The Top U.S. Storylines Headed Into The Paris Olympic Year — Women’s Edition

A few days ago, we published some of the top American storylines heading into the 2024 Olympic year for the men. Now we shift our focus to the women, who also have plenty of compelling storylines.

How Will Kate Douglass‘s Versatility Be Utilized?

At the 2023 World Championships, a wave of panic began to ensue before the women’s 4×100 medley relay. This relay was supposed to be an easy win for the Americans. But when the underperformance of key relay pieces like Lilly King, Gretchen Walsh, and Torri Huske coincided with the lights-out performances of the Australian women, fans began to worry that that gold might run away from the U.S. women. Attention began to turn onto Kate Douglass, one of the few American women not adding significant amounts of time from their season-bests. Douglass also happened to be a hyper-versatile Swiss army knife that could morph into a certain type of swimmer at a moment’s notice — and in this case, her abilities in sprint butterfly and freestyle were desperately needed to cancel out the potential misfires of her teammates.

In the end, Douglass slid into her usual position as freestyle anchor, while a heroic breaststroke split by King (matched by a rather underwhelming one by Australia’s Abbey Harkin) helped the Americans win gold after all. However, the emphasis on Douglass in conversations leading up to this relay serves to show how important she is to the American women.

Last season, largely due to her breakthrough in the 100 free, Douglass’s value as an international swimmer began to mirror what she was capable of doing in her college days. And headed into Paris, she will be three things to her team: one, a potential gold medal contender in a time where the Americans are gold-starved; two, a relay “Captain America” who is the only one capable of matching the 100 free split times that the mighty Australian women can throw down; and three, a last-minute threat in three different strokes (breast, fly, free) in case any of her teammates are off their game. God forbid that she’ll have to fulfill that third role, but she’s more fitting for the job than any other American.

That being said, other swimmers have displayed the plight that comes with being a jack of all trades, but a master of none. As much as it is fascinating to watch Douglass swim tens of events, she’d be much more useful to the Americans in a meet like the Olympics if she could win gold in one event and excel on relays, rather than picking up bronzes in a handful of races. If she can hone in on a few things and be great at them, she will be able to do wonders for her team.

During Worlds, we published a piece on how Douglass was a unicorn in a sport full of specialists, and that she didn’t fit into any mold created by the people who came before her. And it will be fascinating to see a swimmer like her be one of the faces of Team USA next year.

Peaking At The Right Time

Now let’s dive a little deeper into those aforementioned underperformances.

Out of the 16 different American women who qualified for individual events at the 2023 World Championships, only six of them set season-best times in at least one event, and only one swimmer went season-best in all of the events they swam (Jillian Cox, who only raced the 800 free). The American women had a much harder time swimming their fastest at the right moment compared to the men, and it cost them greatly.

There were at least two instances in which an American woman matching their season-best would have led to a gold medal (Regan Smith in the 200 back and 200 fly), and two more instances where an American woman would have been much closer to gold medal contention than they were if they matched their season-best (King in the 100/200 breast, Huske in the 100 fly).

The point being made here is that the American women are a much better team than what they showed at the World Championships. Besides maybe in the 200 free, they had a shot at winning or doing extremely well in every single individual event. But the potential that they had wasn’t fulfilled at Worlds, and instead, we had to fixate on how much time they added, disappointing relay splits, and all the “what could have been” moments.

In Paris, the American women need to be closer to the best versions of themselves to succeed. It’s not that they can’t be good, it’s just that they weren’t good when it mattered the most last year. The good thing is that with a longer turnaround between trials at the Olympics (compared to Nationals and Worlds last year) and everyone having more experience under their belt, there’s more room for resiliency. But that resiliency needs to come out, or else things won’t go well.

The 200 Free

Although Team USA won silver in the 4×200 free relay at Worlds last season, the 200 free is arguably their weakest event. With Katie Ledecky‘s recent track history of dropping the event individually (and even she’s not really in medal contention anymore), there’s no woman even remotely close to medalling in this event.

Bella Sims (photo: Fabio Cetti)

Right now, there’s a wide array of American female swimmers who could make the Olympics in the 4×200 free relay. Bella Sims and Claire Weinstein, the frontrunners with best times of 1:55.45 and 1:55.26 respectively, are great relay assets but still far from Summer McIntosh‘s 1:53.65 that captured bronze at the World Championships. Next comes Erin Gemmell and Alex Shackell, two young swimmers in that 1:55-high/1:56 range (throw veteran Leah Smith in this category if she has another year in her). These aforementioned swimmers are the favorites to make the Olympics next year, and as stated before, they are great relays but far from the best in the world.

However, the most plentiful category is the group of women who are fast enough to make an international team in the 4×200 free relay, but won’t touch more than a prelims heat. This group is headlined by Anna Peplowski, whose trial time of 1:57.59 was the cutoff for Worlds qualification last year. Other swimmers with similar times as her this year include Simone Manuel (1:57.37), Paige Madden (1:57.41), Katie Grimes (1:57.55), Alex Walsh (1:57.84), Madi Mintenko (1:58.07), Addison Sauickie (1:58.09), and Leah Hayes (1:58.19). In other words, the 200 free is an event with a ton of depth in the United States, but there isn’t a swimmer who can make the jump to become world-class yet.

The good thing is that most of the 200 free stalwarts in the United States are both young and dropping time every single year. If swimmers from that array of 1:57s improve to go 1:56 and so on, then America’s 4×200 free relay lineup could be both deep and competitive at the same time. Likewise, if swimmers like Weinstein and Sims can build off their international experience, they are only going to get better every year (for example, Sims went from a prelims-only swimmer in Tokyo to racing in two individual finals in Fukuoka).

Right now, the 200 free might be the worst event for American women. But the future is extremely bright, and Paris might be the perfect time to prove that.

Huske and Curzan

Stanford used to be a hub for Olympic swimmers, but recently, several female swimmers have moved on from the University and switched training bases — most namely Ledecky, Manuel, and Claire Curzan. Now, the only prominent Olympic-level swimmer that remains there is Huske.

Huske and Curzan are two very similar swimmers, both specializing in sprint free and butterfly. They also both swam for Stanford collegiately and opted to take an Olympic redshirt year together. However, over the summer, Curzan transferred to Virginia. She will still sit out of the NCAA season, except that she’s across the country from where she was initially going to spend the year. Meanwhile, Huske is the “last one standing” in Palo Alto, and a strong performance next year could help maintain prominence in a program that is slowly falling behind the likes of Virginia and Texas.

In terms of event selection (though Curzan does swim backstroke events in long courses while Huske doesn’t) and training situation, Huske and Curzan are almost identical. In addition, both swimmers struggled during the 2022-23 long course season, as Curzan failed to make the World Championships team while Huske added considerable time from Nationals to Worlds and struggled on relays. The only big difference between these former teammates is that one of them chose to stay at Stanford and the other left. They head into the Olympic year with chips on their shoulders, and because of their difference in training location, comparisons will inevitably be made based on their results.

At the U.S. Open, both Huske and Curzan performed very well. Huske set best times in the 50 free (24.41) and 200 IM (2:09.10) while posting very strong additional times in the 100 free (53.17) and 100 fly (56.21). Curzan meanwhile was off her bests in the sprint freestyler events, but had strong swims in the 100 back (58.35), 200 back (2:06.39), and 100 fly (56.76), while her 100 back time being a personal best. based on where they are at now, both swimmers seem to be headed on positive Paris trajectories.

It’s very possible that both swimmers will see success, and that their decisions ultimately boiled down to having different preferences. But it’s hard to ignore the similarities and the one major difference in their situations, and as said before, conversations will inevitably happen.

Ledecky’s Legacy

If Ledecky retired today, then she’d already be widely regarded as one of the greatest swimmers of all time, and maybe even the greatest female swimmer ever. However, she has no plans of hanging up the goggles anytime soon and is chasing her fourth straight Olympic games. The question here is, how will these Olympic games affect her legacy?

With six individual Olympic gold medals, Ledecky is already the most decorated female swimmer in Olympic history from an individual event standpoint, and only Michael Phelps has won more individual titles than her. She currently has seven total Olympic golds and needs just two more to pass Jenny Thompson to become the female swimmer with the most Olympic gold medals, and three more to pass Mark Spitz as the second-most winningest Olympic swimmer (behind Phelps, once again). If she wins her fourth-straight Olympic gold in the 800 free, she’d become the second swimmer after Phelps to pull off an Olympic four-peat

If Ledecky wins Olympic gold next year in the 800 and 1500 free, she’d further strengthen the argument for her being the greatest female swimmer of all time, given the stakes at hand. Gold in the 400 free or 4×200 free relay, which seems to be out of reach given the prominence of Ariarne Titmus and the Australians, would only cement her legacy even more. In addition, if Ledecky beats out her Tokyo times in the 800 and 1500 free (which she has done at the last two World Championships), it will speak to her longevity that lasts way beyond the peak of a typical female distance swimmer.

Records aside, it’s possible that Paris will make us have a greater appreciation for Ledecky, whose achievements we have come to take for granted in recent years. She’s currently the only American heavily favored to win Olympic gold next year, and if she ends up being the only one to do so, her greatness will be realized more than it ever was.

Other Storylines

We listed what we thought were some of the bigger Olympic year storylines for the American women above. In this section, we’ll bullet point some more storylines that you should also keep your eye on.

  • Manuel swam some of her fastest times since Tokyo at the U.S. Open, and could be on track for an Olympic comeback after overtraining syndrome derailed her career.
  • Regan Smith could end up winning three individual Olympic gold medals (100 back, 200 back, 200 fly), or end up with none.
  • Is it finally time to put the nail in the coffin on King’s breaststroke reign in America, with the rise of Douglass, Kaitlyn Dobler, and Lydia Jacoby?
  • Which new teenager will make her international debut? Mintenko, Sauickie, Teagan O’Dell, Leah Shackley, Piper Enge, and Anna Moecsh are potential candidates.

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4 months ago

When writing the articles pls do remember on what is writing. A kind request.
Huske was not underperforming.
She lead off the free relay heats in 53.51 after the 100 fly heats. Walsh got a straight final spot and went 54.06.
AR holder went 56.6 on fly final and got bronze.
In the mixed medley relay fink took an extra stroke and she got almost DQ. She followed her experience and avoid the DW but dove in to too deep since of the take off hesitation. She had lot off catup to do and put 58.1 split.
At the medley relay coaches put her on heats and she went 57.4 which is okay for a heat swim.

4 months ago

Going through the points.

KD: 200 breast/200IM/100 free if top 2/4×100 free/medley relay
That is it, very simple. 50 free ruins her 200IM, MMR there are probably better tools to use for any given leg unless her free is way better than the other girls.

Peaking: Singapore was the main culprit here, too far, too short of a turnaround. The men did fare better than the women, which might have more to do with their clubs than anything else.

200 Free: probably 2 lanefillers in the final, but are currently favourites for silver in the relay. I’d be happy with that considering how scary the event has become, there is a silver lining looking towards LA, that is for… Read more »

4 months ago

Anybody got results for the Huntington Beach sectional? Dying to hear how Luka did.

4 months ago

In Girls, i think that in trials….
50 free 1Manuel 2Walsh
100 free 1Manuel 2 Douglass 3Huske 4Walsh 5weitzeil
200 free 1weinstein 2ledecky 3gemmel 4sims
400 free 1ledecky 2weinstein
800 free 1ledecky 2 grimes
1500 free 1ledecky 2grimes
100 back 1smith 2 berkoff
200 back 1smith 2curzan/bacon
100 breast 1 Jacoby 2 King
200 breast 1douglass 2king
100 butterfly 1 huske 2 walsh
200 butterfly 1smith 2 shackell
200 im 1douglass 2walsh
400 im 1grimes 2walsh

Age Of Winters
Reply to  Swimfast315
4 months ago

No way the list will be this narrowly focused. Roster will be larger for sure.

Marc P
Reply to  Swimfast315
4 months ago

Can I have what you’re having?

Old Swimmer
Reply to  Swimfast315
4 months ago

This list looks pretty accurate to me but who knows? There could be some swimmers that are currently off the radar that could be ready to perform better than their best and make the team

Why, Aunt?
4 months ago

Emma Weyant isn’t making the 2024 team for sure. I give Curzan only about a 30% chance of making it, probably only as a prelim swimmer for the 4 x 100 free relay. At trials, she will probably finish 3rd or 4th in all of the backstroke and fly events.

Reply to  Why, Aunt?
4 months ago

Curzan makes it in the 2 Back and 100 Fly

Nick the biased Aussie
4 months ago

I can see Simone and Abbey going 1-2 at trials in the 100 free.

Emily Se-Bom Lee
Reply to  Nick the biased Aussie
4 months ago

douglass seems to have the first spot locked up

Reply to  Nick the biased Aussie
4 months ago

I would like to know what the opinion is in Australia about Douglass. I get the feeling that you are not a big fan of his swimming. Am I right?

Reply to  Swimfast315
4 months ago

I think most knowledgeable Aussie swim fans really appreciate KD. Personally, I think she is amazing for her versatility and ability.

Reply to  Mark69
4 months ago

And I think she wins the US trials for the 100 free.

Reply to  Swimfast315
4 months ago

I’m a big fan of KD. She’s just amazing. It’s probably just the claims after NCAA that she was going to break many WRs that was irritating to us Australians,

Reply to  Swimfast315
4 months ago

As an Australian I think KD is great.

She has some stans who are obsessed with talking her up which I find irritating though. After NCAAs she was hailed as the best swimmer in the world by some. I said I wouldn’t be convinced until she performed in LCM. This year she did perform in LCM and obviously had a massive breakout. I can see her having a great Olympics.

Reply to  Swimfast315
4 months ago

She showed really well at SC Worlds here, that meet really was her international breakout as a world class swimmer.
Quite affable,a classy competitor who gave a red hot McKeon a real run for her money in those relays, we did take notice of her for sure.

Nick the biased Aussie
Reply to  Swimfast315
4 months ago

Beautiful gowns

Southerly Buster
Reply to  Swimfast315
4 months ago

Kate Douglass was impressive at Fukuoka with the way she handled the pressure of being the mainstay of the US relays. Especially with some of her teammates underperforming (Huske, Gretchen) and with our Australian girls going gangbusters in the freestyle relays. 

But it didn’t seem to faze Kate; she just kept turning up putting in good performances one after the other – including a 51.79 split.

Reply to  Nick the biased Aussie
4 months ago

Nah, it’ll be Simone and Kate (Douglass).

Steve Nolan
Reply to  Nick the biased Aussie
4 months ago

I think this is plausible. I’m insanely high on Manuel coming back real big and Weitzel has been steadily improving the last couple years.

Douglass being in so many different events makes me feel like it’s somehow more likely she “misses” in any one of them. Like, overall she’s a huge favorite to make it in multiple individual events, but maybe one of em goes haywire for w/e reason. (This is a weird thing for me to think and will most likely be proven wildly incorrect by Douglass smashing everything, as she tends to do.)

Reply to  Nick the biased Aussie
4 months ago

Douglass probably gonna finish in the top 2 in 100 free and unless she’s somehow underperforms , I don’t see her not qualify for the 100 free and the other spot gonna be between Manuel or Weitzeil.

4 months ago

I understand the comparison of Curzan and Huske, because they are both great butterflies and free. But I don’t understand why they are named as if their relevance to the team was the same.
Since 2021, Huske has been demonstrating her excellence compared to her other teammates in the 100 butterfly, and even in the 100 freestyle at the international level. I don’t think the achievements of her teammates are similar at the international level.

Last edited 4 months ago by Swimfast315
Reply to  Swimfast315
4 months ago

I completely agree, in any case I think that Curzan is more comparable to Gretchen Walsh, both are very versatile and great butterfly/ freestyle and even back.

But they have not yet proven to be at the level of Huske, world champion in the 100 fly and third this year and bronze medalist in the 100 freestyle in Budapest.
Obviously Torri was not as good this year as last year, but she still got a medal and opened the relay in the qualifying rounds better than anyone from his country.
On the other hand, Claire Curzan would not have her best year but she made marks very similar to 2022 and did not manage to pass because she… Read more »

Marc P
Reply to  gitech
4 months ago


Curzan is at Gretchen Walsh level when it comes to international results.

Nowhere near what Huske has accomplished internationally.

Awsi Dooger
Reply to  Swimfast315
4 months ago

I was surprised they were listed as equal. Huske has always been slightly more explosive at long course and now she has turned into a legitimate contender at 200 individual medley.

Huske needs to fix late endurance at 100 butterfly. It’s not as dramatic a stall as the Regan Smith 15 Meter Wall but really stands out when compared to Maggie nearby.

4 months ago

think youth vs veterans deserves an mention

About Yanyan Li

Yanyan Li

Although Yanyan wasn't the greatest competitive swimmer, she learned more about the sport of swimming by being her high school swim team's manager for four years. She eventually ventured into the realm of writing and joined SwimSwam in January 2022, where she hopes to contribute to and learn more about …

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