5 for ’15: 5 Women in Need of Big Swims in 2015

By David Rieder

DURHAM − If nothing else, the turning of the calendar to 2015 means one thing: we made it. We survived yet another year awkwardly stuck in the middle of the quadrennial where there’s no chance for the best swimmers in the world to test themselves in one long course venue. But this year, the best of the best will get together in Kazan for a reunion of sorts, except that so much has changed since Barcelona 18 months ago.

Let’s start with the women, where discussion quickly turns towards Katie Ledecky. Before her Spanish sojourn, she had never broken a world record. Since that meet began, she has lowered seven global standards and now owns the 400, 800, and 1500 events and has a shot at a World title in the 200 as well. Missy Franklin, the star of the meet in Barcelona, will look to rebound from a derailed 2014 Pan Pacific Championships, while Aussie sprinter Cate Campbell and Iron Lady Katinka Hosszu have world title defenses in mind as well.

But everyone knows the established superstars, those who have already set the script for Olympic success. But in every pre-Olympic year, breakout performers change the game. Think back to 2011, when Franklin began the year fringe medal contender for the 200 back and a potential relay swimmer before her breakout meet in Shanghai.

Dana Vollmer, Jiao Liuyang, and Ye Shiwen all won their first individual world titles in 2011, but each proved merely a precursor to their golden swims in London a year later. Likewise, these five swimmers have each had some success in the past 12 months, but they all need big years in 2015 to set themselves up for runs at gold medals next summer in Rio.

5 for ’15: 5 Women in Need of Big Swims in 2015

Jazmin Carlin

Photo Courtesy: British Swimming

Photo Courtesy: British Swimming

Based on a quick glance at last year’s world rankings, Carlin looks like a bridesmaid. She posted the second-quickest times in the world in both the 400 and 800 free, behind Ledecky’s new global marks in both events. Carlin has been around for awhile, but she was stuck in the British rankings behind Rebecca Adlington until 2012, and still, she has never actually won an individual medal at a long course World Championships.

In Barcelona two years ago, she suffered through a heartbreaking meet, finishing fourth in the 400 free − missing a medal by 0.14 − and ninth in both the 800 and 1500, falling short of a spot in the final in the former distance by less than a tenth of a second. But in 2015, she won European titles in both the 400 and 800 to set herself up for a run at the podium in Kazan this summer.

In claiming the European crown in the 800 last year, Carlin clocked a time of 8:15.54, vaulting ahead of former World Champion Lotte Friis and distance legend Janet Evans to the third spot in the event’s all-time rankings. Adlington’s British record of 8:14.10 could be in her sights this year, but simply repeating her 8:15 will earn her a podium spot in Kazan. As for beating Ledecky, that goal may still be out of reach.

Emma McKeon

Photo Courtesy: Delly Carr

Photo Courtesy: Delly Carr

At the 2013 World Championships, McKeon served as a prelims swimmer on each of Australia’s relays, taking home three silver medals, but she took a big step forward in 2014. At Pan Pacs, she got lost in the two-swimmers-per-country shuffle in the 200 free, and she ended up in the B-final before providing a 1:55-high split on Australia’s 800 free relay. But shortly thereafter at Commonwealth Games, McKeon set the record straight, winning the 200 free in 1:55.57.

That time set an Australian national record and earned McKeon the top spot in our Virtual World Championships. She also provided a sub-53 split on the 400 free relay in Glasgow as the Aussies set a new world record. She goes into 2015 as, suddenly, one of the brightest emerging stars for a tradition-rich Australian women’s team.

Aside from her contributions to the sprint relay, Australia can team McKeon with the likes of Alicia Coutts and Brittany Elmslie to challenge the American team led by Franklin and Ledecky in the 800 free relay. And in the individual 200 free, McKeon might need another big jump to win this year’s world title − not just virtually, but in person − but she has momentum that could lead her to the top of the pile in Kazan.

Simone Manuel

Photo Courtesy: Griffin Scott

Photo Courtesy: Griffin Scott

This young American sprinter has taken incremental steps forward each of the past two years, and one more could put her in the elite category. She got onto her first senior national team in 2013 with a surprising third-place finish in the 100 free at U.S. Nationals, and she earned her way onto the World Championships squad in the 50 free as well, where she finished eighth in Barcelona.

The American team won gold in the 400 free relay in Barcelona, but they left off Manuel in favor of Natalie Coughlin. But her performances in 2014 have made such a move highly unlikely in the future as Manuel has vaulted to the top of the pack in both sprint events. She dropped her 50 free time from 24.80 in 2013 to 24.56, good for 9th in the world, and she improved in the 100 from a 53.86 to a 53.25, the fifth-best time in the world.

By no means is she ready to beat Ranomi Kromowidjojo or the Campbell sisters, but Manuel is now firmly entrenched as the top sprinter in the country. It would surprise few to see the Stanford freshman get down into 24-low range in the 50 or sub-53 in the 100. Manuel needs to keep dropping if she wants to give the Americans a shot against in the sprint relays against the likes of Australia, owner of four of the top eight times in the world in the 100 free last year.

Sarah Sjostrom

Sarah Sjostrom Doha 2014

Photo Courtesy: FINA Doha 2014

Is it a cop-out to say that a swimmer ranked first in the world last year in two events and second in another needs to have a big year to set herself up for the Olympic stretch run? Yeah, maybe. But hear me out first. Sjostrom has been around for a long time, setting a world record in the 100 fly on her way to a world title back in 2009. She won the title again in 2013. But sustained trips to the top of the podium have been less frequent for the Swede.

Sjostrom entered 2011 as the odds-on favorite to win the 100 fly world title, but Dana Vollmer seized control of the event in Shanghai. Vollmer won again at the Olympics in London, taking down Sjostrom’s world record in the process, and Sjostrom failed to medal on either occasion. Heading into 2015, Sjostrom has had the top time in the world each of the past two years, and a repeat gold medal in Kazan this summer will set her up nicely for the Olympics.

But more interesting will be seeing how Sjostrom fits into the freestyle events. She won silver at the 2013 Worlds and finished second in the world in 2014 − behind Cate Campbell both times. And in the 200, Sjostrom ranked tops in the world last year with a 1:55.04, but she will face a deep field in Kazan this summer which will include McKeon, Ledecky, and the two women who have combined to win the previous three world titles, Federica Pellegrini and Missy Franklin.

So yeah, just like everyone else on this list, Sjostrom has an important year ahead of her. But in this case, Sjostrom won’t be trying to establish herself as a member of the elite; in 2015, Sjostrom could earn a trio of World titles that could stake her a claim as the best female swimmer in the world.

Ye Shiwen

Jul 31, 2012; London, United Kingdom; Ye Shiwen (CHN) poses with her gold medal and a China flag after winning the women's 200m individual medley finals during the London 2012 Olympic Games at Aquatics Centre. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Photo Courtesy: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

You thought picking Sjostrom was a cop out? How about someone I already cited as an example for this model from the last Olympic cycle? Scandalous; I know. But hang with me for a minute. Yi Shiwen actually fits here really well. She swept the IMs at the Olympics in 2012, blowing by Elizabeth Beisel over the final 100 for a stunning world record in the longer distance. She first became famous for her finishing blast with a 200 IM world title a year before.

But since then? Not much. She finished fourth in the 200 IM and seventh in the 400 at the World Championships two years ago. Her 400 IM final time was a whopping ten seconds slower than her Olympic performance. She rebounded a bit in 2014 to lead the world rankings in the 400 IM and place fourth in the 200 IM.

Still, all of Ye’s top swims came at Asian Games and Chinese Nationals, so it’s been a long time since she has distinguished herself over top flight international competition. She did just that with her World title in 2011, at a time when she had never done so before. Now, Katinka Hosszu enters Kazan as the defending champion and favorite in both IM events with not much room to breathe behind her. If Ye Shiwen wants more Olympic glory, she needs to bring a counterpunch this year.