5 Storylines for the 2021 ISL Season: Quick Return to Racing for Olympic Stars

Cali Condors win ISL 2020 (photo: Mike Lewis)
The Cali Condors celebrate after winning the 2020 ISL championship -- Photo Courtesy: Mike Lewis / ISL

5 Storylines for the 2021 ISL Season: Quick Return to Racing for Olympic Stars

The third season of the International Swimming League (ISL) begins this week, with a five-week series of short course meters meets to take place entirely in Naples, Italy. The 10 regular season meets will each involve four of the 10 teams in the league (each competing on four separate occasions), and the top six will automatically qualify for the semifinals. The remaining four teams will compete in the 11th meet, a “wildcard” match, and two of those four teams will then advance to the playoffs, scheduled for November in Eindhoven.

The start of this ISL season comes at a typically-quiet on the swimming calendar, as many elite swimmers are still on a break after the Olympics or only just returning to training following their post-Tokyo break. Many have spent the weeks since the Games away from their usual training bases, either vacationing or visiting family in their hometowns. So we might not see any electric performances, at least right away.

But still, we have plenty to keep an eye on through these first five weeks of racing of the ISL season: how the team competition is shaping up for the playoffs, how the new ISL rules are playing out and a swimming legend competing one last time in a venue close to home.

1. Return of the Olympians… Eventually

caeleb dressel-isl

Caeleb Dressel of the Cali Condors was the top performer of the 2020 ISL season — Photo Courtesy: Mine Kasapoglu / ISL

The rosters of the 10 ISL teams are dotted with stars who captured medals at the Tokyo Olympics, but it’s not clear if all of them will be competing right away. Among those whose status is unclear: seven-time Tokyo medalist Emma McKeon, rated as the world’s top female swimmer, and five-time Tokyo gold medalist Caeleb Dressel, the top men’s swimmer in the world. McKeon is listed as a member of the London Roar after she and most Australians did not travel to the ISL bubble last year in Budapest, and few Australians have publicly declared their intentions regarding the ISL. Dressel helped lead the Cali Condors to a team championship last year, and he is expected to compete at some point in Naples, but it’s unclear if he is present for the Condors’ first match, scheduled for Aug. 26-27 (Saturday and Sunday) against the LA Current, Tokyo Frog Kings and New York Breakers.

While Dressel was the MVP of last season’s ISL final as the Condors won the championship, breaststroker Lilly King was the top female scorer, and King will be in attendance from the beginning. Meanwhile, for 2019 champion Energy Standard, Sarah Sjostrom will be in action all season as she continues to round into form following her recovery from a fractured elbow. Considering she missed several months of training, Sjostrom performed very well at the Olympics as she scored a silver medal in the 50 freestyle and also qualified for finals in the 100 butterfly and 100 freestyle. She should get better as the season goes along. London Roar’s top swimmer from last season, Adam Peaty, will not be present, at least at the start, as he competes on the British dance show Strictly Come Dancing.

Full rosters for each of the 10 teams are available on the ISL’s website, but it remains to be seen which swimmers are present in Naples from day one, who ones will arrive in Naples later and who will skip Naples but join their respective teams for the playoff rounds.

2. New Rules in Place

This year, the ISL has introduced several new rules to make the competition hopefully more intriguing to follow. Some of those changes are more major, like the playoff round being six matches rather than two semifinals, but others will show up at each meet. The skins races, a set of elimination 50s at the end of each match, will involve three clubs helping to choose the stroke. For each gender, each club’s aggregate points from the 400 medley relay (A and B relays) will be combined, and then the third-place club will choose one stroke to eliminate as an option for skins. Then, the second-place team will eliminate another stroke before the first-place team chooses from the last two stroke options. Previously, the first-place team picked a stroke on its own.

Additionally, the meets will feature a mixed 400 medley relay rather than a mixed 400 freestyle relay, faster cutoff and jackpot times in several events (mostly those where Dressel was dominant in 2020) and boosts in prize money in certain spots, such as the top swimmers at the 100-meter mark of the 400 freestyle and at the halfway point of the 400 IM. Those markers seem like unusual places to reward swimmers since they disadvantage freestylers with poor opening speed but strong closing speed and IMers with poor front-half speed but excellent breaststroke skills. But those are the rules ISL swimmers will be playing by.

3. The Team Battle and New Recruits


Sarah Sjostrom will try to return to top form to lead Energy Standard during the 2021 ISL season — Photo Courtesy: Mine Kasapoglu / ISL

As previously mentioned, the Cali Condors will be going for a second straight ISL team championship after Dressel and King were dominant during the 2020 season. Energy Standard will be looking to get back on top after winning at the inaugural ISL final in Las Vegas in December 2019, and this year’s roster includes Sjostrom, Russian backstroke stars Evgeny Rylov and Kliment Kolesnikov, Hong Kong freestyle star Siobhan Haughey, veteran Dutch relay ace Femke Heemskerk, South Africa’s Chad le Clos and 100 breast short course world-record holder Ilya Shymanovich. Those two squads are likely the favorites again.

The other two teams to qualify for last year’s final were the Los Angeles Current and the London Roar. The Current have U.S. Olympians Ryan Murphy and Abbey Weitzeil on the squad, but Murphy has confirmed he will not be in Naples and that he plans to return to ISL beginning with the playoff round. The Roar, meanwhile, will hope to get Peaty back later in the season to join a squad including Olympic medalists Tom DeanDuncan ScottLuke Greenbank and Annie Lazor.

All teams will have a handful of new swimmers on their squads this year, but pay particularly close attention to the top two picks in the first ISL draft, the Aqua Centurions’ Arno Kamminga and DC Trident’s Ryan Hoffer. Kamminga will be competing for the Italian-based team after he earned silver medals in both breaststroke events during his impressive Olympics, while Hoffer makes his ISL debut after establishing himself as one of the best short course sprinters in the U.S. during his high school days and his college career at Cal. Hoffer has never been able to translate that success into long course, but his short course yards skills will carry over nicely into the ISL’s short course meters. He won three individual NCAA crowns, in the 50-yard freestyle, 100-yard butterfly and 100-yard freestyle, during his senior year with the Bears.

4. World Record Chase

This might be a little early to be talking about world records. By the time we get to the playoff round in November or the final in early January, definitely, but these first five weeks of racing may just be about racing and team positioning, not really times. Still, 11world records went down during the last ISL season, 10 individual and one relay mark (possible because all four Cali Condors women on their 400 medley relay were Americans). Dressel broke five world records in three events (two in the 50 free, one in the 100 fly and two in the 100 IM), while Kolesnikov took down the 100 back WR and Daiya Seto dropped the 400 IM global standard. Meanwhile, Peaty twice broke the 100 breast world record, but Shymanovich beat that time a few weeks later at a different meet.

Women’s world records will likely be a little harder to come by as only Kira Toussaint broke an individual world record during last year’s competition , in the women’s 50 back.

5. Federica Pellegrini Racing for the Final Time


Federica Pellegrini will represent the Aqua Centurions in her swansong meets — Photo Courtesy: Mine Kasapoglu / ISL

33-year-old Federica Pellegrini, perhaps Italy’s finest swimmer ever, will swim her final races during the stretch of meets in Naples. Pellegrini was the 2008 Olympic champion in the 200 freestyle, and she remains the world-record holder in the long course version of the event with her 1:52.98 from the supersuit World Championships of 2009. Pellegrini won her first Olympic medal at the 2004 Olympics, taking a silver medal in the 200 free just weeks after her 16th birthday, and she has earned a medal in the 200 free at eight consecutive long course World Championships, dating back to 2005. She won golds in 2009 and 2011 before a late-career resurgence saw her back on top at the 2017 and 2019 meets. Recently, she ended up seventh in the 200 free at the Tokyo Olympics.

Don’t expect Pellegrini to be on her best form in Naples, but it will certainly be worth watching this impressive racer compete on home soil one last time while representing the Aqua Centurions.