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.
This group of 10 women are getting into serious medal contenders for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. It becomes the interesting meeting-ground of some of the greats of their generation, like Katinka Hosszu or Federica Pellegrini, who are now into their 30s, with young rising swimmers like Minna Atherton and Simona Quadarella, who could be breakthrough stars in Tokyo.
#20: Minna Atherton, Australia – At only 20 years old, Atherton has already been through the full rollercoaster. After breaking a short course meters World Record in the 100 backstroke in the first season of ISL, she roared to the top of the mountain of women’s backstroke as the obvious next challenger to American Regan Smith. But then her own countrymate Kaylee McKeown, only 19, rushed up that mountain as well. The women’s backstrokers are going to be absolutely brutal in Tokyo (it feels like we’re saying this every year). Atherton still hasn’t really shown the long course mettle yet of the swimmers ahead of her, though she did go a 50 free best in 2020 (25.72). In any other generation, Atherton might be higher, but in this one, with this backstroke field, she might be 58-low/2:05 and still miss a medal.
#19: Yui Ohashi, Japan – The 25-year old Ohashi won a bronze medal in the 400 IM at the 2019 World Championships, and is a viable 400 IM candidate at the Tokyo Olympic Games – especially in front of a home crowd. There’s a big stratification in the women’s 400 IM – The top 3 in the world (all in this grouping – including Hosszu and Ye) are ahead of the world on a big gap from the rest of the world (a group that includes the two Canadians, Sydney Pickrem and Emily Overholt). Ohashi had a strong ISL season as well, so there’s no signs that the pandemic has slowed her down. The one swimmer to throw a wrench in is Melanie Margalis, who swam 4:32 in Des Moines heading into quarantines.
#18: Siobhan Haughey, Hong Kong – At the 2019 World Championships, Haughey finished 4th in the 200 free. One of the trio ahead of her was Sweden’s Sarah Sjostrom – who with a broken elbow, might be able to get back into some 50 or 100 form by Tokyo, but who almost certainly won’t be racing the 200. That puts Haughey in a firm medal position – without even considering the number and magnitude of best times she’s swum in short course since then, leaving her now as the #2 performer in SCM history (behind only Sjostrom). The women’s 200 free doesn’t have an obvious contender who’s going to go 1:53 low and run away with it, but there could be a whole lot of 1:54s in the field in Tokyo. Haughey’s ISL-sharpened racing skills will serve her well in a close race. She’s an outside shot at a 100 free medal too – a race that has had some unexpected podiums at several recent major meets.
#17: Kylie Masse, Canada – The World Record holder in the 100 back before Kathleen Baker, and still only 25, Masse is in the same boat as Baker (see below). The biggest difference? She doesn’t have the third event to pivot to like Baker does. That being said, she’s still the two-time defending World Champion in the 100 backstroke (though Regan Smith didn’t swim that event individually in Gwangju). Her 200 backstroke, where she won bronze in 2019, really has been coming along nicely as well. She has the benefit of not needing to battle through a grueling June trials meet to make her national team, as she’s already been pre-selected by Canada. On the other hand, racing opportunities in Canada have been few-and-far-between. Still, that didn’t hurt her in the ISL season – where she was outstanding as the top scorer for the expansion Toronto Titans franchise. Masse finished the regular season ranked 14th in MVP scoring league-wide.
#16: Federica Pellegrini, Italy – Pellegrini is kind of like the Simone Manuel of the 200 free: you keep picking against her, she keeps winning, and at some point that has to be recognized. The two-time defending World Champion and the World Record holder, Pellegrini has to be the favorite in the 200 free for Tokyo – even if the signs want us to all believe differently: age, motivation, just a 1:59.0 in her last race in Geneva, Switzerland. Pellegrini was a history-maker in Italian swimming. She was the country’s youngest Olympic medalist in any sport in 2004. She was the country’s first female Olympic gold medalist in swimming. She’s the only Italian swimmer to have set World Records in more than one event. She’s already enshrined in gold in the history books of Italian sport and culture: if she ends her career with one more Olympic gold medal, they may well crown her queen in Italy.
#15: Emma McKeon, Australia – When last we saw the 26-year old McKeon race internationally, it was the 2019 ISL season and she was among the league’s best. It appeared as though McKeon was perched and prepared to emerge from her status of racking up relay medals at major meets to emerging from the shadows of the Campbell sisters as a standalone star. Australia didn’t get to compete in season 2 of the ISL, but there’s signs that the momentum continued anyway. In March, just before lockdowns began, she swam 56.36 in the 100 fly, which was her best time since the 2017 World Championships. She also swam 52.46 in the 100 free in December, which was just .05 seconds short of her best time.
#14: Kathleen Baker, United States – Baker was one of the hardest swimmers to place in this ranking. On the one hand, until Regan Smith’s outburst at the 2019 World Championships, Baker was the World Record holder in the 100 backstroke (58.00). On the other hand, a youth explosion has now seen two teenagers go under that 58.00 – Regan Smith and Kaylee McKeown, with another American teen Phoebe Bacon nipping at her heels. On the third hand, Baker herself is still only 23 – entering traditional primetime for international swimmers. And on the fourth hand, Baker seems to have seen the writing on the wall and really begun focusing hard on her 200 IM, where a February 2020 2:08 in France set off some serious sirens. And that is why we’ve left Baker so high, in spite of the challengers ahead. She now looks like a probable 200 IM medalist, with the ‘upside’ of plausible backstroke medals to boot.
#13: Ye Shiwen, China – At only 24-years old, Ye is already going to her 3rd Olympic Games. After her huge 200 IM/400 IM double gold in London in 2012, Ye faded from sight for a few years but has re-emerged as again one of the world’s best. She won silvers in both IM races at the 2019 World Championships, plus was 4th in the 200 breaststroke. If Hosszu doesn’t find her form, Ye is in line for not only a double gold medal finish, but a possible three medal finish.
#12: Simona Quadarella, Italy – Quadarella was among the swimmers who benefited from Katie Ledecky’s illness at the 2019 World Championships, snagging gold in the women’s 1500 free. But the context of that swim, with a silver in the 800 free and a 2017 bronze in the 1500 free to boot, shouldn’t dissuade from understanding that Quadarella is the world’s second-best female distance swimmer right now. While we don’t get to see Ledecky race much this day, in any sort of proper form she’s going to dominate the 800 and 1500 freestyle events, and we know that. On paper, though, Quadarella is the favorite for silver in both of those races.
#11: Katinka Hosszu, Hungary – Arguably the best female swimmer of the 2010s, and inarguably one of the top 3, Hosszu is the double defending World Champion in the 200 IM and 400 IM. But I’ll admit that we were chilled a little by her ISL performance. We know Hungarians were back in the water for a while prior to the start of that season, and yet Hosszu really struggled – in a format that she should dominate. She hasn’t been her former in-season dominant self in long course either – at her most recent meet in Nice, she swam 2:13.8 in the 200 IM, 1:01.8 in the 100 fly, 4:42 in the 400 IM, and 2:13.3 in the 200 back. All we really know that this means for sure is that Hosszu isn’t her same win-everything-all-the-time self that we’ve seen in prior iterations. She still swam at least one round of a whopping 11 events at that meet, she just didn’t do it as well as we’ve seen her do it in the past. Do I still think she’ll win at least two medals in Tokyo? Definitely, because she’s still that versatile. But I don’t think we can declare her a lock for any gold medals based on recent evidence.