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 #40 – #31
#40: Freya Anderson, GBR – Anderson is on her way to becoming the best 100/200 freestyler in British history, hitting a 53.3 100 free in 2019 and then a 1:56.0 out of championships season (January 2020) in long course. Her 200 is where she really has medal chances, notorious for ridiculous back-half speed a la Federica Pellegrini. In November, Anderson broke her own British record in the 200 SCM free of 1:52.60 by almost a full second, hitting a 1:51.87. Anderson was the #2 ISL swimmer in the 200 free and #5 in the 100, and her SCM progressions since the pandemic hit prime her for a 1:55 or better this summer in long course.
#39: Pernille Blume, Denmark – Blume is one of the greatest European sprinters in history, and she’s the reigning Olympic champion in the 50 free. She won the 100 free bronze at 2017 Worlds, and since then she’s taken Euro Champs long course bronze in the 50 in 2018 and Euro SCM bronze in 2019. Though she hasn’t won a major international medal since 2017, she was still 24.08 in long course in June 2019 at a FINA Champions Series meet, which holds up well, at fifth in the world since January 2019.
#38: Abbey Weitzeil, USA – Weitzeil has been one of the top American sprinters since the end of high school. Coming off of a senior season at Cal that saw her become the first woman to break 21 seconds in the flat-start 50-yard free, she hit a lifetime best 53.18 in the 100 long course free in 2019. She’s also been 24.28 in the 50, but not since 2016. Weitzeil doesn’t seem to be slowing down anytime soon, though; during the ISL season, she blasted a 23.4/51.2 SCM combo in the 50 and 100, downing American Records in both. In 2019, she also had a big 52.6 split at long course Worlds to help Team USA snap the American Record in the 4×100 free relay.
#37: Penny Oleksiak, Canada – Oleksiak had a huge peak in 2016, famously tying with Simone Manuel for 100 free gold in Rio. She has been 52.70 in the 100 free and 56.46 in the 100 fly, which would be medal-contending times if they weren’t from 2016. She hasn’t fully gone quiet, though, and thundered to a new best of 1:56.41 in the 200 free at 2019 Worlds. Intriguingly, while she didn’t race the 100 free or 100 fly at that meet, she delivered major splits on relays, going 1:54.36 to anchor the 4×200 relay and 52.48 to anchor the medley. Both relays won bronze and set new Canadian records, as did the 400 free relay where she split 52.69. We’ll know soon where she’s at now, with the Canadian Trials coming up.
#36: Olivia Smoliga, USA – We’re starting to see the effects of the ridiculous field of women’s backstroke worldwide. Smoliga, who won the 50 back gold and 100 back bronze at the 2019 Worlds, has had an incredible career so far; she set the American Record in the 50m back in 2019 in long course, set American Records in the SCM 50 and 100 back during the 2020 ISL season, and she’s been on two World Record-setting relays (the 4×50 medley and 4×100 medley women’s relays). A very strong sprinter in free and back in SCM, Smoliga’s medal shot comes down to the 100 back, and she will need to really fight just to make the U.S. team.
#35: Leah Smith, USA – Leah Smith has been the dependable American in the #2 distance slot behind WR-holder Katie Ledecky for several years now. Smith won Olympic bronze in the 400 free in Rio, and since then, she’s been very much in the mix: she won silver in the 400 and bronze in the 800 in Budapest at 2017 Worlds, then took the 400 bronze in Gwangju at 2019 Worlds. She also won bronze in the 400, 800 and 1500 free at Pan Pacs in 2018. Further, Smith has helped Team USA to Olympic gold in the 4×200 free relay, while she’s been on 4×200 free relays that won the World title in 2017 and World silver in 2019. The 400 free is starting to get really crowded, but Smith has had more recent bests in the 800, and she’s a medal contender in both.
#34: Yang Junxuan, China – In January 2020, Yang unleashed a 1:54.98 in the 200m free in long course, putting the world on notice. She just turned 19 last month, and we see a lot of turnover with young Chinese standouts who throw down huge times once or twice then fade out. Yang doesn’t appear to be one of those cases, though: she owns the top time for the 2020-21 season after another big January swim, a 1:55.65 to come close to her own Chinese record. The 200 free has plenty of 1:54’s and 1:55s in the mix, but we’ve seen Ledecky regress and both Sjöström and Ikee are recovering from injury and leukemia, respectively, which makes the event far more open.
#33: Melanie Margalis, USA – One of the best combo 200 IMers/200 freestylers in the world, Margalis has been painstakingly short of medaling in the 200 IM at the last two World Championships, taking fourth in 2017 and 2019. She holds American Records in all three IM races in SCM, and she’s been on both American Record-setting 4×200 free relays in SCM and LCM, including a 1:55.8 split at 2019 Worlds. Margalis left the ISL season early due to personal reasons, but before she left, she won the 200 IM three times and the 400 free, 400 IM and 100 IM once each in her three matches in Budapest.
#32: Benedetta Pilato, Italy – Pilato is one of two young breaststroke sensations, and her sprint tempo is starting to work in the 100, not just the 50. After figuring out her 100 breast race strategy, Pilato broke through in December’s Italian Nationals with a 1:06.02 to break the Italian record and qualify for Tokyo. Her 50 breast at that meet was magnificent: she went 29.61 to break her own Italian record, as well as the World Junior record. During the 2020 ISL season, Pilato didn’t show any nerves going up against greats like Lilly King and Alia Atkinson, ending the season as the #2 performer in the 50 and #3 in the 100.
#31: Evgenia Chikunova, Russia – Chikunova is a sniper 200 breaststroker, having taken down Yulia Efimova Russian age group records; notably, she blasted a 2:21.0 in the 200 breast long course at age 14. Her best of 2:21.07 from the 2019 European Junior Championships has her as the fourth-best active performer right now, too. There are a lot of 200 breaststrokers floating between 2:19 and 2:22 right now, but Chikunova is still very young, and she should be a medal contender, if not Olympic title contender, in the 200 breast.