAA results into Olympic medals; and Gregg Troy, who is the primary coach of Caeleb Dressel, who had a monster Olympics, winning 5 gold medals and set 2 World Records.
The more complex case is Todd DeSorbo. If we’re focusing on the Olympics, which USA Swimming really wants everyone to do in their votes, 4 DeSorbo proteges (Paige Madden, Kate Douglass, Alex Walsh, and post-grad Catie DeLoof) made the U.S. Olympic Team. What’s more, even in a year where the U.S. had some struggles at the Olympics, they all came back with medals. Looking more holistically, he also led his women’s team to an overwhelming NCAA Championship performance in the most challenging of collegiate seasons. But the weakness in his resume for 2021 is that none of those swimmers won gold medals.
To me the debate comes down to DeSorbo versus Nesty. They both had success at multiple levels with multiple athletes.
I’ll take as a tiebreaker the work that Nesty did with some of the less-heralded members of the Florida team during the NCAA season. Adam Chaney had the best freshman sprint season since another Gator, Caeleb Dressel; he manufactured results like an 18.3 relay split from Eric Friese; and he coached Dillon Hillis to a runner-up NCAA finish in the 100 breaststroke. And all of the Olympic success came while merging to take over the women’s team in Florida, which added a mountain of new responsibilities onto his plate.
Relay Performance of the Year
This award is given to the best team relay performance, male or female. The performance considered must be a finals performance, with special emphasis on the 2020 Olympic Games.
- Women’s 4 x 200m Free Relay (2020 Olympic Games)
- Men’s 4 x 100m Free Relay (2020 Olympic Games)
- Men’s 4 x 100m Medley Relay (2020 Olympic Games) (SwimSwam Official Selection)
While I think the men’s 4x100m free relay was the better swim of the two, my choice for this award is the men’s 400 medley relay for a lot of reasons. For one, every member of that relay was embattled for one reason or another. Ryan Murphy and his comments about doping, Michael Andrew and the perception of not living up to expectations, Caeleb Dressel not swimming the 800 free relay, and Zach Apple for his split on the 800 free relay.
The U.S. needed this win on the last day of the meet, to launch into the three year cycle with some momentum, with some tailing positive energy, to prove that Michael Andrew doesn’t need to beat Adam Peaty to be good enough, to show that Caeleb Dressel is the singular dominant force in world swimming, to show that Zach Apple is still a reliable relay force for the USA. And to boot, they broke a relay record that has stood for 12 years – when many weren’t even sure if they could win. There was just so much emotion tied up in that last relay, I can’t help but choose it.
Female Race of the Year
This award is given to the female swimmer with the greatest single individual race of the year, with special emphasis on the 2020 Olympic Games.
- Lydia Jacoby – 100m Breaststroke (2020 Olympic Games) (SwimSwam Official Selection)
- Katie Ledecky – 800m Freestyle (2020 Olympic Games)
- Katie Ledecky – 1500m Freestyle (2020 Olympic Games)
Katie Ledecky is still GOAT’ed, but Jacoby’s swim was a career-high for her, and Ledecky’s weren’t. For me, it’s a very simple conversation, and on singular race, that gives Jacoby the honor.
Male Race of the Year
This award is given to the male swimmer with the greatest single individual race of the year, with special emphasis on the 2020 Olympic Games.
- Caeleb Dressel – 100m Freestyle (2020 Olympic Games) (SwimSwam Official Selection)
- Caeleb Dressel – 100m Butterfly (2020 Olympic Games)
- Bobby Finke – 800m Freestyle (2020 Olympic Games)
- Chase Kalisz – 400m Individual Medley (2020 Olympic Games)
It’s a little curious that Bobby Finke‘s 1500 free didn’t make this list along with the other individual gold medal-winning performances, though his 800 and that wild closing split.
But regardless, I don’t know how we can keep this away from Dressel after the Olympics he had. I think most votes will probably go for his World Record in the 100 fly, but I thought the 100 free and the matchup with Australian Kyle Chalmers was the better race.
Female Athlete of the Year
This award is given to the top female swimmer of the year with special emphasis on achievements at the 2020 Olympic Games.
- Lydia Jacoby
- Katie Ledecky (SwimSwam Official Selection)
- Lilly King
- Regan Smith
As we zoom out for the ‘big ones,’ Ledecky, even without best times or World Records, still had more overall success than anyone on this list, winning the 800 and 1500 frees, taking silver in the 400 free, and taking silver in the 800 free relay. GOAT is still GOAT, who is still “Greatest of 2021” in the U.S.
Male Athlete of the Year
This award is given to the top male swimmer of the year with special emphasis on achievements at the 2020 Olympic Games.
I don’t think there is an easier selection in this whole list. Dressel. 5 Olympic gold medals in 6 events. A few relay choices kept him from maybe climbing into the top 3 for “greatest single Olympics ever,” but I think it was at least a top 5 performance of all-time.