SwimSwam’s Top 20 Swimmers of the 2010s

by SwimSwam Staff 187

January 01st, 2020 International, National, News

Here it is: our totally, utterly, completely indisputable list of the best swimmers of the last decade. We’re sure you will all 100% agree and we’ll swim into the New Year with no further discussion.

Right?

In all seriousness, SwimSwam staffers comprised our list based perceived impact on the sport over the past 10 years. By all means, debate it. We have our reasons, and we’re sure you’ll have yours. Below, our top 20 swimmers are listed with their accomplishments (as well as occasional demerits) and landmark moments to make the case for why we think they’re worthy of a pick. This list is primarily focused on their accomplishments of the 2010s, though it doesn’t entirely ignore prior accomplishments either.


20. Daniel Gyurta, Hungary

Probably the most under-the-radar swimmer on this list in terms of international celebrity, Hungarian Daniel Gyurta was absolutely unbeatable in his specialty event, the 200 breaststroke, for most of the decade. He won essentially everything that he could win in the 200 breaststroke from 2009 through 2014. 2009 World Championship (LC), 2009 European Championship (SC), 2010 European Championship (LC), 2011 World Championship (LC), 2011 European Championship (SC), 2012 European Championship (LC), 2012 Olympic gold medal, 2012 World Championship (SC), 2012 World Championship (SC), 2013 European Championship (SC), 2013 World Championship (LC), and 2014 World Championship (SC). The only real hiccups in that run came at the 2014 European Championships, where he didn’t swim the event, at the 2010 World SC Championships, where he took a silver medal. He also broke the World Record in the 200 breaststroke in 2012, clearing out the old super-suit record from 3 years prior, and while his record only survived about six weeks, he sort of opened the floodgates in the event to where 2:07s became pretty normal at elite meets post-2009. This will probably be the most controversial inclusion on this list, but he’s another swimmer who was just single-event dominant for too long to be ignored.

19. Vladimir Morozov, Russia

Vlad Morozov’s NCAA career began with the decade, and as a freshman, he was a four-time All-American. He repeated that performance as a sophomore, and then his junior year, he became the first swimmer to break :18 in a 50 free with his legendary 17.86 relay split. Morozov also won the 50 and 100 frees, breaking Cesar Cielo’s NCAA and U.S. Open records in the latter. By that time, he had also swam in the 2012 Olympics, earning bronze as a member of Russia’s 4×100 free relay. Later that year, he’d win seven medals at the 2012 European Short Course Championships, then at 2012 Worlds, Morozov he home two more gold medals in the 50m and 100m freestyles. At 2013 Worlds, he took silver individually in the 50. Morozov was disqualified in the individual 100 free at 2015 Worlds, but nabbed another silver on the 4×100 free relay. In 2016, Morozov was named as a part of the Russian “disappearing positives” program that the World Anti-Doping Agency’s McLaren IP Report alleges was undertaken by the Russian anti-doping regime. He was initially banned from competing in the 2016 Olympic Games but was later reinstated in time to compete in Rio — his status could be up in the air again for Tokyo with the latest developments in the Russian saga. The Russian 4×100 free relay would finish fourth at the 2016 Games. Morozov took gold in the 50 freestyle at 2017 Short Course Euros, leading the field by 0.35 seconds. He didn’t take any individual medals at 2018 Euros, but won three on relays. At 2018 Worlds, Morozov earned his first world title in six years by winning the 50 free, then took second behind Caeleb Dressel in the 100. At 2019 Worlds, he again missed the podium individually but won medals on relays.

18. Ye Shiwen, China

Ye Shiwen made waves when she swam a top time in the world in the 200 IM and No. 2 time in the world in the 400 IM at the 2010 Asian Games at only 14 years old. She would go on to take down Alicia Coutts and Ariana Kukors in the 200 IM at the 2011 World Championships. London 2012, however, is where Ye made her lasting impact. She dropped two seconds off her lifetime best in prelims of the 400 IM, and then in finals, dropped three more seconds to set a world record. But it was her final 50 split that dropped jaws: Ye closed in 28.93, faster than the men’s event gold medalist Ryan Lochte (29.10). She went on to take gold 200 IM as well. Her performances sparked speculation about the cause of her rapid ascent, and though she was yet to win another Olympic or Worlds medal until this year, she was able to get within a reasonable distance of her record times at the 2014 Asian Games. Ye seemed to be on the brink of retirement after Rio — she even said that the 2016 Games would likely be her last — but she made a triumphant comeback to win silver at World last summer, and added breaststroke to her repertoire along the way

17. Nathan Adrian, USA

Hints about Nathan Adrian‘s eventual stranglehold on the 50 and 100 free began just before the start of this decade, with a 100 free win at Short Course Worlds in 2008, but then 2010 Pan Pacs saw him rise to stardom. In Irvine, he twice defeated world record holder Cesar Cielo in his signature events and anchored the U.S. to two relay gold medals. Though he couldn’t replicate those finishes at 2011 Worlds, he earned another gold on a relay. Adrian made his second Olympic team in 2012 and broke :48 for the first time leading off the 4×100 free relay. He eventually dropped another three tenths off that time to become the first American man since Matt Biondi in 1988 to win the 100 free, and upset James Magnussen by .01. He’d take bronze in the 100 at 2013 Worlds and silver in the 50 free in 2015. In Rio, he took bronze in both the 50 and 100, and won golds in both the 4×100 free and medley relays. At 2017 Worlds, he took second behind Caeleb Dressel in the 100. He picked up yet another gold at 2018 Pan Pacs. Throughout the entire decade, he was a mainstay on the podium at U.S. Nationals. Adrian’s biggest impact on the sport may have come in 2019, however. He announced in January that he had been diagnosed with testicular cancer, and devoted himself to raising awareness about men’s health issues in his recovery. Not only did he return to the pool, but he also returned in the podium in anchoring the men’s 4×100 free really to gold at 2019 Worlds. Adrian went on to take silver in the 50 and 100 in Lima at the 2019 Pan American Games, as well as two golds and a silver on relays.

16. Chad le Clos, South Africa

Chad le Clos’ international career fits squarely into the 2010s decade. He began his breakout at the 2010 Commonwealth Games, where he won five medals (two gold), then went on to win the 200 fly at Worlds, taking down Beijing silver medalist Lazlo Cseh. 2011 Worlds was one to forget for le Clos, a year later, he pulled off one of our biggest moments of the decade. In London, he upset then-world record-holder Michael Phelps — his self-proclaimed hero —  to win the 200 fly. He would go on to earn silver in the 100 fly as well. He followed up his Olympic performance by taking gold in both events at 2013 Worlds, then won four golds at 2014 Worlds, adding the 50 fly and 200 free to his arsenal. 2015 saw yet another world title in the 100 fly, and set up an Olympic rivalry as Phelps had a standout 2015 U.S. Nationals performance at the same time. Le Clos kicked off Rio by storming a loaded field for a silver-medal finish in the 200 free. He ended up taking fourth in his signature 200 fly, however, and was the object of Phelps’ apparent disdain when the #PhelpsFace meme was born. In a storybook ending to their rivalry, le Clos, Phelps and Cseh tied for silver behind Joe Schooling in the 100 fly. Le Clos would defeat Cseh once again at 2017 Worlds. Despite battling through a groin injury, he ended up with a bronze medal in the 200 fly in Gwangju last summer, then went on to become a star of International Swimming League champion Energy Standard.

15. Lilly King, USA

Undefeated in her NCAA career, and undefeated in her ISL career, Lilly King doesn’t lose often in short course. She hasn’t been able to carry her 200 breaststroke success into long course as much, but over 50 and 100 meters, she’s equally as dominant, winning the 100 breast at the 2016 Olympic Games, and the 50 and 100 breaststroke at the 2017 and 2019 World Championships. Her chief rival Yulia Efimova could probably be on this list on achievement alone, though we downgraded her as a result of multiple positive doping tests, and King still has been dominant in the sprint breaststrokes. Efimova is really the only swimmer in the world who is close to King in the Olympic 100 meter distance globally right now. King ends the decade as the World Record holder in the 50 and 100 meter breaststrokes in long course, and as one of the strongest voices in swimming.

14. Dana Vollmer, USA

After competing at the 2004 Olympics then missing 2008 by one spot, Dana Vollmer was back with a vengeance by the time her first World Championships of the decade came around. In 2011, she won two golds in a silver, including an individual title and American record in the 100 fly. Vollmer went on to qualify for London 2012. There, she broke her 100 fly record twice en route to winning gold, then picked up two more wins on relays, including the world record-setting 4×100 medley relay. She went to on to give birth to her first child in March 2015. She qualified for her third Olympics in 2016, taking second behind Kelsi Dahlia in the 100 fly at U.S. Trials and finishing sixth in the 100 free. In Rio, Vollmer took bronze individually in the 100 fly behind world record-holder Sarah Sjostrom, and Penny Oleksiak. She also nabbed a silver on the 4×100 free relay and another gold on the 4×100 medley relay. In April 2017, Vollmer made headlines by competing at a Pro Swim Series stop while six months pregnant, then had her second child in July. After returning, once again, she made appearances at various meets, but injured her shoulder at Champions Swim Series stop in May. She did not race again until announcing her retirement and intent to swim one last 100 fly at U.S. Nationals in August. In that swim, she broke 1:00 — a feat she achieved over 110 times in her career.

13. Ranomi Kromowidjojo, Netherlands

Ranomi Kromowidjojo. (Photo: Tim Binning)

The 29-year old Ranomi Kromowidjojo is enjoying a career resurgence thanks to her ability to sprint multiple strokes, really well, in a short period of time, multiple weeks in a row, which is the hottest thing in swimming right now. But don’t let her success on the World Cup series and skins dominance in the International Swimming League’s 2019 season (she went 3-for-3) erase memories of how good she was in the more traditional swimming formats in the early half of the decade. At the 2012 Olympic Games, she won both the 50 and 100 freestyles, and 15 of her 17 long course World Championship medals came in the 2010s (as did 11 of her 12 World SC Championship gold medals). She also broke a World Record in 2017 in the 50 free in short course meters – a 22.93 that still stands today, withstanding attacks from legendary swimmers like Sarah Sjostrom and Cate Campbell.

12. Ryan Murphy, USA

Ryan Murphy won his first two international medals, both bronzes, in 2011 at the World Junior Swimming Championships and the Pan American Games. Murphy made the final at 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials in both the 100 and two back, but missed the Olympic team, placing as high as fourth. He instead competed at the 2012 Short Course World Championships, where he won bronze individually in the 200 back and a gold for his heat swim in the 4×100 medley relay. Murphy did not qualify for 2013 Worlds, but that would soon be forgotten as his NCAA career began. Murphy broke numerous NCAA and American records en route to his single-stroke, double-event, four-year sweep (the fourth man ever to do so in any stroke) of the backstrokes for Cal. Before his senior year, he had a huge showing in Rio, winning the 100 and 200 back and setting the 100 world record leading off the gold medal 4×100 medley relay. At 2017 Worlds, he placed third in the 100 back and second in the 200. He rebounded to take gold in the 100 and 200 at 2018 Pan Pacs, and gold in the short course 100 back at 2018 Worlds and added a silver in the 200. Murphy missed the podium in the 50 and 100 back at 2019 Worlds and took silver in the 200 — but his 100 back world record still stands.

11. Mireia Belmonte, Spain

Health issues have marred the last few years of results for the 29-year old Spaniard Mireia Belmonte, but at her peak, she probably had a bigger claim to the “Iron” nicknames than even Katinka Hosszu. Nowhere was that more present than at the 2014 World Short Course Championships where she won the 200 fly, 400 IM, 400 free, and 800 free – four of the most grueling events in that meet’s schedule. She won four Olympic medals in the decade, including gold in the 200 fly at the 2016 Games. That made her the first-ever female Spanish swimmer to win an Olympic gold medal. In total across the decade, Belmonte broke six World Records across four events, and is the current record holder in both the 400 IM and 800 free in short course meters. Now entering year five of serious health problems (she missed the 2015 World Championships with chronic bursitis in her shoulder), Belmonte still takes on grueling schedules with an unmatched level of toughness to fight through injury and illness.

10. Sun Yang, China

Sun Yang was a dominant force in the distance freestyles early in the decade who evolved into a dominant middle distance freestyler in the latter half. He won three Olympic gold medals in the 2010s to go with 2 silver and 1 bronze. He also won 11 long course World Championships in the 2010s, and nine Asian Games gold medals. In May of 2014, he tested positive for the banned substance trimetazidine, which had been banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency four months earlier. Sun said at the time that his doctor prescribed the medicine to treat heart palpitations, and that he was unaware that it had been recently banned. He ultimately served a three-month doping ban (before the world found out that he had tested positive). While the doping issues certainly knock his case, he’s been too dominant in the 200+ meter freestyles this decade to ignore. His long, smooth, hyper-efficient stroke led him to break a World Record in the 1500 meter freestyle as well.

9. Caeleb Dressel, USA

Presuming that Caeleb Dressel does in Tokyo next year what we all think he might do, it’s possible that we’ll be discussing his place among swimming history, ever. But for now, even at 23, and with only two Olympic gold medals, his place on this list is undeniable. In men’s swimming in 2019, Dressel is the most unopposable force in the pool. He already has 13 World Championship gold medals and is the fastest swimmer ever in 7 different individual events. In the inaugural International Swimming League season, which is formatted as an ultimate test of versatility and durability, Dressel very nearly won the MVP award, even though he missed 25% of his team’s meets. His magic began in 2013, when he popped a mid-season National High School Record in the 100 yard fly, and continued to see him break several others. At 17, at the 2013 Speedo Short Course Junior Nationals, he became the first high school swimmer ever under 19 seconds when he swam 18.94. It wasn’t hard to see his talent then, but at that meet he struggled to match that incredible output in his later events after an asthma attack.

As a freshman at Florida, he won the NCAA title in the 50 free in 18.67, missing the American Record by .01 seconds, but again he didn’t really follow through in his other races: he was ninth in the 100 fly in 45.69 and 11th in the 100 free in 42.46. But, that was the last thought anybody gave to whether Dressel had the durability and endurance to lift himself among the all-time greats beyond just the 50 free. By the time he finished at Florida, Dressel became the first man under 18 seconds in a 50 yard freestyle, and also the most versatile yards swimmer in history: he had broken American Records (in yards) in the 50 free, 100 free, 100 fly, 100 breast, and 200 IM. Nobody else had ever been as good as him in any of those events individually, let alone in all of those events simultaneously. While he’s had one clunker of a season in long course since (summer of 2018), he’s by-and-large been hurtling toward becoming the dominant swimmer of a generation. He won seven gold medals (three individual) at the 2017 World Championships and six more in 2019 (four individual). He’s the first American man to ever win a World Championship in the long course 50 fly, and broke Michael Phelps’ decade-old World Record in the 100 fly.

8. Simone Manuel, USA

At just 23 years old, Simone Manuel has already been major actor on the world’s sprinting stage for over six years, and emerged as an all-time great in a down period for American women’s sprinting. After finishing 20th in the 50 free at 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials, Manuel stormed to two top-three finishes at 2013 U.S. Nationals, and went on to win a gold medal at the 2013 World Championships as a prelims relay swimmer. The following summer, she won the 50 free and was second in the 100 at U.S. Nationals, punching her ticket to 2014 Pan Pacs. In Gold Coast, she took bronze individually in the 100 free and finished just off the podium in the 50. Manuel returned from Pan Pacs to start an all-time great NCAA career: she was six-time individual national champion, winning the 50 and 100 free in each of her three years. She set numerous NCAA, American and U.S. Open records, and had the first of her multiple landmark moments in swimming history when she, Lia Neal and Natalie Hinds went 1-2-3 in the 100 free in 2015 for the first podium to feature three black swimmers in women’s Division I swimming history.

Simone Manuel. (Photo: Simone Castrovillari)

Manuel swam for her second Worlds team in 2015, finaling individually in the 50 and 100 free. After finishing second in the 50 and 100 free at 2016 Olympic Trials, Manuel shocked the Rio field to tie Canadian Penny Oleksiak for gold in the 100 free. With the win, Manuel became the first black woman to earn an Olympic swimming gold, and the image of tears streaming down her face on the podium is one of the most iconic in the sport’s history — three years removed, her impact may not yet be fully realized. And Rio was only the beginning of her decade’s peak: Manuel would upset world record holder Sarah Sjostrom to win the 100 free at the 2017 World Championships and became the first American woman under 24 seconds for a bronze medal in the 50. Two years later in Gwangju, she became the first American woman to sweep the sprints at Worlds — winning the 100 from lane one — and secured her status (sorry Lezak) as the most clutch American sprinter ever.

7. Sarah Sjostrom, Sweden

Sarah Sjostrom emerged as a player on the international stage as an early teenager ahead of the 2010s, even setting the 100 fly world record at the 2009 World Championships, and began her decade by defending her 100 fly title at the 2010 European Championships. By 2012, she was a semi-finalist in three events at the London Olympics (50 free, 100 free, 200 free) and finished fourth in her signature 100 fly, losing her world record to Dana Vollmer. At Worlds in 2013, she picked up four individual medals and two on relays, and then in 2014, shaved a whopping .64 seconds off the 50 fly world record. Come 2015 Worlds, she took back her world record in the 100 fly, lowering the mark twice. Sjostrom took gold in the 100 fly in Rio, against besting her world record, and added a silver medal and the 200 free and a bronze in the 100 free — becoming just the second woman ever to medal in all three events. At Worlds in 2017, Sjostrom set world records in both the 50 and 100 free — almost exactly eight years after her first world record performance. In 2019, she led all women at Worlds with five individual medals. She followed up that performance by becoming the star of the ISL: taking the overall MVP award (and prize money) over presumed favorite Caeleb Dressel and led Energy Standard to an undefeated season.

6. Missy Franklin, USA

Missy Franklin’s decade peaked early and sharply, but her impact on swimming remains omnipresent. As a 15-year-old in 2010, she made the United States’ Pan Pacs team, finishing as high as fourth individually. She earned her first international medals at Short Course World later that year, where she finished second in the 200 back. 2011 saw Franklin’s first individual world title, and by then, she was poised to be America’s sweetheart. Come London 2012, Franklin won four gold medals and a bronze, and set a world record in the 200 back that would go untouched for seven years. She was also the subject of “Touch the Wall,” a documentary about her life and training with Olympian Kara Lynn Joyce that took the swimming world by storm and gave insight into Franklin’s infectious personality. 2013 Worlds was her most dominant performance: Franklin won six golds, the most ever by a woman at a single world championships — they included the last individual gold medals of her career.

After Barcelona, Franklin had an abbreviated but decorated career at Cal. She won two team titles, four individual titles, and set an American record in the 200 free that has yet to be challenged, but ultimately turned pro before her eligibility was up. At 2014 Pan Pacs, she earned a bronze individually in the 100 back and secured her spot on the 2015 Worlds team through a strong B-final 200 free performance. Franklin won two more individual medals at Worlds — a silver in the 200 back and bronze in the 200 free — and they would be the final ones of her career. In Rio, she missed the final in the 200 free and 200 back, but won her final international medal as a heat swimmer for the U.S. women’s first-place 4×200 free relay. Franklin’s career trajectory was a question mark for the following two years as she battled a series of ailments, and she shook the sports world by announcing her retirement, partly citing a desire to focus on her family, in an essay in December 2018.

5. Adam Peaty, Great Britain

By the nature of breaststroke, swimmers aren’t as likely to amass the same gigantic medal counts as, say top sprint freestylers. But even with only 1 Olympic gold medal, we can’t diminish the singular dominance in an event that Adam Peaty has had in the 2010s. Nobody on the men’s side has dominated a race the way he has the 100 breaststroke in long course since probably Michael Phelps’ 2000s run in the 400 IM. Peaty has the 17 fastest 100 LCM breaststrokes in history. That includes the culmination of his “Project 56” this summer, where he became the first man to swim better than 57 seconds in the 100 breaststroke when he went 56.88. That time is 1.41 seconds faster than anybody else has been in a race that lasts less than 1 minute. His resume includes eight long course World Championship gold medals, 12 European Championship long course gold medals, and 3 Commonwealth Games gold medals. Another young swimmer, who at 24 could have his best days ahead of him, Peaty takes a little bit of a hit because he lacks the versatility of some others on this list, including a weakness in short course, but those sprint breaststroke races carry him a long, long way.

4. Ryan Lochte, USA

Much like Michael Phelps, Lochte’s decade saw some of his career’s highest highs, but many of his lowest lows. He started off the 2010s as the best swimmer in the world: he became the first individual to win seven medals at a short course world championships and broke the first world records of the post-supersuit era. At the 2011 World Championships, he went head-to-head with Phelps twice, and twice came out on top. At the following Olympics, Lochte once again downed Phelps, winning the 400 IM, then took second to him in the 200 IM, and provided a key leadoff on the United States’ 4×200 free relay. 2013 Worlds was as successful as any for Lochte, and included a record fifth-straight Worlds 4×200 relay gold medal performance. The same year, his now-infamous reality TV show “What Would Ryan Lochte Do?” shot him into pop culture stardom — although often in an unflattering light — and solidified his longtime legacy as the US’ party boy.

He won his fourth-straight world title in the 200 IM in 2015, and then 2016 is when things began to unravel. Lochte kicked off Rio with a win in the 4×200 free relay, becoming the second-most decorated male Olympic swimmer in history, but took fourth in his signature 200 IM. Then came Lochtegate, which needs no further explanation and landed the then-31-year-old a 10-month suspension from international competition. In that time, he lost his major sponsors, got engaged to model Kayla Rae Reid, and the two had their first son. Lochte regained a major sponsor, launching his “Just Let Me Work” campaign with TYR in January 2017, and things were looking up. But come May, the embattled star landed himself another suspension by taking vitamins through an intravenous infusion — he was dealt a 14-month ban. He and Kayla had their second child, a daughter, in that time, and got married. Lochte also checked himself in for a six-week stay in rehab for alcohol addiction. When he emerged from suspension to compete at U.S. Nationals in August, Lochte portrayed himself as a seasoned family man pledging his dedication to making his fifth Olympic Games, and dropped one of his best performances ever in the 200 IM.

3. Katinka Hosszu, Hungary

Katinka Hosszu left her mark on this decade with not only what she did in the pool, but also with what she did out of it. After wrapping up a decorated college career in 2012, Hosszu made her third Olympic Games after ascending the world ranks in the three years prior, but had a relatively disappointing performance, finishing off the podium in the 400 IM. She bounced back quickly, however, winning multiple world titles in 2013 and starting down the path of unprecedented frequency in racing and winning that led to her “Iron Lady” monicker. She kicked off the 2015 World Championships by taking down a super-suited world record in the 200 IM, then picked up a second gold in the 400 IM. In Rio, she put up an inspired performance in the 400 IM, downing her own world record by two seconds and winning by five. She went on to win the 100 back and 200 IM, then got upset in the 200 back.

Katinka Hosszu. (Photo: Peter Sukenik)

At that meet, her then-husband and coach gained infamy for his on-deck antics — a storyline that would overshadow much of the ensuing two years before the partnership came to an end. While together, however, Hosszu became the first swimmer — male or female — to amass over $1 million in prize money, then in 2017, she emerged at the forefront of swimming’s own “athlete empowerment era,” penning a letter calling for a world pro swimming union when changes to FINA rules directly limited her earning potential. Since that juncture, she put her name on the lawsuit filed along with Tom Shields and Michael Andrew against FINA for blocking ISL activities, then headed her own ISL team amid more coaching turmoil, which led to a surprising — but perhaps fitting — outcome: coaching herself to Tokyo.

2. Katie Ledecky, USA

The last decade in swimming was essentially defined by two events: the end of Michael Phelps’ career and the beginning of Katie Ledecky’s. Ledecky burst onto the scene at 2012 Olympic Trials, where as the youngest swimmer in attendance, she won the 800 free and finished third in the 400 and ninth in the 200. At the Olympics, she vaulted onto the world stage by winning the 800 in near-world record fashion. At Worlds a year, she took down the world record in the 1500 (by six seconds) and the 800, and set an American record in the 400; the 400 world record came down a year later at U.S. Nationals. 2015 Worlds was a similar story — and she added a win in the 200 free as well. Rio 2016 saw Ledecky sweep the 200, 400 and 800, and add a win in the 4×100 free relay — while already committed to join Stanford in the NCAA following the meet. Her dominant performances in Rio (like winning the 800 by 11 seconds) quickly turned her into a worldwide phenomenon and led to lasting images that will go down as some of the most iconic in Olympic history.

2017 Worlds saw Ledecky reach a 12-for-12 streak in gold medal Worlds swims before she took her first international silver in the 200, and shortly after it was announced that her signature 1500 would be added to the 2020 Olympics. That Ledecky rewrote the record books in her NCAA career is almost relegated to a footnote on her international résume; her two years before going pro showed a relative weakness in the 200 free, but conversely, she stunned the field when she took on the 400 IM. Then, Ledecky took five seconds off her 1500 free world record in her first race as a pro in 2018 and went on to win three individual golds at Pan Pacs that year. While her 2019 Worlds performance saw her lose a 400 free for the first time since 2012 and pull out of the 200 and 1500 citing illness, her legacy was bolstered by a gritty 800 free win featuring a last-50 comeback. In the first decade of her career, Ledecky pushed the boundaries of what was thought possible in the pool, and she will more than likely begin her second decade as the first women’s 1500 free Olympic gold medalist, a program change behind which she was undoubtedly a major catalyst.

1. Michael Phelps, USA

Yes, Michael Phelps‘ 8-for-8 came in the last decade, but what he accomplished in the 2010s alone makes for an all-time-great career. In London, even after what he admitted was a very challenging stretch personally and in training, he won four Olympic gold medals. Four years later in Rio, in what was (allegedly) his final Olympics, he won five Olympic gold medals. In total, 12 of his 28 total Olympic medals and 9 of his 23 Olympic gold medals came in the 2010s, although he won his last World Championship in 2011 and broke his last World Record in 2009. The decade also saw Phelps hit his lowest of lows – a DUI arrest in 2014 that precipitated a personal rock-bottom – and a rebirth that included marriage to his longtime girlfriend Nicole Johnson and three children as he evolved into a family man. While the 2000s were the decade that made Phelps a household name, the 2010s were the decade that made him human, that made him relatable, and that secured his legacy as the greatest Olympian of all time.

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swimmer
8 months ago

Caleb Dressel at 9? Really? Realllllllyyyyy?? Definitely deserves higher. Probably 2nd but I could take 3rd, maybe.

Samuel Huntington
Reply to  swimmer
8 months ago

How could you possibly justify Dressel over Ledecky? She has multiple individual Olympic golds, Dressel has no individual medals. Ledecky has repeatedly destroyed world records. Dressel has broken a world record once. He’s not even close to Ledecky for this decade.

Jim C
Reply to  Samuel Huntington
8 months ago

Dressel might be behind Ledecky for the decade, and still be number 2.

Brownish
Reply to  Samuel Huntington
8 months ago

Or Katinka.

Swimmer
Reply to  Samuel Huntington
8 months ago

I’m not sure how anyone can think of Ledecky so highly. She’s good at distance free and… oh yeah, that’s all. Dressel is significantly more dominate if you take into account how many different events he can swim and the fact that if you extrapolate out from 50/100 races to distance lengths that he is winning by a larger percentage margin. It’s impressive when Ledecky wins by a mile but in reality its closer than Dressel’s swims.

Plus I don’t think anybody in their right mind can look at his 50 free in yards and say they’ve ever witnessed a more impressive swim. There isn’t even an argument to be made about it.

B1G Daddy
Reply to  Swimmer
8 months ago

Tom Dolan, 4:08.7 in the 500 Free in March 1995 was as impressive as anything we’ve ever seen in a yards pool.

Get out of here with “There isn’t even an argument.” Unless you’re at least 35 years old you would have no perspective.

Have you ever heard of Mary T. Meagher and what happened in Brown Deer?

Swimmer
Reply to  B1G Daddy
8 months ago

You can think what you want, but must be something wrong with your brain if you honestly think that.

Anonymous
Reply to  Swimmer
4 months ago

I think that currently now, the top 10 are: 10. Joseph Schooling. Won Singapore’s first gold medal 9. Matt Biondi. won gold in 3 different Olympic games 8. Mark Spitz. Won 7 golds in single Olympics in Munich 1972. 7. Sun Yang. After finishing poorly in 2008, he broke 1500 WR with a time of 14:31.02 in 2012. 6. Kate Ledecky. Stormed with 8:04.79 for 800 freestyle, about 10 seconds drop in 2016. 5. Ryan Murphy. Won 3 golds and broke WR with a time of 51.85 in 2016. 4. Adam Peaty. Miracle, breaking WR in 100 breaststrokes more than 4 times. 3. Caeleb Dressel. Broke MP’s record with 49.50 in the 100-meter butterfly. 2. Ryan Lochte. Winner of 400… Read more »

SwimSwam
Reply to  Anonymous
4 months ago

In terms of Olympic, Dressel will be rank… probably out of the top 20s because he only won like at least 1 and the most of 3 Olympic medals. In terms of FINA and Olympics, then Dressel should deserve 2nd place because he broke more records then Ledecky world champions.

Togger
Reply to  Swimmer
8 months ago

Just in the past decade I’d say Sjostrom’s 50 fly and Peaty’s 100 breast are in the same category as that 50 free, arguably Hosszu’s 400 IM too.

Historically, Mary T, Thorpe, Phelps, Egerszegi, Popov and no doubt others I’ve forgotten could make a claim.

swimfast
Reply to  Swimmer
8 months ago

it’s the way she broke a record basically every time she swam between the 2012 games and the 2016 games. that entire quad was all hers. she was a superstar for four years straight, with essentially 0 losses

Jim C
Reply to  Swimmer
8 months ago

Over the last 3 years I would pick Dressel–but over the last 10 I would take Ledecky. That would be particularly true if a large emphasis was given to the Olympics.

Unknown
Reply to  Samuel Huntington
4 months ago

Sam, for some points I do agree, but for some, I disagree. What you said was only comparing Ledecky and Dressel to the Olympics, but if you include something like FINA world championships, Dressel would be a lot better than Ledecky. Why? That is because Ledecky only broke World records at least 3 or 4 times, but Dressel broke the world record at least 7 times, 2 in long course, and 5 in short course. Even if Ledecky is still better than Dressel, I guarantee, Dressel WILL overtake Ledecky one day.

XavierL
Reply to  swimmer
8 months ago

As I do agree he should be lower I wouldn’t put him in top 3 considering he has really only broken out in the last 2 or 3 years

200 SIDESTROKE B CUT
Reply to  swimmer
8 months ago

It was a long decade, bro.
Dressel wasn’t even relevant individually until 2017.

Casas 100 back gold in Tokyo
Reply to  swimmer
8 months ago

If we only talk about the past decade, he didn’t have individual Olympic gold so it’s already good enough for him to make top 10.

Jimbo
Reply to  Casas 100 back gold in Tokyo
8 months ago

I’m not saying who I think should be above who or anything I’m just giving info. Dressel has broken 2 world records not 1. 1 fly long course and 50 free scm. I’m not counting relays or scy or that would add more. But individual world records he’s got 2

swimfast
Reply to  swimmer
8 months ago

dressel’s career is currently budding (albeit very quickly and explosively), but, this next decade should include him…he didn’t start winning world champs until 2017 and was just a relay swimmer at the last olympics. If he continues this, then he should definitely be top 5-10 when swimswam does this list again in 2030

Swimlol
8 months ago

Caeleb above Adam Peaty all day. Whilst Peaty is a force to be reckoned with over one discipline and an absolute machine in breaststroke, Dressel tips this with his versatility AND dominance over scm, scy and lcm

Swimmer
Reply to  Swimlol
8 months ago

As this is looking globally, I’m not sure how much weight dominance in SCY should have in this? There is no doubt that Caeleb is dominant in all 3, but no swimmer outside the US swims yards so it can’t really be considered to be a global factor. Given his versatility I think Caeleb is more dominant than Peaty, but Peaty has been a force for longer and is so outstanding in the breaststroke events that I can see why he’s been placed as he has.

Samuel Huntington
8 months ago

Mostly agree! But feel like Agnel needs to be somewhere. That 200 free was so special, would have won worlds this year by 1.8 seconds!
But idk who he would replace…

Swimmy
Reply to  Samuel Huntington
8 months ago

Yes. But he does not truly represent a best swimmer of the decade. More best of 2012

SAMUEL HUNTINGTON
Reply to  Swimmy
8 months ago

he was also good in 2013. There are a number of swimmers on this list who have been relevant for only a few years (I see Ye 3, Dressel 3, Missy 3) so I wouldn’t knock Agnel too much for this.