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 #50 – #41
#50: Tatjana Schoenmaker, South Africa – Schoenmaker has gone on a tear the past few years, sweeping the 100 and 200 breast gold medals at both 2018 Commonwealth Games and 2019 World University Games. Her lone Worlds-level medal is a silver in the 200 breast at 2019 Worlds. Schoenmaker will turn 24 shortly before the Olympics and could challenge for South Africa’s first Olympic medal in women’s swimming since Penny Heyns in 2000.
#49: Margherita Panziera, Italy – Panziera is the reigning European 200 backstroke champion in both short course and long course meters. But the backstrokes set her up in a tough field with plenty of young talent ranking higher up on this list – that means even a good year could leave Panziera off the medal podium, as she was in a 4th-place showing (by .05) at 2019 Worlds. Still, Panziera is good enough to crack our top 50, with potential to move up if some of the backstroke upstarts regress in the Olympic spotlight.
#48: Charlotte Bonnet, France -Like Panziera, Bonnet is a 2018 European Champion (200 free) who faces a much tougher non-European field at the Olympic level. Bonnet was the #2-ranked European in the world in the 200 free for 2020 – but just 7th when you include swimmers from Asia, Australia, and the U.S. Bonnet is also a very solid short course 200 freestyler who could have an impact at Short Course Worlds or in the ISL if she participates this year.
#47: Claire Curzan, USA – the 16-year-old Curzan has been an age group standout for awhile. But a 56.6 in the long course 100 fly last November was a swim that put Curzan onto the international stage – that was the #1 swim of any American for 2020 and ranked 3rd worldwide. An Olympic medal is well within the range of outcomes for Curzan, and with her age and improvement curve, the ceiling is much, much higher.
#46: Katie Drabot, USA – Drabot won World Championships bronze in the 200 fly in 2019. Though she’ll face some stiff competition to make the U.S. Olympic team, she’s also a solid medal threat who might be a bigger name if she’d gotten a senior-year NCAA meet last spring. As a bonus, Drabot also projects as a strong ISL candidate if she chooses to compete in short course meters.
#45: Rikako Ikee, Japan – a couple of years ago, Ikee would probably be a top-10 swimmer on this list after winning six golds at the 2018 Asian Games and four total medals (including 100 fly gold) at 2018 Pan Pacs. She’d been out of competition for more than a year and a half while undergoing treatment for leukemia. But the 20-year-old has started her comeback trail with a handful of meets over the past six months, and in the past two months qualified for Japan’s Olympic Trials with a 55.35 in the 100 free and also went 24.91 in the 50 free. Those are major steps toward a return to her ceiling, which is much, much higher than #45, though Ikee has plenty of work to do in limited time before the Tokyo Olympics. The world freestyle and butterfly fields, though, have to be looking over their shoulder as Ikee starts to get up to speed.
#44: Taylor Ruck, Canada – Ruck’s ceiling is absolutely sky-high for an athlete ranked in this range. But she also has to prove she can manage a heavy workload enough to break through for an individual world-level medal. Ruck won a ridiculous eight total medals at 2018 Commonwealth Games and upset Katie Ledecky for Pan Pacs 200 free gold that same year. In 2019, though, she won only relay medals at Worlds, scratching out of the 200 free as her event slate grew overcrowded in the prelims/semifinals/finals format. She wasn’t far off multiple medals (4th in 100 back; 5th in 200 back; 5th in 100 free) and could break through in a huge way in Tokyo – she just has to find the right balance of events, including lots of relays that will be high-priority to her Canadian national team.
#43: Femke Heemskerk, Netherlands – Heemskerk is another big-name sprinter to end up in the 40s on our list. A two-time Olympic relay medalist, Heemskerk faces a tall order to win her first individual Olympic medal at the age of 33. But anything can happen in the sprints, and Heemskerk is a good candidate to at least make the 100 free final, putting herself in the mix. Heemskerk is also a big-time short course talent who was top-30 in ISL scoring this year – she projects to remain a big-name contributor there for 2021.
#42: Liu Xiang, China – Liu had an outstanding 2020, dropping four tenths of a second in the 50 free and leading the world in both that event (24.03) and the 50 back (27.36) for the calendar year. The 24-year-old isn’t a household name, and a bronze medal in the 50 back at 2015 Worlds is the extent of her international resume. But 24.0 speed can’t be ignored – that puts her #11 all-time and one of the youngest of the still-active names on that list.
#41: Kira Toussaint, Netherlands – Toussaint’s major resume piece is a 2020 world record in the short course 50 backstroke. That’s a major accomplishment for the fast-rising Dutch swimmer. Toussaint really only sits this low because that crowning achievement doesn’t come in the Olympic course (long course meters) or distance (the 50 back isn’t an Olympic event). A recent 58.9 in the 100 long course meter backstroke suggests Toussaint should be an Olympic final contender there, and though that field is absolutely brutal with top-flight talents, Toussaint still has an outside shot to steal a minor medal.