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.
Men’s #75 – #51
In some ways, this list looks very similar to #100-76, and sure, there are probably arguments to be made for a few of those swimmers displacing some on this list; as we’ve tried to emphasize, this isn’t an exact science. We’re not into our top gold medal contenders yet. But this crew just inside the top 100 are potential minor-medal-contenders, plus some names who could make big waves at Short Course Worlds or in the International Swimming League.
The other group we see a lot on this list are freestyle specialists who may not get a shot at an individual Olympic swim, but should be in contention for medals on both freestyle relays.
#75: Noe Ponti, Switzerland – The Swiss Butterly specialist hit lifetime bests in the 100m and 200m fly events this year, including a 51.15 in the 100 that should make him a strong contender for the Olympic final.
#74: Ilia Borodin, Russia – The 17 year-old IMer may still a little away from being a definite medal contender, but he closed 2020 strong, setting Russian national records in the 200 IM (1:58.0) and the 400 IM (4:11.50). The latter mark is officially a World Junior Record, and only Michael Phelps and Kosuke Hagino have been faster at 18 or young.
#73: Nandor Nemeth Hungary – Three years ago, Nemeth made his mark at the 2017 World Junior Swimming Championships by anchoring Hungary to gold medals in the 4×100 and 4×200. With lifetime bests of 48.1/1:46.7, he’s the first guy on this list to be one of the aforementioned double relay medal threats.
#72: Federico Burdisso, Italy – Only 18 years old, Burdisso is the Italian national record holder in the long course 200 fly, and having gone 1:54 now on three separate occasions, he should be a minor medal threat at the Olympics.
#71: Joao Gomes, Brazil – Now 35, Gomes’ only individual hardware at the last two World Championships has come in the 50 breast, but he’s no slouch at the 100, having won bronze at Pan Pacs and gold at Pan Ams with 59-mid both times.
#70: Phillip Heintz, Germany – The veteran IMer ended 2020 on a high note, busting out a time-trialed 1:56.42 in December, not far off of his lifetime best of 1:55.76 in 2017, and he’s one of several
#69: Kiril Prigoda, Russia – Known a little more for the shorter breaststroke events in long course (he won bronze in the 100m at 2017 Worlds), Prigoda busted out a 2:07.85 to upset defending world champion Anton Chupkov at the Russian Swimming Cup this past October.
#68: Nathan Adrian, United States – Not going to lie, it kind of hurts to see the London 100 free gold medalist this low. But the USA has seen a massive explosion in his signature event over the couple of years and objectively, there’s a chance that Adrian could not even make the team, but the Americans sure hope he does, as he’s been a rock solid contributor for the last decade.
#67: Bobby Finke United States – Finke’s potential has been clear for years, but he rose to new heights when he swam the fastest 1650 ever at the SEC Championships last February. He’s no slouch in long course, where he’s been 14:48 in the 1500m.
#66: Alexander Graham, Australia – Much in the same mold as Apple, Graham has become a solid relay swimmer for the Aussies, swimming on both the 4×100 and 4×200 relays at both the 2018 Pan Pacs and the 2019 World Champs, splitting a 1:45.05 on the 4×200 at the latter.
#65: Tom Dean, Great Britain – Despite all the weirdness of the year, Dean had a great 2020 in the pool, hitting 1:46.03 at the Edinburgh International meet to become the 4th-fastest British 200 free swimmer ever. He also won the 400m free at the ISL final, being out a field that included Townley Haas, Fernando Scheffer, and James Guy.
#64: Zach Apple, United States – Apple has been a relay stalwart for the US over the last few years, including a 46.86 split on the gold medal 4×100 free relay in Gwangju.
#63: Alessandro Miressi, Italy – The 2018 Euros champion in the 100 free, his time of 48.01 probably won’t medal this summer, but at 22, he still has time to peak, and he’s part of Italy’s sneaky-good relays.
#62: Ryan Held, United States – Held has up-and-down time of it over the last few years. He had a memorable moment on the podium after being part of the USA’s gold medal 4×100 free relay team, then struggled for a few years, then set the U.S. Open record in the 100 free with his 47..4 in the summer of 2019.
#61: Emre Sacki, Turkey – Our 2020 Swammy Award winner for breakout swimmer of the year, Sakci had a lights out ISL season that saw him swim the 2nd-fastest short course 50m breaststroke ever, behind only Cameron Van Der Burgh’s super suited time from 2009.
#60: Kieran Smith, United States – Smith had one of the biggest domestic swims of 2020 with his 4:06 500 free. Smith already had a solid long course pedigree, and if he can translate that SCY prowess into long course, he could make us look silly for ranking him so low.
#59: Vladislav Grinev, Russia – With a lifetime best of 47.4 and a broze medal from 2019, he’ll be in the running for another medal this summer. He’s also an impact member of Russia medal-threat 4×100 free relay team, where he’s split 47.2.
#58: Katsuhiro Matsumoto, Japan – The 23 year-old shaved a tenth off of his own Japanese national record earlier this month, putting up a 1:45.1, and given how wide open the 200 free looks right now, he’s definitely in the medal hunt, and could even pop off for gold. He’s also got a sub-48 relay split to his name.
#57: Martin Malyutin, Russia – One a small handful of swimmers who has a lifetime best of 1:45-something in the 200 free, he will once again be shooting for for multiple medal after winning bronze at 2019 Worlds and swimming on Russia’s 4×200 relay.
#56: Max Litchfield, Great Britain – Litchfield had a few near-misses on major IM medals, including a 4th place finish in the 400 IM in Rio, then a pair of 4th place finishes in both IM at 2017 Worlds. He’s the 400 IM British national record holder with a lifetime best of 4:09.62.
#55: Lewis Clareburt, New Zealand – The national 400 IM record holder, Clareburt’s best time of 4:12.07 isn’t eye-popping, but he is on the right trajectory and does have a steady track record of getting it done when it counts; he earned bronze medals in the event at both the 2018 Commonwealth Games and the 2019 World Championships.
#54: Jay Litherland, United States – He’s already an Olympic veteran, and he was one of a handful of US swimmers to hit personal bests at 2019 Worlds. His 4:09.22 best in the 400 IM puts him well ahead of any US swimmer not named Chase Kalisz.
#53: Ben Proud, Great Britain – He’s been relatively quiet in long course over the last few years, but he set a then-textile record of 21.11 in the 50 free less than three years ago. He also had more trouble than most of the world’s elite swimmers finding training space during the pandemic, which is probably at least partially responsible for his relatively lackluster ISL season. Still only 26, Proud should still very much be in the medal hunt in the shortest and fastest Olympic race.
#52: Jeremy Desplanches, Switzerland – The 200 IM looks to be one of the more open events at the world level, and Desplanches, who earned silver in Gwangju with a Swiss national record of 1:56.56, is definitely a medal threat.
#51: Marco Koch, Germany – Koch won gold in the 200 breast in Kazan, then was was Euros 200 breast silver medalist in 2016. He’d been fairly quiet since then, but had a very strong ISL season in 2020, including the 5th-fastest 200 breast (SCM) ever.