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.
WOMEN’S #30 – #21
#30: Sarah Köhler, Germany – In a Katie Ledecky-less 1500 free final (she scratched due to illness) Köhler won the silver medal at 2019 Worlds, going a new German record time of 15:48.83. In the 800 free, Köhler was less than a second away from the podium in the 800 free at 2019 Worlds, going 8:16.43 in the final to set a new German record. Köhler is definitely a medal threat, and silver medal, at that, in both the 800 and 1500 free. There are a lot of great distance swimmers on this list, but as we approach our top 20, we’re starting to see swimmers who are in great positions to nab medals, even with talents like Ledecky and Ariarne Titmus ahead.
#29: Li Bingjie, China – Li was a huge spark in her debut days, then faded a bit, but has looked better since that plateau. She was the 800 free silver medalist at 2017 Worlds, dropping a massive 8:15.46, and she took bronze there in the 400 free. Li is still just 18, and while she’s only been 8:27 since summer 2018 in the 800, she nearly matched her best in the 400 with a 4:03.29 at the 2019 Pro Swim Series – Des Moines. In the 1500 free, Li has been 15:53.80 from the 2018 Asian Games.
#28: Ranomi Kromowidjojo, Netherlands – Kromowidjojo has had a stellar career, and she’s not done yet. The 2012 Olympic champion in the 50 free and 100 free has won four Olympic medals, three of them gold, and she’s won a medal at every long course World Championships since 2007. At 2017 and 2019 Worlds, she showed her versatility with silver medals in the 50 fly, and 2017 Worlds were the biggest medal haul for her, as she took home four. During the 2019 ISL season, Kromowidjojo went undefeated in the skins races and won the 50 free once, and in 2020, she was the fastest 50 flyer in the league and the #2 50 freestyler.
#27: Sarah Sjöström, Sweden – It’s extremely difficult to predict what kind of form Sjöström will be in in Tokyo after she fell on ice and had to get surgery for a broken elbow just a week ago. On the one hand, she’s an otherwordly athlete with a world-class medical and strength team on her side. On the other, she broke her elbow, and Swedish team doctor Rene Tour said there would be 3, maybe 4 months until she can be back to regular training. It seems very possible that she can return to *some* training in the near future, though. And as someone who can drop ridiculous sprint times at a championship or during the off-season, it’s hard to doubt Sjöström. While she was starting to lose grip of her 100 fly stronghold at international competitions, she still looked like a gold medal threat in that race as well as the 50/100/200 free; post-incident, we’d like to think she could get back to 24-low and podium-level speed in the 50 free, at the very least, by the summer.
#26: Suzuka Hasegawa, Japan – Hasegawa is a very exciting young talent in the 200 fly, an event that has not had a clear world #1 for years. She set the World Junior record in the 200 fly in 2017, dropping a big 2:06.29 at 17 years of age. Since 2018 summer, Hasegawa was in a bit of slump, her best between summer 2018 and spring 2020 only a 2:07.21. But then, last summer at the Tokyo Special Tournament in late August, Hasegawa took aim and fired a 2:05.62. That makes her the fastest 200 butterflier in the world since 2018, a huge jump after she wasn’t fast enough to even make the final at 2019 Worlds. She also hit a new best 57.49 in the 100 fly at that meet in August, and while she hasn’t shown her top speed at a long course Worlds or Olympics, she has the speed to surprise for a gold in the 200. In SCM, Hasegawa is also dangerous; she was the #1 ISL swimmer last season (2:03.12) and her 2:02.96 from 2017 is the Japanese record.
#25: Hali Flickinger, USA – Another great 200 fly standout, Flickinger has been pretty consistent for years. She won bronze in the 200 fly at 2015 World University Games, then progressed to the Olympic stage, where she placed seventh in the final. In 2017, she earned her first major medal as part of Team USA’s 4×200 free relay with a prelims swim, then she won her first major individual medal at 2018 Pan Pacs, taking gold in the 200 fly. In 2019, she was 2:05.9 in prelims at Worlds, but then gained in semis and finals and wound up with the silver by less than two-tenths behind Boglarka Kapas. Flickinger is a gold medal contender in the 200 fly in Tokyo with proven speed at major meets, though, and she’s an extremely valuable SCM competitor. Flickinger was #2 in the ISL in the 200 fly last season, while she showed her versatility with the #4 time in both the 400 free and 400 IM.
#24: Annie Lazor, USA – In May 2019, Lazor put the world on notice with a 2:20.77 in the long course 200 breast at the Pro Swim Series – Bloomington. Not even Lilly King has been that fast, ever. Lazor is the #9 performer in this event in history, and the only active swimmer who has been faster than her is Russian gold medal favorite Yulia Efimova. That summer, Lazor went on to win Pan Ams gold in the 200 breast (2:21.40) and break the meet record by three seconds, while also winning the 100 breast (1:06.94). Lazor was 1:06.5/2:21.6 in March 2020 right before the pandemic, and she was 1:06.0 in the 100 when she hit her 2:20. Lazor is looking really good to make the Team USA in both breaststrokes, and she’s at medal speed in both breast events with Olympic title potential in the 200.
#23: Wang Jianjiahe, China – Wang heads into the Tokyo Olympic year with a bronze medal in the 1500 free at the 2019 World Championships, while she won the 2018 World SC Champs gold in the 800 free by over four seconds. In spring 2019, Wang became the #3 performer ever in the 800 free (8:14.64), and she’s been very dangerous recently. In September 2020, she set a new Asian continental record in the 1500 free, going 15:45.59, a time that would’ve won silver at Worlds. Going off of her lifetime bests, including one just this past fall, she’s in great position for Tokyo.
#22: Boglarka Kapas, Hungary – Kapas surprised Hali Flickinger for the 200 fly title at 2019 Worlds, effectively making the Hungarian a Tokyo threat in a new event after already being a world-class distance freestyler. Kapas, 27, won the 800 free bronze in Rio in 2016, and she even won bronze in the 1500 free back at 2015 Worlds. The 2018 European champion in the 400/800/1500 free, Kapas was a complete non-factor in the 800 in Gwangju despite her 200 fly power, while she was the fifth-place finisher in the 400 free. If she can figure out how to be at her top form in both the distance free and 200 fly, she’s a huge threat.
#21: Sydney Pickrem, Canada – Pickrem is one of the premier IM talents in the world. She won the 200 IM bronze at 2019 Worlds, and she touched fourth in the 400 IM there, too. The year prior, she was the silver medalist in the 200 IM at Pan Pacs. In 2017, she won 400 IM bronze at Worlds in Budapest. Her 200 IM best is from 2019 (2:08.61), but her 400 IM best is from back in 2017, a lethal 4:32.88. That said, she looked phenomenal during the 2020 ISL season. She was #2 in the league in both IMs, right on Yui Ohashi’s heels, and hit lifetime bests 2:04.00 in the 200 and 4:23.68 in the 400, both Canadian records. Pickrem also has a third event with medal potential: the 200 breast. She boasts a 2:22.63 from 2019’s Canadian Worlds Trials, while she was 2:17.75 during the ISL season for the #4 time of the league and a personal best.