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. 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.
We’re into the big-time now. Every single athlete in our top 10 has either (1) a solid chance at multiple gold medals or (2) a solid chance at a world record.
The event distribution is pretty intriguing at the top. Three backstrokers lead the way in a bit of a logjam where anyone could wind up with two golds or none at the Olympics. There are a pair of world record-holding breaststrokers who don’t really cross over the same distance. A pair of world record-holding flyers, again at opposite ends of the distance spectrum. (One of the two crosses over as the only sprint freestyler in the top 10). Two distance swimmers and just one IMer (though he could be considered a 200 flyer, too).
Five countries are represented, with two apiece from the United States, China, and Russia. Great Britain, Italy, Japan and Hungary also crack our top 10.
The toughest of this group to rank are the three backstrokers, who feel like they could fall in almost any order. Each has a pretty sterling resume of his own, and there’s really no good way yet to tell who should be the favorite.
And, of course, the top 10 isn’t without its share of controversy. One of the ten is facing a potential doping suspension, and removing him from the top 10 would clearly have a ripple effect on the lower-ranked swimmers in his events, who would suddenly become stronger gold medal contenders, if not favorites outright.
#10: Anton Chupkov, Russia – The reigning world champ and world record-holder in the 200 breast, Chupkov is an elite distance breaststroke talent. His 2:06.12 is a half-second faster than anyone in the history of the sport has ever been, and Chupkov will turn just 24 later this month. That combination of youth and high-pressure production suggests Chupkov could give us the first 2:05 ever swum at some point in 2021. The only downside to this dominant talent is that he’s mostly a one-event specialist at this point. He’s won a bronze medal in the 100 breast at the European Championships level, but with a sprint breaststroke speedster still to come on this list, Chupkov is pretty capped at one potential individual gold medal. Of the current world record-holders, he’s also faces arguably the toughest test from the current international field. Multiple other swimmers have been within a second of his world record in just the past year and a half. But Chupkov has won back-to-back world titles, so there’s no reason to think he can’t beat another good field in 2021.
#9: Kristof Milak, Hungary – at 2019 Worlds, Milak smashed a Michael Phelps world record with a dominant swim at the age of 19. It feels brutal to put a swimmer like that in 9th place. Milak is the heavy, heavy favorite to win 200 fly gold at the Olympics – in fact, his gold medal probability is higher than anyone on this list outside the top two. There are only two real factors pulling Milak closer to 10 than 1. Like Chupkov, his medal ceiling is somewhat capped, because even if he can sneak into 100 fly medal contention (a tall order in a pretty deep event worldwide) it’d take a massive upset for him to challenge for gold there. Secondly, Milak had a particularly nasty bout with COVID-19 and really didn’t compete much in the latter half of 2020. When he did, he faded to second in his own country in the 200 fly. We still see Milak returning to gold medal form in the 200 fly by this summer – but it’s also harder to project a big step forward in other events this close to rocky, illness-affected year.
#8: Xu Jiayu, China – China’s Xu kicks off our trio of backstrokers with gold medal hopes. He’s the two-time defending world champ in the 100 back – which actually matches the 200 back resume of our #7 swimmer. Xu also took silver at the 2016 Olympics and finished 2020 ranked #1 in the world in the 100 back at 52.37 and #2 in the 200 back at 1:55.26. One issue for the 25-year-old Xu is that he hasn’t bettered his career-bests since 2017 (51.8 in the 100 back) and 2018 (1:53.9 in the 200 back), respectively. While Xu is a strong medal contender (probably the gold favorite) in the 100 back, he’s got a tougher road in the 200 compared to the next few guys on this list – Xu hasn’t broken 1:55 since mid-2018. One advantage, though: the Tokyo Olympic location will play to his favor without major travel distance or a brutal time zone difference.
#7: Ryan Murphy, USA – the former NCAA star ascended to Olympic gold in 2016, breaking a world record at the age of 21. But he’s had a roller coaster of ups and downs on the international stage since then. In 2017, he fell to Worlds bronze in the 100, his world-record event, even losing his spot as the top American to countryman Matt Grevers. In 2018, he surged back as one of the bright spots in an off-year for Team USA – he won dual Pan Pacs golds, broke 52 and finished as the #1- (100 back) and #2- (200 back) ranked swimmer worldwide for the year. Then in 2019, he took a step backwards, holding Worlds silver in the 200 back but missing the medals entirely with a 4th-place 100 back showing. Murphy will turn 26 this summer, making him the oldest of the three backstrokers on this list – though that’s still way too young to be worried about regression. Murphy had a great ISL season with the league’s best 50 back and the #2 100 back and 200 back. He was effectively unbeatable in the skins format with a league-leading four wins. Of this backstroke trio, Murphy might be the safest bet for two medals, even accounting for his rare miss at 2019 Worlds. But it’ll really depend on whether he can break out like he did in 2016 and bounce back like he did in 2018, or whether the Olympic delay to 2021 will bring back the current odd-year curse Murphy seems to be wrestling with.
#6: Evgeny Rylov, Russia – In many ways, Rylov is the backstroke version of his countryman Chupkov. Rylov has been dominant in the 200-meter distance across this Olympic cycle, winning 2017 and 2019 World Champs gold medals. (Neither one was particularly close, either, with margins of 0.72 seconds in 2019 and 0.8 seconds in 2017). In between, Rylov obliterated the 2018 Euros field by 2.7 seconds. Even back to the Rio Olympics in 2016, a 19-year-old Rylov led heats and semis before falling to bronze in the final. Rylov is an outstanding bet to win 200 back gold in Tokyo. He’s also a medal contender in the 100, where he won silver at 2019 Worlds and led off a mixed medley relay in 51.97.
#5: Sun Yang, China – Gentlemen, start your keyboards. We’d wager half of swimming fans didn’t even read this sentence before jumping to the comment section to weigh in on swimming’s most controversial figure. Chinese freestyle star Sun has been an absolute force at the international level. He’s won an incredible five straight World Championships golds in the 400 free. That goes along with two consecutive 200 free titles, and a run from 2011 to 2015 where he won three-straight 800s and two-straight 1500s. Sun has mostly focused down in distance lately, and is probably purely a 200/400 free contender at this point – although it’s fair to wonder if the addition of the 800 free to the Olympic program has made Sun refocus on the event a little. If Sun swims the Olympics, he’s a strong bet for two golds with a chance at a third medal in the 800. But “if” is the key word there. Sun is still dealing with the legal ramifications of an altercation at a September 2018 anti-doping test in which Sun challenged the authorization of doping control agents, ending with vial of Sun’s blood being smashed. First, he was cleared. Then he was banned. Then his appeal was accepted, the ban set aside, and the case sent back to the Court of Arbitration for Sport. It’s not clear yet if Sun would be eligible to compete if CAS can’t re-try his case by the Olympics, and there’s no timeline yet for when his next hearing will be. That said, for the time being, Sun cracks our top five as a true multi-gold-medal favorite, though there are strong cases to be made for him to rank higher, lower, or to be eliminated from the list entirely.
#4: Daiya Seto, Japan – Seto has perhaps been the breakout swimmer of this Olympic quad, depending on how ‘broken out’ you considered our #1 swimmer in 2016. And that’s saying a lot. Seto won just a single bronze medal at the 2016 Olympics, but finished the year 2020 ranked #1 worldwide in three different events. These will be the first Olympics since 1996 without Michael Phelps, and perhaps the first since 2000 without Ryan Lochte. Seto has risen at the perfect time to replace those two icons in the IM races – he blasted times of 1:55.55 and 4:06.09 in the 200 and 400 IM, respectively, in 2020. In this Olympic quad, Seto has also broken short course world records in the 200 fly (1:48.24) and 400 IM (3:54.81). He swept the IM golds at the 2019 World Championships while taking silver in the 200 fly. He’s won gold medals at Short Course Worlds Pan Pacs, Asian Games, and World University Games in this Olympic cycle, and has shown consistency, toughness, range, and versatility in spades. Swimming at an Olympic Games in his home country (though likely not in front of a home crowd amid the crowd-less world of COVID-era sports), Seto is primed for an explosive 2021 that could make him one of the most-decorated athletes of the Tokyo Olympics.
#3: Gregorio Paltrinieri, Italy – Paltrinieri had effectively gone unbeaten in world-level competition in the 1500 free through 2015 (Worlds gold), 2016 (Olympic gold), and 2017 (Worlds gold) before falling to bronze at both 2018 Euros and 2019 Worlds. But he appeared fully back to dominating form in 2020, hitting the second-fastest swim of all-time with a blazing 14:33.10 in August. That put him just about two seconds off an eight-year-old world record. Paltrinieri should be the heavy favorite to win 1500 free gold in Tokyo, and the addition of the 800 free to the Olympic program adds a second medal opportunity for the #6 performer of all-time in the event, and one of only two of those top 6 still active. (Sun Yang is the other, and he’s trended away from the 800 lately). Adding to his medal hopes: Paltrinieri crossed over into open water swimming long enough to book an Olympic berth with a 6th-place finish in the 10K at 2019 Worlds. He’s got a shot at three medals in the distance events along with a world record opportunity in the 1500, putting him firmly in our top three.
#2: Adam Peaty, Great Britain – It feels like splitting hairs here at the top. Where our past few swimmers have had multi-gold medal ceilings with outside world record chances, Peaty flips the script with a strong world record chance but also a firm ceiling of one individual gold. When you’re as brilliant as Peaty is in one event, though, that ceiling seems to matter less and less. Peaty isn’t just the world record-holder in the 100 breast. He owns the 18 fastest performances of all-time. No one in history has been within 1.4 seconds of his career-best 56.88. He’s the only man ever under 57 – or under 58, for that matter. He’s won every major long course 100 breast title in the past seven years: 2014 (Euros & Commonwealths), 2015 (Worlds), 2016 (Olympics), 2017 (Worlds), 2018 (Euros & Commonwealths), and 2019 (Worlds). It’s not an Olympic event, but Peaty gets some credit, too, for being the best 50 breaststroker in history. Short course has never been his forte, but he improved there enough in 2020 to break the 100 breast world record, lead the ISL in 100 breast times, finish #7 in overall individual scoring, and go 3-for-3 in 50 breast skins wins. While our focus is also on individual medals, Peaty also gets credit for a British medley relay that he legitimately carries into gold medal contention by outsplitting the field by a minimum of a full second. Replace Peaty with the second-fastest split in the 2019 World Champs medley relay field and Great Britain drops from gold to barely bronze. In the shadow of versatile medal collectors like Michael Phelps, swimming can too often overlook a singularly transformative talent in one stroke. Peaty is one of the greatest swimmers of all-time, and a worthy inclusion in our top two, even with a somewhat-lowered Olympic medal ceiling.
#1: Caeleb Dressel, USA – In the last Olympic year, Dressel was a former age group & NCAA standout who had a good year with an Olympic final appearance and two relay golds. His stock has absolutely skyrocketed in the nearly five years since. By the 2017 World Championships, Dressel was the new face of Team USA, winning seven gold medals including individual titles in the 50 free, 100 free, and 100 fly. By the 2019 World Championships, Dressel was winning four individual golds (50 fly, 100 fly, 50 free, 100 free) along with four more relay medals while breaking a Michael Phelps world record in the 100 fly. With the addition of the mixed medley relay, Dressel has a chance to join Phelps among the most-decorates athletes ever at a single Olympics. Dressel is the favorite to win the 50 free, 100 free, and 100 fly in Tokyo, and he should play key roles on the U.S. men’s medley relay, men’s 4×100 free relay, and mixed medley relay. Add in a potential leg of the men’s 4×200 free relay and Dressel could contend for at least seven Olympic medals. On the other hand, he may pare down that lineup some in order to chase a different kind of history. He’s the #3 performer of all-time in the 50 free and on the cusp of a hallowed super-suit era world record set at 20.91. He’s also #3 in history in the 100 free and one of just three men ever to break 47 – the first to do so since the banning of the buoyant body-suits more than a decade ago. And Dressel is the best 100 flyer in history by three tenths, with a chance to push into the low-49s in Tokyo.
Dressel really has the complete resume for this #1 ranking. He broke three short course world records (50 free, 100 fly, 100 IM) in the 2020 ISL season while leading the league in four events and running away with the league MVP award by 113.5 points over any other competitor (and by 134.5 over any other man). His speed in short course meters or short course yards versions of events like the 200 IM, 200 free, and 100 breast continues to captivate fans who want to see an 8th or even 9th Olympic event join Dressel’s program. As it is, the 24-year-old Dressel is an unmatched athlete in his prime, one of the greatest swimmers in history, and the clear world #1 heading into 2021.