The swimming competition in Tokyo gave us a little bit of everything. Shocking upsets, superstars putting their dominance on display, and some incredibly exciting, razor-thin finishes that brought us out of our seats.
It was also a very fast meet. Sure, there weren’t a ton of world records, but stacking it up against other major international competitions that have taken place recently, the 2020 Olympics produced some incredibly quick times.
And then there were some long winning streaks snapped, some that stayed alive, and some extended droughts were busted.
Now that we’ve all had almost three weeks to digest what went down at the Olympic Aquatics Centre, here are the five best, most interesting, sure-to-surprise statistics from Tokyo.
1. Three Individual Gold Medalists Weren’t At The 2019 World Championships
Much was made of how the one-year Olympic postponement helped some of the younger swimmers progress and gain ground on the established names, and that rings true for Ahmed Hafnaoui, Lydia Jacoby and Bobby Finke more so than anyone else.
None of those three swimmers qualified to even compete at the 2019 World Championships, and they went on to win individual gold at the Olympics.
In Hafnaoui’s case, his country of Tunisia didn’t even field a team at the pool swimming competition in Gwangju. The only Tunisian athlete at the 2019 World Championships was Ous Mellouli—who Hafnaoui is, in many ways, following in the footsteps of—who only competed in the men’s 10km open water event.
One month after those 2019 Worlds, Hafnaoui was in action at the World Junior Championships in Budapest, where he didn’t even make the final in the 400 freestyle (placing 10th in 3:52.05), the event in which he ultimately won Olympic gold (clocking 3:43.36).
Jacoby, who was only 15 in the summer of 2019, won the U.S. Junior title that August in the women’s 100 breaststroke in a best time of 1:08.12. She then chipped her PB down to 1:07.57 in November 2020, and then progressively knocked almost three seconds off of that to win Olympic gold in a time of 1:04.95.
Finke is the only one of the three that was in a position to be a contender at the 2019 Worlds, swimming faster times in the 800 and 1500 free—the events he ultimately won in Tokyo—than both of the American entrants in Gwangju at the 2019 U.S. Championships at Stanford.
The University of Florida Gator still showed drastic improvement in two short years, however, as he was almost six seconds faster in the 800 Olympic final than he was in 2019 (7:41.87 compared to 7:47.58) and more than 11 quicker in the 1500 (14:39.65 compared to 14:51.15).
In addition to these three individual champions, below find a list of swimmers that won Olympic gold as part of a relay team that weren’t at the 2019 World Championships:
- Bowe Becker, USA men’s 4×100 free
- Brooks Curry, USA men’s 4×100 free
- Matthew Richards, GBR men’s 4×200 free
- Hunter Armstrong, USA men’s 4×100 medley
- Tom Shields, USA men’s 4×100 medley
- Meg Harris, AUS women’s 4×100 free
- Mollie O’Callaghan, AUS women’s 4×100 free/4×100 medley
- Tang Muhan, CHN women’s 4×200 free
- Zhang Yifan, CHN women’s 4×200 free
- Chelsea Hodges, AUS women’s 4×100 medley
- Emily Seebohm, AUS women’s 4×100 medley
And here are the individual silver and bronze medalists from Tokyo that didn’t compete at the 2019 World Championships:
- Florent Manaudou (FRA), silver – men’s 50 free
- Kieran Smith (USA), bronze – men’s 400 free
- Noe Ponti (SUI), bronze – men’s 100 fly
- Tomoru Honda (JPN), silver – men’s 200 fly
- Brendon Smith (AUS), bronze – men’s 400 IM
- Erica Sullivan (USA), silver – women’s 1500 free
- Emily Seebohm (AUS), bronze – women’s 200 back
- Annie Lazor (USA), bronze – women’s 200 breast
- Alex Walsh (USA), silver – women’s 200 IM
- Kate Douglass (USA), bronze – women’s 200 IM
- Emma Weyant (USA), silver – women’s 400 IM
It’s also worth noting that China’s Zhang Yufei won gold in the women’s 200 butterfly after only finishing 26th in the event at the 2019 Worlds. Two other champions, Tom Dean (men’s 200 free) and Emma McKeon (women’s 50 free), were in Gwangju but didn’t race those specific events.
2. Emma McKeon Makes History
The accolades came pouring in for Emma McKeon as the week went on in Tokyo, as the 27-year-old Australian emerged from the Games with a staggering seven-medal haul, including four golds.
McKeon won the women’s 50 and 100 freestyle individually, and added two first-place finishes on the Australian women’s 4×100 free and 4×100 medley relays. She added three bronze medals in the 100 butterfly, 4×200 free relay and the mixed 4×100 medley relay, giving her a total of seven medals, two more than the next-highest athlete from any sport, which happened to be fellow swimmer Caeleb Dressel.
Here’s a list of some of McKeon’s accomplishments from her seven-medal performance:
- By leading the overall medal table, McKeon became the first female athlete to do so since Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina in 1964.
- McKeon tied another Soviet gymnast, Maria Gorokhovskaya (1952), for the most medals won by a female at a single Games.
- McKeon joined Mark Spitz (1972), Matt Biondi (1988), and Michael Phelps (2004, 2008) as the only athletes to win seven or more medals at a single Olympics.
- She became the most decorated Australian Olympian ever with a total of 11 medals between Tokyo and Rio, surpassing swimmers Ian Thorpe and Leisel Jones, who had won nine each. McKeon also tied Thorpe for the most career Olympic gold medals won by an Australian with five, and broke the all-time Australian women’s record which had stood at four.
- McKeon broke the record for most medals won by an Australian at a single Olympics, previously shared by Thorpe (2000), Shane Gould (1972) and Alicia Coutts (2012), who all won five.
3. Bronze Medal-Winning Time Faster Than 2019 World Gold In Seven Events
There were seven events on the program that required a time faster than what it took to win the World Championship title in 2019 to simply get on the podium.
|Event||2021 Olympic Bronze||2019 World Gold|
|Men’s 200 free||1:44.66||1:44.93|
|Men’s 100 back||52.19||52.43|
|Women’s 100 back||58.05||58.60|
|Women’s 100 fly||55.72||55.83|
|Women’s 200 fly||2:05.65||2:06.78|
|Women’s 4×200 free relay||7:41.29||7:41.50|
|Mixed 4×100 medley relay||3:38.95||3:39.08|
The men’s 200 IM also came close to joining the list, with a time of 1:56.17 required to win bronze in Tokyo and 1:56.14 winning in Gwangju.
The opposite was also true in two races, the men’s 400 and 1500 freestyle. At the 2019 World Championships, it took respective times of 3:43.23 and 14:38.57 to win bronze, and at the Olympics, clockings of 3:43.36 and 14:39.65 won gold.
There were also six events that had a faster bronze medal-winning time compared to the time needed to win Olympic gold in 2016.
|Event||2021 Olympic Bronze||2016 Olympic Gold|
|Men’s 100 free||47.44||47.58|
|Men’s 200 breast||2:07.13||2:07.46|
|Women’s 100 free||52.52||52.70|
|Women’s 100 back||58.05||58.45|
|Women’s 4×200 free relay||7:41.29||7:43.03|
|Women’s 4×100 medley relay||3:52.60||3:53.13|
4. Gold Or Nothing: Dressel Joins Elite Company With Unique Record
Just like McKeon, Caeleb Dressel‘s performance at the Games was nothing short of spectacular.
Dressel swept his individual events, claiming gold in the men’s 50 free, 100 free and 100 fly, and added two more victories in the men’s 4×100 free and 4×100 medley relays (lowering world records in the 100 fly and medley relay).
Dressel’s three individual gold medals made him the first male swimmer to do so since Michael Phelps won five on his own in 2008.
But a less obvious record that Dressel became apart of in Tokyo involved his unique stat of having now won seven Olympic medals—all of which are gold.
Only Dressel, Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt, American track and field athlete Ray Ewry and Russian artistic swimmer Svetlana Romashina have won seven or more Olympic gold medals without ever claiming silver or bronze. Both Bolt and Ewry won eight career Olympic golds, while Romashina added her sixth and seventh gold medals in Tokyo as the ROC swept the artistic swimming events.
In addition to his five in Tokyo, Dressel also won gold at the 2016 Olympics in Rio on the men’s 4×100 free and 4×100 medley relays. And while he hasn’t stood on the silver or bronze-medal positions of an Olympic podium, Dressel has missed the medals altogether twice, placing sixth in the 100 free in 2016 and anchoring the Americans to fifth in the mixed 4×100 medley relay in 2021.
5. Finke Busts American Distance Drought, Rylov Ends Backstroke Streak
The longest gold medal medal drought in American Olympic swimming was put to an end in Tokyo by Bobby Finke.
The 21-year-old Finke won an upset gold medal in the men’s 1500 freestyle, becoming the first American victor since Mike O’Brien won in 1984.
Now, the longest dry spell belongs to the men’s 400 free, where the last victory from the U.S. also came in 1984 from George DiCarlo. (For what it’s worth, the men’s 400 free was the only event in which the Americans failed to podium in Rio, and Kieran Smith got them back on the medal stand with a bronze in Tokyo.)
As one U.S. drought ended, another vaunted streak came to an end.
The American men had won gold in both the 100 and 200 backstroke at every Olympics dating back to 1996, giving the country 12 straight victories in the discipline.
- The U.S. placed fourth in the men’s 4×200 free relay, marking the first time an American men’s relay wasn’t on the Olympic podium (excluding the 1980 boycott).
- With Yui Ohashi winning both the women’s 200 and 400 IM, it marked the seventh straight time that the female medley events were swept at the Olympics.
- The American winning streak in the men’s 200 IM was cut at four, as China’s Wang Shun won gold after Phelps had claimed four in a row from 2004 to 2016.
Bonus: Bruno Fratus Is Oldest First-Time Olympic Swimming Medalist
Brazilian Bruno Fratus‘ bronze medal victory in the men’s 50 freestyle made him the oldest swimmer to win his first Olympic medal in history.
Fratus, 32, surpassed the record previously held by American David Plummer, who won his first Olympic medal in Rio at the age of 30.