The Expected Surprises That Come At The U.S. Olympic Trials

On a recent SwimSwam podcast, despite making one of the worst hot-takes imaginable (that shall not be repeated here), one of the points I made was that we generally tend to under-estimate surprises in our picks for who makes the Olympic Team and that YanYan was right to pick Dare Rose and Alec Enyeart. Not necessarily because I think those two, specifically, have a high likelihood of making the team, but that there will very likely be somebody like that.

I went back and looked at what happened in the lead-up to the Tokyo Olympics. Looking at the World Rankings for 2020 is a bit odd, in light of some minor world event that year, so instead, I looked at 2019. How did our team rank in 2019?

World Rank U.S. Rank Name Event
1 1 Katie Ledecky W 800 Free
1 1 Katie Ledecky W 1500 Free
1 1 Regan Smith W 100 Back
1 1 Lilly King W 100 Breast
1 1 Hali Flickinger W 200 Fly
1 1 Caeleb Dressel M 100 Free
1 1 Caeleb Dressel M 100 Fly
1 1 Caeleb Dressel M 50 Free
2 1 Katie Ledecky W 400 Free
2 1 Annie Lazor W 200 Breast
2 1 Ryan Murphy M 200 Back
2 1 Jay Litherland M 400 IM
3 1 Simone Manuel W 50 Free
3 1 Ryan Murphy M 100 Back
4 2 Lilly King W 200 Breast
6 1 Emma Weyant W 400 IM
6 1 Chase Kalisz M 400 IM
7 1 Katie Ledecky W 200 Free
7 2 Alex Walsh W 200 IM
7 2 Michael Andrew M 50 Free
7 3 Regan Smith W 200 Fly
7 4 Zach Apple M 100 Free
8 2 Andrew Wilson M 200 Breast
8 3 Erica Sullivan W 1500 Free
8 5 Blake Pieroni M 100 Free
9 1 Andrew Wilson M 100 Breast
9 2 Michael Andrew M 200 IM
9 2 Zach Harting M 200 Fly
10 1 Bobby Finke M 1500 Free
10 3 Abbey Weitzeil W 100 Free
11 1 Andrew Seliskar M 200 Free
12 3 Torri Huske W 100 Fly
12 3 Chase Kalisz M 400 IM
13 1 Bobby Finke M 800 Free
13 2 Abbey Weitzeil W 50 Free
13 3 Allison Schmitt W 200 Free
13 3 Nic Fink M 200 Breast
14 2 Townely Haas M 200 Free
14 4 Katie McLaughlin W 200 Free
18 3 Kieran Smith M 200 Free
18 8 Phoebe Bacon W 200 Back
19 4 Erika Brown W 100 Free
19 6 Tom Shields M 100 Fly
20 8 Hali Flickinger W 400 IM
22 4 Michael Andrew M 100 Breast
23 6 Bryce Mefford M 200 Back
25 2 Kieran Smith M 400 Free
25 7 Claire Curzan W 100 Fly
27 4 Michael Brinegar M 1500 Free
27 7 Zach Apple M 200 Free
28 3 Jake Mitchell M 400 Free
30 10 Kate Douglass W 200 IM
31 7 Olivia Smoliga W 100 Free
36 8 Paige Madden W 200 Free
37 9 Catie DeLoof W 100 Free
38 4 Michael Brinegar M 800 Free
40 10 Allison Schmitt W 100 Free
42 10 Brooke Forde W 200 Free
43 11 Natalie Hinds W 100 Free
46 9 Drew Kibler M 200 Free
49 17 Paige Madden W 400 Free
51 11 Patrick Callan M 200 Free
62 15 Bowe Becker M 100 Free
65 23 Katie Grimes W 800 Free
67 16 Lydia Jacoby W 100 Breast
88 19 Hunter Armstrong M 100 Back
105 30 Rhyan White W 200 Back
135 35 Rhyan White W 100 Back
186 34 Gunnar Bentz M 200 Fly
40 Brooks Curry M 100 Free
125 Bella Sims W 200 Free

We did have several #1 rankings, even in 2019. Familiar names like Katie Ledecky (twice), Caeleb Dressel (three times), Lilly King, Regan Smith, and Hali Flickinger. Out of the 71 person-events on the team, 29 (40.8%) had a top-10 world ranking in 2019, and 48 (67.6%) had a top-25 world ranking.

But as you can see in that table, there were some swimmers who ended up making the Tokyo team who maybe weren’t on the radar as much as necessarily strong candidates. Hunter Armstrong in 2019 was only the 88th-ranked man in the 100 back, and just barely cracked the top 20 among Americans. Rhyan White wasn’t in the top 100 in the world or the top 30 among Americans in either backstroke event. And neither Brooks Curry in the 100 free nor Bella Sims in the 200 free even ranked in the top 200 in the world at the time (recall that amazing post-swim press conference with where the rest of the 4×100 free relay found out how recently Curry made the Wave II Trials cut in the event), with Sims not even being amongst the top 100 Americans.

In contrast, Dare Rose was 15th in the world in the 100 fly last year (51.40), and Alec Enyeart was 60th in the 800 free (7:58.68) and 40th in the 1500 free (15:12.70). Neither seems that far-fetched, from this perspective.

Alright, maybe 2021 was a weird year. Let’s look at something more normal: the 2016 Olympics in Rio. How did that team rank in 2014?

World Rank U.S. Rank Name Event
1 1 Katie Ledecky W 400 Free
1 1 Katie Ledecky W 800 Free
1 1 Michael Phelps M 100 Fly
2 1 Katie Ledecky W 200 Free
2 1 Ryan Lochte M 200 IM
2 2 Tom Shields M 100 Fly
3 1 Tom Shields M 200 Fly
3 2 Chase Kalisz M 400 IM
3 2 Michael Phelps M 200 IM
4 1 Cammile Adams W 200 Fly
4 1 Elizabeth Beisel W 400 IM
4 1 Anthony Ervin M 50 Free
5 1 Maya DiRado W 200 IM
5 1 Simone Manuel W 100 Free
5 1 Kevin Cordes M 200 Breast
5 1 Nathan Adrian M 100 Free
5 2 David Plummer M 100 Back
6 1 Connor Jaeger M 1500 Free
6 2 Missy Franklin W 200 Back
6 2 Melanie Margalis W 200 IM
6 2 Ryan Murphy M 200 Back
7 2 Maya DiRado W 400 IM
7 3 Ryan Murphy M 100 Back
8 1 Connor Jaeger M 400 Free
8 1 Kevin Cordes M 100 Breast
8 2 Missy Franklin W 200 Free
8 2 Nathan Adrian M 50 Free
9 1 Simone Manuel W 50 Free
10 1 Conor Dwyer M 200 Free
11 2 Cody Miller M 100 Breast
12 2 Ryan Lochte M 200 Free
12 3 Allison Schmitt W 200 Free
12 4 Jacob Pebley M 200 Back
13 3 Jordan Wilimovsky M 1500 Free
18 2 Kathleen Baker W 100 Back
18 3 Leah Smith W 400 Free
18 5 Jay Litherland M 400 IM
19 4 Hali Flickinger W 200 Fly
19 6 Katie Meili W 100 Breast
20 3 Josh Prenot M 200 Breast
21 4 Abbey Weitzeil W 50 Free
26 5 Leah Smith W 200 Free
26 5 Lia Neal W 100 Free
27 3 Anthony Ervin M 100 Free
27 7 Leah Smith W 800 Free
28 4 Kelsi Dahlia W 100 Fly
29 6 Abbey Weitzeil W 100 Free
31 7 Amanda Weir W 100 Free
34 7 Cierra Runge W 200 Free
35 8 Lilly King W 200 Breast
35 8 Allison Schmitt W 100 Free
39 6 Olivia Smoliga W 100 Back
41 6 Jimmy Feigen M 100 Free
46 8 Conor Dwyer M 400 Free
52 12 Melanie Margalis W 200 Free
54 8 Molly Hannis W 200 Breast
58 9 Townley Haas M 200 Free
89 25 Maya DiRado W 200 Back
114 22 Blake Pieroni M 100 Free
153 32 Caeleb Dressel M 100 Free
176 28 Jack Conger M 200 Free
35 Gunnar Bentz M 200 Free
95 Ryan Held M 100 Free
Dana Vollmer W 100 Fly
Dana Vollmer W 100 Free
Michael Phelps M 200 Fly

This isn’t actually all that different. We have 66 person-events (two fewer Olympic events back then), and again 29 (43.9%) top-10 rankings and 41 (62.1%) top-25 rankings. So it’s still a fairly significant percentage of the team was highly ranked in the world, even two years out.

But not all of the team. Maya DiRado may have been 5th and 7th in the 200 and 400 IMs, respectively, but she was just 89th in the world, and just 25th amongst Americans, in the 200 back. Nevertheless, she went on to win gold in that event in Rio. And, as we saw leading up to Tokyo, we have three cases of someone not even in the top 100 in the world and two more not even in the top 200. Ryan Held was just 95th amongst Americans in the 100 free in 2014, makes the team in the 4×100 free relay in 2016, and even swam in the Olympic FInal.

I have to note two especially odd things as far as the 2016 team is concerned: Dana Vollmer didn’t even swim in 2014, and had her first child in early 2015. And Michael Phelps didn’t swim the 200 fly in 2014, apparently. But I’m not sure we can draw too many conclusions from those two. Phelps is… Phelps, and Dana Vollmer had been making international teams for more than a decade at that point too.

So what’s the conclusion here? It seems a good bet that most of the Paris 2024 team will have been in the top 25 in the world rankings last year. But it’s likely that a few will be outside of the top 100, or maybe even outside the top 200. Braden, for instance, picked Kaii Winkler to make the 4×100 free relay. He was ranked 158th last year in the 100 free. To be clear, I’m not saying that makes Winkler a lock here – just that it shouldn’t necessarily be a surprise if somebody ranked this low last year does make their way onto the team next year.

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Faulty Touch Pad
1 year ago

Kaii Winkler is the sleeper pick of the century. Kid’s making a team eventually, would be insane to see it happen in 2024!

Jakis Bear 2,000
Reply to  Faulty Touch Pad
1 year ago

I like your name

1 year ago

The greatest surprise would be Katie Ledecky skips 20OFR and 400FR but races 800FR, 1500FR and 400IM in Paris.

Reply to  Yozhik
1 year ago

She will probably skip the 200 (even though the schedule was basically redone to suit her perfectly). No way she skips the 400 free for 400 IM.

Reply to  Jimmyswim
1 year ago

Why not? If you expect Kate Douglass to perform well in LCM after setting NCAA, American and US Open records in SCY events then why to not expect same from Ledecky who also held once such records in 400IM SCY and still is the second best performer ever bettering Hosszu’s results.

Last edited 1 year ago by Yozhik
Reply to  Yozhik
1 year ago

I don’t expect Kate Douglass to translate her SCY success to LCM lol.

But anyway, Ledecky’s PB is 4:35.77 from last year. McIntosh swam a 4:28.61. So Ledecky would need to drop 7 seconds just to have a chance at gold, and I’m expecting McIntosh to improve more by Paris.

The 400 Free is one of Ledecky’s signature events and she is basically guaranteed a bronze at absolute worst. She could very easily end up off the podium in the 4IM.

I say she doesn’t do this because:

  1. She is more likely to win gold in the 400 free.
  2. She is more likely to podium in the 400 free.
  3. It’s one of her signature events.
Reply to  Yozhik
1 year ago

Ummm did you forget that Ledecky has a 4:24 in the 500 SCY free (basically the SCY version of the 400 free)

Reply to  jeff
1 year ago

I didn’t forget anything. If she has to make her decision tomorrow then it will be obvious: 400FR. But we are talking about situation 2 seasons ahead.
If you check the distribution of Ledecky’s results in 400FR you will come to the conclusion that Ledecky is 3:58 swimmer. That that is what she most likely produce in racing. Being faster requires her to be under special conditions that in two seasons may not happen. Will be 3:58 enough. Who knows. For both Titmus and McIntosh their progress curve during next two years is a wild guess.
Now with the exception of McIntosh the competition in 400IM regressed actually in recent years. Will Ledecky swim 4:28? I doubt it.… Read more »

Reply to  Jimmyswim
1 year ago

400FR is a very stressful competition being at the very beginning of the meet. In Tokyo it killed her program putting too much of physical and mental pressure on her. Performing actually very well in the race (when 3:57 was bad?) she lost it and after that underperformed severally in all other her events but the relay. When have you seen Ledecky crying after 15:38? If she has about same chances for podium in 400FR and 400IM then 400IM looks more attractive. In 400FR there is some kind of obligation to win. The 400IM is stress free. At least mentally.

Reply to  Yozhik
1 year ago

What do you mean Tokyo killed her program? She won two golds and two silvers. That’s the third best result of any female swimmer in Tokyo lol. And her times in 2022 were significantly better after she dropped the 200 free.

The 400IM is also two days after the 400 Free, so it would have her doing 4 events in 6 days instead of 4 events in 8 days. With all her distance events, she’s going to want to spread her events out.

Reply to  Jimmyswim
1 year ago

You perfectly know what I mean.
15:38, 8:12, 1:55 are not times that you would expect Ledecky to swim at Olympic Games being fully rested and tapered. She was faster in-season. Can you explain that? I see only one reason: she was physically and emotionally exhausted after 400 race. Who could possibly expect just a few months before OG that 3:57 low won’t be enough for the win. She was in great shape before this race, but not after.
Actually we can say same about Titmus. Her performance in 200 events (individual & relay) was well below expectations.

Reply to  Jimmyswim
1 year ago

Yes, she has to drop about 5sec from her personal best. Is it plausible? Hosszu did it in Rio in one season at the same actually age. Ledecky had two seasons ahead. And there are two very weak legs (fly, back) that can be improved significantly by freestyler.

Awsi Dooger
Reply to  Yozhik
1 year ago

Why would she skip 400 freestyle? Two people in the world have a chance to beat her. Challenge them to do it.

Reply to  Awsi Dooger
1 year ago

Because she cannot do both. And if there would be a noticeable progress in 400IM the choice between these two events in the Olympic program isn’t obvious.
Yes, she is established performer in 400FR and it seems natural for her to compete there. But as two time gold medalist Robert Finke said about 400 event – it is too fast.
I think the competition in 400FR is much more demanding.

Last edited 1 year ago by Yozhik
1 year ago

What about Kathleen Baker?

1 year ago

There were a few surprises in some of the Trials in the 80’s and 90’s as I recall. Some younger swimmers especially who came out of nowhere and didn’t really sustain high levels much longer after Trials, to the extent of even some indifferent swims at the Olympics. I guess this was more prevalent back when Trials was a Prelims-Finals format, instead of P-S-F across two days. There are also the stories of favorites not making the teams after long periods at the top of the rankings, and who are picked by many to make the Team.

Reply to  BaldingEagle
1 year ago

Craig Beardsley(sp?)

Honest Observer
1 year ago

Great analysis. Surprises are part of what makes Trial so exciting.

1 year ago

i miss daddy Seliskar

1 year ago

Link the curry moment pls I am begging

Reply to  Marsh
1 year ago

Linked with time stamp 🙂

Reply to  Coleman Hodges
1 year ago

Zapple and Caeleb’s reaction is pretty priceless

Last edited 1 year ago by Coleman Hodges
1 year ago

I love Barry Revzin articles. Please keep them coming!