5 Men’s Events to Watch at the 2021 United States Olympic Trials

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Photo Courtesy: Becca Wyant

5 Men’s Events to Watch at the 2021 United States Olympic Trials

After more than a year of uncertainty, the United States Olympic Trials are sett to take place next month. With Wave II about three weeks away, most top swimmers have finished their final preparation meets and have their eyes targeting Omaha. The spectacle promises fast swimming and intriguing storylines across the board, as swimmers look to punch their tickets to the Olympic Games in Tokyo. 

With that in mind, here are five men’s events (in no particular order) that promise fireworks at the CHI Health Center. 

100 Freestyle

Swimming fans have looked forward to the 100 freestyle since 2019’s dazzling sprinting display from the American men. That year, six Americans dipped under 48 seconds, with five ranking in the world top ten. American Record Holder Caeleb Dressel has been Team USA’s top sprint freestyler since 2017 and should be a lock for the win in Omaha. 

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Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

As for the other individual spot and the four relay spots, the competition is extremely tight. The 2012 Olympic champion, Nathan Adrian, will aim to cap off his comeback from battling testicular cancer with a third Games appearance in the event. Meanwhile, after capturing gold as part of the 400 freestyle relay in Rio, Ryan Held is gunning for an individual spot this time around. The former N.C. State star had two subpar years following Rio but bounced back impressively in 2019, winning gold and breaking the U.S. Open Record (47.39) at Nationals. 

Other members of the sub-48 club, Blake Pieroni, Zach Apple, Tate Jackson, and Maxime Rooney, have all looked impressive this year and are vying for spots on the plane to Tokyo. With guys like Dean Farris, Brooks Curry, and Drew Kibler also trying to put themselves into Olympic contention, it might very well take going under 48 to make the final at Trials. 

The 2009 World Championship final is the only swimming competition in history that has been that fast, and that event too place during the height of the super-suit era.

100 Backstroke 

The American men have dominated this event at the Olympics. Team USA has medaled in the 100 back at every Games (except for the boycott of 1980) since 1936 and should extend the streak in Tokyo. As usual, the U.S. has multiple men who could medal once they make the team. 

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Photo Courtesy: Becca Wyant

World-record holder Ryan Murphy is swimming as fast as he did in the buildup to Rio as he targets a second trip to the Olympics. The former Cal Bear aims to bounce back from a disappointing 2019 by successfully defending his Trials and Olympic titles. 

After painfully missing out on the team in 2016, 2012 Olympic champion Matt Grevers rebounded with World Championships silver the following year. He has not been particularly impressive in the past year but will look to peak at the right time, in what could most likely be his last Trials run. 

Three-time NCAA champ Shaine Casas turned heads when he dropped a 52.72 to win at 2019 Nationals. That time ranked fifth in the world that season and second among Americans. Since that performance, he has continued to produce eye-popping swims at the collegiate level, being the top backstroker in the NCAA this past season. With his improvement curve in yards over the past two years, he’s bound to do great things in Omaha. 

Former N.C. State star Justin Ress followed up an impressive ISL season with a 53.00 swim in North Carolina recently. With that time, the 2017 national champion in the 50 back firmly put himself in contention for a Toyko spot.

Considering America’s talent and depth in the event, Team USA will almost certainly leave a potential medal contender home. 

200 Butterfly

Gianluca Urlando instantly became the favorite to win at Trials when he broke Michael Phelps’ 16-year-old national age group record in 2019. Urlando’s 1:53.84 made him the third-fastest American ever and the quickest since 2016. A shoulder injury in January 2020 threatened to deny him an Olympic berth, but with the Games postponed a year, it gave the world junior champion time to recover fully. A successful freshman season with Georgia proved he’s back to full fitness and makes him a front-runner heading into Omaha. 

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Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Behind a superb collegiate season, Trenton Julian recorded a massive personal best at the Atlanta Classic. With his 1:55.77, Julian is the top-ranked American this year. He hopes to carry that momentum into Trials and follow his mom, 1996 Olympic gold medalist Kristine Quance, in representing Team USA at the highest level. 

Zach Harting followed up a breakout 2018 with a finals appearance at the World Championships in Gwangju. He’s consistently been one of the best Americans in the event over the past three years, and we should expect no different in Omaha. Tom Shields has made a commendable comeback since going public with his post-Rio mental health struggles. He lit up ISL Season Two and seems to be building momentum heading into Trials. 

Rio medalists Jack Conger (800 free relay), Gunnar Bentz (800 free relay), and Chase Kalisz (400IM) all narrowly missed the team in the event in 2016. Expect them to feature in the final again this time around. 

The 2021 US Olympic Trials will mark the first time Michael Phelps is not involved in the event since 1996. Who will pick up the legend’s butterfly mantle?

200 Individual Medley

Can Ryan Lochte make a fifth Olympic team?

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Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

After his Rio gas station incident that cost him multiple sponsorships and a 10-month ban, Lochte seemed to be making a comeback in 2018. That was until he got a 14-month suspension for receiving a prohibited IV infusion. He marked his second return in style, winning Nationals with a 1:57.76. Under Gregg Troy’s heavy in-season training program, he’s only been 1:59.7 this year, but should drop a decent chunk of time once tapered. But does the world-record holder have the speed to beat Chase Kalisz, Michael Andrew, Carson Foster, and others?

Pre-pandemic, Kalisz has been the dominant force for the U.S. in the event since Phelps’ retirement and goes into Trials with a slight edge over his competitors. Andrew may think differently. He made his credentials known just over a week ago, racing to a 1:56.84 in Indianapolis. The swim ranks him first among Americans this season. He hit best times in the 100 fly and breast at the same meet and seems to be rounding into form at the right time. 

Foster has been one of Team USA’s top IMers over the past three seasons. While the Texas standout probably has a better chance of making the team in the 400 IM, with a 1:57.5 personal best in the 200 distance, he cannot be counted out.

National teamers Sam Stewart, Abrahm Devine, and Andrew Seliskar have been in the 1:57-high/1:58-low range in recent years, so expect them to mount a challenge as well.

800 Freestyle

A battle between the middle and long-distance swimmers: Who will come out on top? What makes the event exciting is that Tokyo 2021 marks its first inclusion in the men’s Olympic program. Due to it not being an Olympic event previously, we haven’t seen swimmers put as much focus into it in years past. 

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Photo Courtesy: Becca Wyant

Zane Grothe, Bobby Finke, and Jordan Wilimovsky have dominated the event throughout the Olympic cycle, and most expect them to battle for the top two spots. Grothe got within two-tenths of the American Record back in 2018. Look for him to go after it again in Omaha. Finke and Wilimovsky are better in the 1500 but have successfully come down to 800 in the past, and it should be no different at Trials. 

On the other hand, we could see 400 guys make the jump and surprise the distance aces. 

The 500 free American Record Holder Kieran Smith turned heads when he kept it stroke for stroke with Grothe in a narrow loss at the TYR Pro Series in San Antonio in January. He is an Olympic team contender in multiple events, including the 200 IM, where the semifinal clashes with the 800 final. Smith may opt out of the 800 to focus on the 200 IM, but given his rapid freestyle rise over the past few seasons, neutral swimming fans would love to see what he could produce over the 16-lap event. 

Another 200/400 swimmer targeting the 800 is Georgia freshman Jake Magahey. The NCAA 500 champ displayed his credentials with a 7:58 at the Atlanta Classic earlier this month. Given his range, the 800 could be the perfect event for SEC Freshman of the Year to make his first Olympic team.

All commentaries are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Swimming World Magazine nor its staff.

1 comment

  1. avatar
    Dan

    Great analysis.

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