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’ve got a little bit of everything in this tier. We’re still not up the point where anyone is the favorite for gold medal, but the flip side is the most of the men in this group could be in the mix for Olympic medals in multiple events.
The further into the list we get, the more heavily we way recent performances, generally, so one thing that most of these ten guys have in common is that they had solid 2020 seasons, whether at big domestic meets, or in the ISL. The few guys who didn’t do anything hugely noteworthy in 2020 are guys who track record or trajectory still makes them serious contenders, but who would probably be a few rungs higher had they gotten to swim more at bigger meets this year.
Like we said, there’s a pretty even mix across the disciplines here, with three mid/distance freestylers, two backstrokers, two breaststrokers, an IMer, a sprint freestyler, and a free/fly type. An interesting note about this group of ten is that, collectively, they could challenge for an Olympic medal in every event except the 200 fly, and it definitely wouldn’t be surprising if more than one was to come away with Olympic gold.
#30: Chase Kalisz, United States – If we had make this list two years ago, Kalisz probably would’ve been ranked in the top ten. Michael Phelps’ former training partner dominated the IM events for the first two years of the quad, sweeping golds at 2017 Worlds and 2018 Pan Pacs. But he looked much less dominant in 2019, settling for a bronze in the 200 IM and 10th in the 400 IM in Gwanju. Still, we’ve seen plenty of US swimmers experience a down year the year before the Olympics, then pull it together when it counts, and with Kalisz having been 1:57/4:13 in December 2019, and with a pretty wide open IM field, Kalisz stands as good a chance of anyone in this discipline to pull down multiple medals.
#29: Elijah Winnington, Australia – He was one of many Australians to sit out the ISL season, but that didn’t stop him from hitting some great SCM times, becoming the 3rd-fastest Aussie ever with his 3:37 in the short course 400 free. Additionally, he hit long course lifetime bests of 1:45.79 in the 200 free and 3:43.90 in the 400, potentially moving him into contention for a spot on Australia’s 4×200 free relay, which is likely to earn a medal, as well into medal contention in the 400 free.
#28: Mykhailo Romanchuk, Ukraine – The Ukrainian has been as consistent as just about anyone else in the 1500m over the last few years, netting silver medals at 2017 and 2019 Worlds, and then posting the 2nd-fastest time in the world in 2020 with his 14:41.63 last March, just before the pandemic started shutting things down. His 7:43.90 from March could also put him in the running for a medal in the 800 free.
#27: Maxime Rooney, United States – There’s a solid argument for ranking Rooney higher, even though he didn’t compete, let alone win a medal, at the World Championships in 2019. He hit lifetime bests in the 100 fly (50.68), 100 free (47.61), and 200 free (1:46.68) at the 2019 USA Summer Nationals. Those 100 fly and 100 free times would’ve netted him silver and bronze, respectively, at 2019 Worlds. His 200 free time gives him an outside shot at the USA 4×200 free relay team as well. He also had a solid ISL season, helping the LA Current to a 4th-place finish. All together, Rooney has a realistic shot at three relay medals and an individual medal this summer. The counter-argument, though, is that Rooney had a similar breakout meet at 2015 Summer Nationals and was unable to crack the USA’s 2016 Olympic team, and that the USA’s depth is so great, that there’s no guarantee he’ll make the team in any of those events, despite the world-class times.
#26: Matthew Wilson, Australia – It feels tough to have a guy who tied the 200 breast world record in 2019 ranked this low, but such is the depth in the 200 breast right now. He just missed the final in the 100 breast at 2019 Worlds, but he set a new Oceanic record in the 100 breast (SCM) with his 56.89 last November, so if he can find a little more speed in long course version, he stands an outside chance at picking up a minor medal in that event as well.
#25: Florent Manaudou, France – Like several other top swimmers, the pandemic has complicated his training, but he still had an outstanding 2020 ISL season, contributing in the 50 free, 100 free, and 100 IM for Energy Standard. Now, he’ll be training exclusively in France, back with CNM, the same club he was swimming with when he earned Olympic gold in 2012. He clocked a 21.56 in the long course 50 free at the beginning of 2020, just 0.06s behind Vladimir Morozov for the fastest time in the world last calendar year. We saw Anthony Ervin win gold in Rio after a long break from swimming, and right now Manaudou may be the best bet to upset Caeleb Dressel in the 50 free.
#24: Gabriele Detti – “Mr. Bronze” has secured 3rd-place in the 400m freestyle at the last three major worldwide long course meets: the 2016 Olympics and the 2017 and 2019 World Championships. With the fastest long course time in the world in 2020 in the 400 free (3:43.73) and the 3rd-fastest time in the 800 free (7:46.04) and his track record of consistency, it feels like we should be able to pencil Detti for at least one minor medal this summer.
#23: Kliment Kolesnikov, Russia – He won the 2018 Swammy for World Swimmer of the Year, thanks to standout performances at the European Championships, the Youth Olympic Games, and the Short Course World Championships. Since then, he’s arguably taken a bit of a backseat to Russian teammate Evgeny Rylov on the long course side, part in thanks to a shoulder injury that limited his performance at 2019 Worlds. But Kolesnikov could still be in line for two relays medals as part of Russia’s 4×100 free and medley relays, and he’s riding high after a great ISL season which saw him break the World Record in the short course 100 back.
#22: Ryosuke Irie, Japan – If you were to just glance at international medals over the last few years, your first thought might be that the veteran backstroker is too high on this list; he didn’t medal in the Olympics, or at the last three World Championships. But the 31 year-old started 2020 by going 52.59/1:55.35, which ended up as the #1 and #2 times worldwide in 2020, hit a lifetime best of 49.91 in the 100 back (SCM) in ISL competition, and then wrapped up 2020 with yet another long course 1:55, meaning he is very much in the medal conversation heading into this summer, especially when you figure in the excitement that comes with swimming at home for the Olympics.
#21: Ilya Shymanovich, Belarus – Shymanovich is an elite sprint breaststroker who ended up 12th overall in MVP points across the 2020 ISL season. He followed that up less than a month later by smashing the world record in the short course 100 meter breaststroke. Most of Shymanovich’s medal production internationally has come in short course – and of course, the long course sprint breaststrokes have one pretty big obstacle to Shymanovich’s gold medal potential. But Shymanovich (58.2 in the long course 100 breast in 2019) is the #2 performer in all of history in the long course 100 breast, and was one bad semifinals swim away from a silver medal at 2019 Worlds. He has as good a shot as anyone to become just the second man ever under 58 seconds in the event.