Tokyo 2020 Olympic Swimming Previews: No Room For Error In Women’s 50 Freestyle

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2020 TOKYO SUMMER OLYMPIC GAMES

Women’s 50 freestyle

If you have a lane you have a chance. That saying rings loudest when we’re talking about the 50 freestyle. Less than half a minute separates the start of the race from its end and the brevity of swimming’s shortest event often makes it toughest to predict. The top tier of entrants in this year’s women’s 50 freestyle is marked by experience as only 1 woman ranked 1-10 in the world rankings will be making her Olympic debut. Aside from Russia’s Mariia Kameneva, the top 10 ranked swimmers between March 1, 2019, and June 27, 2021, have raced at the Games before, many of them more than once.

Worldwide Women’s 50 Freestyle Rankings (March 1, 2019 – June 27, 2021)

  1. Sarah Sjostrom (SWE) – 23.78
  2. Emma McKeon (AUS) – 23.93
  3. Cate Campbell (AUS) – 23.94
  4. Ranomi Kromowidjojo (NED) – 23.97
  5. Simone Manuel – (USA) – 24.05
  6. Pernille Blume (DEN) – 24.06
  7. Kasia Wasick (POL) – 24.17
  8. Mariia Kameneva (RUS) – 24.20
  9. Michelle Coleman (SWE) – 24.26
  10. Abbey Weitzeil (USA) – 24.27

Along with experience at the Olympic Games, this field is laden with Olympic champions, world champions, world record holders, and national record holders. Notably, the 2 most recent Olympic champions in the women’s 50 freestyle are going to vying for a second title in the form of 2012 victor Ranomi Kromowidjojo and 2016’s Pernille Blume. While both Kromowidjojo and Blume have had their ups and downs in the years since their Olympic titles, they both seem to be trending towards an ‘up’ in Tokyo.

Ranomi record

Ranomi Kromowidjojo, 2017 World Championships (photo: Mike Lewis)

Kromowidjojo recently threw down her fastest swim since Rio and her 2nd fastest swim in history at the 2021 European Championships. Kromowidjojo won the European title with a 23.97 which marks her second time ever under the 24.00 barrier, trailing only the 23.85 she swam at the 2017 World Championships. The swim was also quicker than the 24.05 she used 9 years ago in London to win Olympic gold. After a relatively disappointing 6th place finish at the 2019 World Championships, Kromowidjojo is looking almost better than ever in 2021 and will be hard to stop on her quest back to the top.

Pernille Blume 58th Settecolli Trophy, Rome, Italy Courtesy of Mine Kasapoglu

Pernille Blume
58th Settecolli Trophy, Rome, Italy
Courtesy of Mine Kasapoglu

Kromowidjojo’s successor at the Games Pernille Blume was similarly left off the podium back in 2019 and wound up placing 4th overall in Gwangju with a 24.12. While Blume tied Kasia Wasick for silver at 2021 Euros with a 24.17, she was actually quite quicker during the semi-finals where she hit a 24.06 to qualify first for the final. That swim was her 7th-fastest 50 free ever and was 0.01 seconds quicker than the 24.07 it took to win gold 5 years ago in Rio. Blume proved that her speed was no fluke a few weeks later at the 2021 Mare Nostrum Tour where she hit a 24.09 and at 2021 Settecolli Trophy by hitting a 24.17 despite dealing with back pain at the time. 4 24-lows within a matter of weeks is no small feat and shows that once she’s in full form in Tokyo could very well improve upon her 2018 PB of 23.75.

Both Kromowidjojo and Blume have what it takes to get to the top but when deciding to whom to give the upper hand for the purposes of this preview, Blume’s back injury adds an element of the unknown that make her a less strong candidate. She’s powered through the complications thus far and will hope to do so later in the summer but the potential for a worsened state will make us give the upper hand between the two to Kromowidjojo.

Sarah Sjostrom 58th Settecolli Trophy, Rome, Italy Courtesy of Mine Kasapoglu

Sarah Sjostrom
58th Settecolli Trophy, Rome, Italy
Courtesy of Mine Kasapoglu

There’s not a lot that needs to be said to prove that Sarah Sjostrom is one of the greatest sprinters in history. Even less need to be said in order to prove that in recent years she has been one of the most dominant forces in the women’s 50 freestyle. After taking bronze in the event at the 2015 World Championships, Sarah Sjostrom delivered a 23.67 at the 2017 World Championships to take gold and lower the world record from a 23.73 set by Britta Steffen in 2009. That record stands today meaning that Sjostrom will go into Tokyo as the fastest woman in the history of the event. The only thing keeping her from being the #1 pick here is that in February 2021 she broke her elbow and we’re not sure if she will be in top Sjostrom shape at the Games. After skipping the 2021 European Championships to recover, she managed to throw down a 24.25 at the 2021 Settecolli Trophy. So while she may not be expected to deliver a new world record in Tokyo, she has certainly recovered enough to vie for a spot on the podium.

With the Olympic champions and world record holder out of the way, the next duo we’ll discuss is Australia’s power duo and the only 2 women to have cracked 24 seconds thus far in 2021: Cate Campbell and Emma McKeon. Many people (commenters) like to count Australians out of contention for Olympic hardware due to the tendency of nations Olympians to historically perform better at Olympic Trials than at the Olympics themself. That tendency of course comes with exceptions, however, including 2 of particular relevance to this paragraph: Cate Campbell‘s 2008 Olympic bronze in the 50 free and Emma McKeon‘s 2016 bronze in the 200. While they, nor anyone else, are locks for the podium here, they have proven that they cannot be counted out.

Emma McKeon was absolutely dominant at the recent Australian Olympic Trials, taking gold in the 50 free, 100 free, 100 fly, and silver in the 200 free. She qualified to race all 4 of those events individually but recently gave up her spot in the individual 200 to focus on the sprints. McKeon became the first woman to crack 24 seconds this year by hitting a 23.93 PB, beating out competitor Campbell by only 1 one hundredth of a second. The one way that her multi-event dominance works against her, though is that by the time the 50 freestyle final comes around McKeon will have likely already raced over 10 races at the Olympics between individual prelims, semis, and finals and up to 4 relays. Considering that the 50 free falls on the very last day of racing, we’ll play it safe and combine McKeon’s outstanding performance thus far this year with her inevitable end-of-Tokyo fatigue and give her 4th place on our list.

Cate Campbell Domeyko20190723150 Cate Campbell

Cate Campbell
18th FINA World Championships Gwangju 
courtesy of Rafael Domeyko

Cate Campbell is revered as one of the greatest swimmers in recent history to have not yet won Olympic gold. After her aforementioned 50 freestyle bronze in 2008, Campbell has struggled to pull off a peak performance, missing the final altogether in 2012 and placing 5th overall in 2016. Campbell also notably went into the 100 freestyle final as top seed with a 52.71 and ended up falling to 6th place in the final with a 53.24. Campbell has spoken candidly about the disappointment that ensued following that race and will without a show up in Tokyo with a vengeance.

Campbell’s best time in the event since Rio is a 23.78 from back in 2018 at the Commonwealth Games which makes her the 4th fastest swimmer in history and was only 0.11 seconds off Sjostrom’s 23.67 world record. Campbell will have a lighter load than McKeon at the Games without the 100 fly or 200 free to worry about. That will give her a bit more rest for the final sprint on day 9 of the meet. Given her proven ability to reach the Olympic podium and her well-identified hunt for redemption, Australia’s Cate Campbell will be our pick for gold.

Abbey Weitzeil seemed to be under threat from a number of hot-handed American up-and-comers such as world junior record-holder Claire Curzan, Torri Huske, and Gretchen Walsh. The now 2-time Olympian didn’t let the field intimidate her, however, and managed to get her hand on the wall in a 24.30 to qualify for the Games. Weitzeil is no stranger to the event, having swum the women’s 50 freestyle at the 2016 Olympic Games, the 2017 World Championships, and the 2019 World Championships. Weitzeil has made it to the semi-finals at all 3 of those competitions but hasn’t yet qualified for a final. While she swam a 24.30 in the final, she actually hit a new PB during the semis with a 24.27. A recent lifetime best and the certain potential for improvement in Tokyo, Weitzeil will enter her second Olympic Games with hopes to improve upon her former performances on the major international scene.

Normally the reigning world champion in a given event would be an uncontroversial pick for a podium finish at the Olympics but this year it’s not as clear-cut. Simone Manuel took gold in the 50 free at Gwangju 2019 with a 24.05 and hasn’t been quite as fast since then. The world was shocked when she missed out on qualifying for the 100 freestyle at Olympic Trials meaning that she wouldn’t get a shot at defending her Olympic title in that event. Manuel revealed that she had been diagnosed with overtraining syndrome earlier this year and was still feeling the effects during Olympic Trials. Despite the struggle, Manuel managed to power her way to a first-place finish in the 50 freestyle on the last night of Trials and booked her spot on the team. She hit a 24.29 for the gold medal which ranks her as #12 in the world this season. Manuel proved that she is still the same racer that we’ve seen represent the USA over the past few years and she continues to get back into shape as we approach Tokyo 2020, will certainly be within striking distance of the podium.

Next on the list is the recipient of the 2020 Breakout Female Swimmer of the Year Swammy Award: Kasia Wasick. Poland’s Kasia Wasick was a bit of an unconventional breakout star last year considering that she’s actually already competed at 3 Olympic Games. After racing in 2008, 2012, and 2016, Wasick decided to take a step back from the pool and retire from the sport. Then in 2018 Wasick decided to make a return to swimming and by 2019 had transitioned back to elite-level competition as a member of the Cali Condors International Swimming League team.

Wasick left the sport in 2016 with a PB of 25.51 in the 50 freestyle which dated back to August 2010. In the few years since her return, Wasick has lowered that time to a 24.17 which she hit at the 2021 European Swimming Championships. The swim made for a tie with Pernille Blume for silver and makes her the 7th fastest woman during. the Olympic qualifying period. Wasick is set to race the event for Poland at the Tokyo Games and has shown that she’s not yet finished shaving time off in the 50 free. The 4-time Olympian will be gunning for the 24.00 barrier and is well within reach of her first-ever Olympic final.

As always, the women’s 50 freestyle is an absolutely loaded event and we wouldn’t be surprised to see a few other names sneak into the Tokyo final. Among those to keep your eye on at the Games are Russia’s Mariia Kameneca, Sweden’s Michelle Coleman, the Netherlands’ Femke Heemskerk, France’s Melanie Henique, China’s Zhang Yufei, and Great Britain’s Anna Hopkin.

Place Swimmer Country
Best Time Since 2016 Olympics
2019 Worlds Finish
1 Cate Campbell AUS 23.78 3
2 Sarah Sjostrom SWE 23.67 2
3 Ranomi Kromowidjojo NED 23.85 6
4 Emma McKeon AUS 23.93 NA
5 Pernille Blume DEN 23.75 4
6 Abbey Weitzeil USA 24.27 10
7 Kasia Wasick POL 24.17 16
8 Simone Manuel USA 23.97 1

Dark Horse: Kayla Sanchez (CAN): Canada’s Kayla Sanchez wasn’t looking to be a contender in the 50 freestyle a couple of months ago when she underwent shoulder surgery in September 2020. Sanchez’s surgery kept her out of the 2020 International Swimming League season and certainly put a damper on her Olympic prospects. As rehab and the return to training ensued, however, Sanchez got back into full form and managed to get her hand on the wall first at the recent Canadian Olympic Trials with a 24.68 to dip under the FINA A cut of 24.77 and qualify for her first Olympic team. That swim was a new best time only her 3rd time ever under 25 seconds in the event. Along with her recent improvements in the long course 50 free, Sanchez is also the current world junior record holder in the short course 50 free with the 23.98 she swam back in 2018. While she’s still a bit off what it will take to even semi-final in Tokyo, Sanchez will be coming in hot and could surprise the field here in fellow Canadian sprinter Penny Oleksiak fashion.

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SwimWood
11 months ago

If you watch the underwater footage of Sjostrom on her instagram, you can see just how much the broken elbow has effected her catch at the top of the stroke. In the 50 there is no room for error, although Sarah is the best athlete in the world in this event, I can’t see her on the podium with an inferior catch at a world class meet. But then again, if anyone can do it, Sarah could.

Swim Fan
11 months ago

GOOD LUCK SIMONE AND ABBEY WE KNOW YOU CAN DO IT!!!!!

Stefan
11 months ago

These are the 10 best times in the 50m freestyle, performed in major international finals since the 2016 Olympics.

This is not a ranking for the upcoming Olympics, considering injuries, overtraining etc. It’s simply statistics that might, or might not, be relevant to some extent. 🙂

Sjöström: 23.69 (2017 WCH), 23.74 (2018 ECH)
Blume: 23.75 (2018 ECH), 24.00 (2017 WCH)
Campbell: 23.78 (2018 CWG), 23.81 (2018 PPC)
Kromo: 23.85 (2017 WCH), 23.97 (2021 ECH)
Manuel: 23.97 (2017 WCH), 24.05 (2019 WCH)

commonwombat
11 months ago

Barring the rare case where you have someone exponentially ahead of the competitions, 50s are total (select your adjective)s and this is no exception.

I think 6 lanes basically select themselves: McKeon, C1, Sjostrom, Blume, Kromowidjojo, Manuel and this is where I expect the medalists.

The sentimentalist in me would love either Sjostrom or C1 to win this but I can only see room for one of them on the podium. Whilst I can definitely make a case for one AUS on the podium, two = no. If Sjostrom were fully fit, I’d have her a near certain medal but her condition is a question mark

McKeon may’ve lightened her race load by axeing the 200free but she’ll still most… Read more »

Sub13
Reply to  commonwombat
11 months ago

Absolutely.

2016 Olympics – Blume
2017 Worlds – Sjostrom
2018 Pan Pacs – C1
2019 Worlds – Manuel

And all four of them are likely to make the Olympic final. The shorter the race, the more likely there is to be unpredictability, because a small mistake has a much bigger impact than in a longer race.

Casas 100 back gold in Fukuoka
Reply to  Sub13
11 months ago

Blume & Sjostron swam faster than the pan pac winner in 2018.

Sub13
Reply to  Casas 100 back gold in Fukuoka
11 months ago

Cate Campbell swam faster than the 2016 Olympics winner earlier that year. What’s your point?

Nick
Reply to  commonwombat
11 months ago

I’d go: Kromo, Sjostrom, C1, Blume, McKeon, Manuel in that order

Jane
11 months ago

This is the one race where you can usually count on the swimmer with the best start to win. Amazing how it all comes down to that after years of training. May the best start win!

Robbos
11 months ago

As much as I would like McKeon to win the 50/100 double & walk away with 5 golds from Tokyo.
I’m cheering for Cate Campbell in the 50 here, this was the event she won bronze in 2008. Together with Sjostram, she has been the best sprint freestyler in the past 6 years, yes I know Manuel won gold in Rio & WCs, she is a great clutch swimmer. But Rio was Campbell’s to lose & she did, she choked.
Love for her to win gold here!!!!!!

Stephen
Reply to  Robbos
11 months ago

Campbell leaves the blocks in good time …she wins

Sub13
Reply to  Robbos
11 months ago

I’m hoping that Cate wins one and Emma wins the other. Or that Emma wins gold in Fly (but I think that’s her least likely gold of her 3 individual events)

Jamie5678
11 months ago

Really difficult to see outside the top 5 here. They’re very closely matches and with reasons for and against all of them.

Suspect the Australians might prioritise the 100 where they have a slightly better chance. They have a busier programme than most of the others so whilst I think they have a good chance here, I’ve got to rule people out for some reason.

Kromowidjojo is next. Others above have come up with a decent case for why she might win and it’s hard to disagree. There’s also a tradition of an older swimmer winning the Olympics 50. But I just think she’s get out-raced – when she won in 2012 she was the outstanding swimmer and she… Read more »

Robbos
Reply to  Jamie5678
11 months ago

Mckeon went a PB in the 50 free after swimming 100 fly, 100 free & 200 free. She’s dropping 200 free (strong chance for medal) for the 50, so I think she may have prioritise this event.

Jamie5678
Reply to  Robbos
11 months ago

Thanks for the reply Robbos. McKeon certainly had a terrific trials. I felt her best swim was the prelims for the 100 and I think her best individual chance is there really. Not because she can’t win the 50 so much as because the 50 is a bit more of a lottery and her best time gives her a little more cushion in the 100. 100 is also first in the programme.

But as I say it’s very difficult to split the women sprinters. McKeon could come away with nothing – could win both.

Robbos
Reply to  Jamie5678
11 months ago

Jamie, acknowledged on Mckeon, not really known for her 50 speed!!!!
You could say that to pretty much most events, there is only a few events where you have heavy favs.
Example Dressel, while pretty well heavy fav for 100 fly, could win both 50/100 free, but then again with Proud & Chalmers not far away could also come away with nothing there.

Stefan
Reply to  Robbos
11 months ago

I’m thinking the main reason McKeon dropped the 200 free is to improve her chances in the 100. But it certainy helps the 50 as well.

Bobo Gigi
11 months ago

My dream podium:

1. Pernille Blume
2. Simone Manuel
3. Ranomi

Reply to  Bobo Gigi
11 months ago

My bet is almost like yours, but I am putting Sarah as third.

Bobo Gigi
Reply to  DDias
11 months ago

It’s not my prediction. That’s the podium I would like to see.
If you ask me a prediction maybe I need to be realistic and put one of the 2 Aussies and Sarah Sjöström in the top 3.

Stefan
Reply to  Bobo Gigi
11 months ago

Does this mean that Blume is the girl of your dreams? 😉