Ahead of Olympic Summer, Swimming World’s Global Male Rankings (May Update)

Caeleb Dressel of the United States of America (USA) celebrates after winning in the men's 100m Butterfly Final during the Swimming events at the Gwangju 2019 FINA World Championships, Gwangju, South Korea, 27 July 2019.
Caeleb Dressel at the 2019 FINA World Championships -- Photo Courtesy: Patrick B. Kraemer

Ahead of Olympic Summer, Swimming World’s Global Male Rankings (May Update)

How can we compare the world’s best swimmers across all different events? We can consider world records, gold medals, head-to-head record, versatility and a million other factors. During the COVID-19 pandemic, a lot comes down to how swimmers have taken advantage of their sparse opportunities to race major events. Add all that together, and you get this list of the top 25 male swimmers in the world just a few months out from the 2021 Olympic Games.

Taking a step back from that narrow lens of the present, the landscape of events change over time and not at a consistent rate. No events have seen a greater shift than the men’s breaststrokes, where Adam Peaty has led the charge in the 100-meter distance into 57 territory and now into the 56s, while Anton Chupkov is at the helm of the 2:06 club in the 200 breast. Given the massive improvements in the breaststroke events, it should come as no surprise to see a significant overrepresentation of breaststrokers on this list.

A lot is left to unfold in the next few months prior to the Olympic Games, and these rankings will surely shift after the European Championships later this month and the U.S. and Australian Olympic Trials in June. And remember, this list is just one opinion with no right answer. If you disagree, you probably have a point. These rankings focus on long course ability with an eye towards the Olympics, but each such list will weigh different factors and produce vastly different rankings.

But the best men’s swimmer in the world? There is be little disagreement about that title, even after Michael Phelps retired following a long run at the top. While the United States is sparsely represented throughout this list, there is one standout American who has clearly been the standout of men’s swimming over the past four years.

1. Caeleb Dressel, USA

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Caeleb Dressel at the 2021 TYR Pro Swim Series in Mission Viejo — Photo Courtesy: Becca Wyant

After Michael Phelps’ second retirement in 2016, Caeleb Dressel grabbed the mantle of world’s best swimmer and never looked back. He won seven gold medals at the 2017 World Championships, taking advantage of the addition of mixed relays to the program to match the record for most gold medals at that meet, and then he became the first man to win eight total medals at the 2019 World Championships (six gold and two silvers) and set his first long course world record in the 100 fly (49.50). He projects as the gold medal favorite in three individual events for this summer’s Olympics and the key leg on all U.S. relays. Most recently, Dressel was named MVP of the International Swimming League and led his Cali Condors to the league championship as he set three world records and won five individual events in the final meet. Needless to say, there were no questions about who deserves the top spot on this list.

2. Adam Peaty, Great Britain

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Adam Peaty competing during the 2021 ISL season — Photo Courtesy: Mine Kasapoglu / ISL

While Dressel’s all-around brilliance makes him the easy No. 1 choice, no swimmer has dominated an event like Adam Peaty has dominated the men’s 100 breast, and that earns him the No. 2 spot. In fact, since 2015, the only men to win Swimming World’s World Swimmer of the Year have been Dressel, Phelps and Peaty. Peaty’s 100 breast world record of 56.88 makes him the fastest man in history by more than a second, and until late April, he was the only man to ever break 58. He owns the top 13 performances in history and 19 of the top 20. Already in 2021, he has swum as quick as 57.39, and he will take aim at his world record as he pursues his second straight Olympic gold medal in the event. And on top of his 100-meter success, Peaty is the only man to ever break 26 in the 50 breast, and he owns the top eight performances ever in that event.

3. Kristof Milak, Hungary

Milák Kristóf a200 méteres férfi pillangóúszás előfutamában a CXXIII. Országos Bajnokság Széchy Tamás emlékére úszóversenyen budapesti Duna Arénában 2021.03.23.-án. fotó:MÚSZ/Derencsényi István

Kristof Milak — Photo Courtesy: Hungarian Swimming Federation

Kristof Milak does not possess the versatility and longevity of other swimmers on this list, but his amazing accomplishments in recent years have made him one of just a few swimmers considered basically a lock for Olympic gold this year. That’s because, in 2019, Milak took down Phelps’ world record in the 200 fly, considered his best event, and became the first man under 1:51. Milak swam a 1:50.73 at the World Championships, and already this year, he has twice swum faster than Phelps’ former world record, including a 1:51.10 at the European Championships. A 1:49 performance is well within the realm of possibility. And on top of that, the 20-year-old is the favorite for silver (behind Dressel) in the 100 fly, where his 50.18 from the European Championships ranks him third all-time behind Dressel, Phelps and Milorad Cavic.

4. Daiya Seto, Japan

Foto Gian Mattia D'Alberto/LaPresse 20 Dicembre 2019 Las Vegas - USA sport nuoto 2019 ISL - International Swimming League Nella foto: SETO Daiya Photo Gian Mattia D'Alberto/LaPresse December 20, 2019 Las Vegas - USA sport swimming 2019 ISL - International Swimming League In the picture: SETO Daiya

Daiya Seto after setting a world record at the 2019 ISL final in Las Vegas — Photo Courtesy: Gian Mattia D’Alberto/LaPresse

The title of world’s most versatile swimmer belongs right now to Daiya Seto, who captured gold medals in both IM events as well as a silver medal behind Milak in the 200 fly at the 2019 World Championships. He had previously won world titles in the 400 IM in 2013 and 2015 and also Olympic bronze in the event in 2016. Seto actually swam his lifetime bests in both IMs shortly before the pandemic began, a 1:55.55 in the 200 IM that ranks tied for seventh all-time and a 4:06.09 in the 400 IM that is fifth all-time, and he enters the Olympic summer as a favorite for gold medals in both.

5. Evgeny Rylov, Russia

Evgeny Rylov of Russia celebrates after winning in the men's 200m Backstroke Final during the Swimming events at the Gwangju 2019 FINA World Championships, Gwangju, South Korea, 26 July 2019.

Evgeny Rylov at the 2019 FINA World Championships — Photo Courtesy: Patrick B. Kraemer

Evgeny Rylov, the 24-year-old from Russia, captured Olympic bronze in the 200 back in 2016 and then won two straight world titles in the event in 2017 and 2019. Rylov swam a 1:53.23 in the 200 back at Russia’s Olympic Trials last month, good for fifth-fastest all-time and faster than any other currently active swimmer. He also swam a 52.12 in the 100 back, which is faster than any world title-winning time ever but still off his best time of 51.97 from 2019, which made him just the fourth swimmer to ever crack 52 in the event. The 100 back should be a good battle for Olympic gold with Ryan Murphy and Xu Jiayu, among others, but Rylov is the clear favorite in the 200-meter distance.

6. Gregorio Paltrinieri, Italy

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Gregorio Paltrinieri after capturing gold in the 800 free at the 2019 FINA World Championships — Photo Courtesy: Becca Wyant

Gregorio Paltrinieri is the defending Olympic gold medalist in the 1500 free, and he will take a shot at three Olympic gold medals in Tokyo. He is the reigning world champion in the 800 free, an event making its Olympic debut, and he swam a 7:40.22 in August 2020 and then a 7:41.96 in April, far faster than anyone else has swum since 2019. He took down his own European record in the 1500 free last year with a 14:33.10, improving on his own status as the second-fastest man in history, although he should have some challenges for the gold medal in that event. And he’s also a leading contender in the unpredictable 10k open water race, which Paltrinieri qualified to swim at the Olympics after finishing sixth at the 2019 World Championships.

7. Anton Chupkov, Russia

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Russia’s Anton Chupkov — Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Anton Chupkov is only at the absolute elite level in one event, but he has redefined the limits in his signature 200 breast. He followed up an Olympic bronze medal with two straight world titles and, in 2019, a world record to boot, his 2:06.12 sitting three tenths clear of anyone else in history. And Chupkov swims the race a lot differently than most of his competitors: he lengthens his stroke and relaxes over the first 100 meters before accelerating significantly on the back half. He frequently swims each of the last two lengths in under 32 seconds, which is all but unheard of. In fact, in the 2019 World Championships final, he was eighth after 50 meters, eighth after 100 meters, fifth after 150 meters and then faster than anyone else in history at the end.

8. Kliment Kolesnikov, Russia

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Russia’s Kliment Kolesnikov — Photo Courtesy: Patrick B. Kraemer

For years considered a rising star in the backstroke events, 20-year-old Kliment Kolesnikov is now the world’s fastest 100 freestyler as well as a legitimate gold-medal contender in backstroke. He swam a 47.31 at Russia’s Olympic Trials to improve to 10th all-time in the event, and then he swam almost as fast with a 47.37 at the European Championships. He will be a medal contender in the event for the Olympics along with a key piece of Russia’s impressive 400 free relay. Additionally, Kolesnikov twice broke his world record in the 50 back at the European championships, dropping the mark to 23.80, and he swam a 52.13 in the 100 back as a medley relay leadoff (and an unofficial 52.09 on a mixed medley relay leadoff) to climb the world rankings and cement his status as an Olympic medal contender in multiple events. If Kolesnikov can duplicate those performances at the Olympics, he could climb much higher on this list.

9. Duncan Scott, Great Britain

Duncan Scott; 14th April 2021, London Aquatics Centre, London, England ; 2021 British Swimming Selection Trials

Great Britain’s Duncan Scott — Photo Courtesy: Georgie Kerr, British Swimming

Duncan Scott was a newer face to the international scene when he qualified for the 100 free final at the Rio Olympics and then swam on a pair of silver medal-winning British relays, but he will head to his second Olympics with a target on his back. Scott pulled off one of the most amazing relay legs ever when he pulled Great Britain from behind to win gold in the men’s 400 medley relay at the 2019 World Championships, his 46.14 the second-quickest in history. Scott also tied for bronze in the 200 free at Worlds and took fifth in the 200 IM, but so far in 2021, he has swum times of 47.87 in the 100 free, 1:44.47 in the 200 free and 1:55.90 in the 200 IM. At the Olympics, he will be a gold-medal contender in the 200 free and a medal contender in his other events along with a key factor on British 800 free and 400 medley relays in the hunt for gold.

10. Florian Wellbrock, Germany

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Germany’s Florian Wellbrock after capturing the 2019 world title in the 1500 free — Photo Courtesy: Becca Wyant

In 2018, Florian Wellbrock handed Gregorio Paltrinieri his first 1500 free loss in five years at the European Championships, and he again took gold in the event at the 2019 World Championships. Wellbrock also won gold in the 10k open water event in 2019, so he will be a favorite again in both of those events in Tokyo, along with possibly the 800 free. His lifetime best in the 1500 is 14:36.15, which ranks him fourth all-time behind Sun Yang, Paltrinieri and two-time Olympic gold medalist Grant Hackett, and he has swum almost that quick this year with a 14:36.45 at Germany’s Olympic Trials. Wellbrock also currently holds the world’s fastest time in the 400 free (3:44.36), but he will have a tough road to an Olympic medal in that event.

11. Arno Kamminga, Netherlands

ROTTERDAM - Arno Kamminga tijdens de 200 meter schoolslag in de finales tijdens de Rotterdam Qualification Meet waar gestreden wordt om een ticket voor de Olympische Spelen van Tokio. ANP ROBIN VAN LONKHUIJSEN

The Netherlands’ Arno Kamminga — Photo Courtesy: ANP, Robin van Lonkhuizen

Arno Kamminga has never swum in a final at a World Championships, and he has never been to an Olympics, but his recent exploits in the breaststroke events have earned him a high ranking here and status as Olympic medal favorite in two events. In December, he swam a 2:06.85 in the 200 breast, making him one of just five men to ever swim under 2:07, and he has been as fast as 2:07.71 in December. But Kamminga made a huge statement in the 100 breast when he recently swam a 57.90 that made him just the second man ever to break 58, following Adam Peaty. In quickly improving fields in the men’s breaststroke events, Kamminga is a newer face that is making a major impression. Kamminga quickly made an impression in the event at the European Championships, when he took silver behind Peaty and almost broke 58 again.

11. Xu Jiayu, China

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Xu Jiayu competing at the 2019 FINA World Championships — Photo Courtesy: Becca Wyant

Xu Jiayu is the two-time world champion in the 100 back, and he will be in the hunt to improve upon his Olympic silver medal from 2016 this summer. Xu swam a time of 51.86 in 2017, just one hundredth off Ryan Murphy’s world record, and although he has not improved on that time in the four years since, he recently swam a 52.88 at China’s Olympic Trials despite being pre-selected to swim the event in Tokyo. Murphy and Evgeny Rylov should each pose challenges in what should be a close and exciting race at the Games. Xu has not had as much success internationally in the 200 back, but he ranks eighth all-time at 1:53.99.

13. Shoma Sato, Japan

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Japan’s Shoma Sato during the 2020 ISL season — Photo Courtesy: Mike Lewis/ISL

Japan has a long history of incredibly successful 200 breaststrokers, and the latest is just 19 years old. Shoma Sato has never swum at a World Championships, and just two years ago, he was the silver medalist in the event at the 2019 World Junior Championships in 2:09.56. Now, he’s the second-fastest man in history at 2:06.40 after he took a run at Anton Chupkov’s world record at Japan’s Olympic Trials last month. Sato will be one of Japan’s top gold medal hopes at its home Olympic Games, and he will look to join 2004 and 2008 gold medalist Kosuke Kitajima as a 200 breast champion.

14. Kyle Chalmers, Australia

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Kyle Chalmers preparing for a relay takeoff at the 2019 FINA World Championships — Photo Courtesy: Becca Wyant

Kyle Chalmers was just 18 when he came from behind to stun a loaded field to win Olympic gold in the 100 free in Rio. The teenager dripped potential after taking down a field of decorated veteran sprinters in an event that typically favors the experienced. But Chalmers faced challenges in the years since Rio, including a heart surgery in 2017 and an arthroscopic shoulder procedure in November 2020. But he has bounced back nicely this year to swim times of 48.04 in the 100 free and 1:47.03 in the 200 free. Chalmers ranks sixth all-time in the 100 free at 47.08, swum as he pushed Caeleb Dressel to the finish at the 2019 World Championships before settling for silver, and he is arguably Dressel’s strongest threat in an individual event in Tokyo. Chalmers also has 1:44 potential in the 200 free and is a key for Australia’s 800 free relay gold medal hopes.

15. Ryan Murphy, USA

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Ryan Murphy at the 2021 TYR Pro Swim Series in Mission Viejo — Photo Courtesy: Becca Wyant

At the 2016 Olympics, Ryan Murphy put together the best performance of his career as he swept gold medals in the 100 and 200 back and then broke the world record in the 100 back while leading the United States to a gold medal in the 400 medley relay. Since then, Murphy has not won an individual world title, but he remains among the top backstrokers in the world and a favorite to challenge for gold medals in Tokyo. Murphy swam the most recent sub-52 in the 100 back, his a 51.94 at the 2018 Pan Pacific Championships, but he finished a shocking fourth at the 2019 World Championships when he comfortably led early on before fading badly. He is the second-fastest man since Rio in the 200 back, but he will have to deal with the impressive Evgeny Rylov in that event.

16. Danas Rapsys, Lithuania

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Danas Rapsys during the 2020 ISL season — Photo Courtesy: Mine Kasapoglu/ISL

This might seem high for a 25-year-old who has never made it past the preliminaries at the Olympics, never won a medal at the long course World Championships and has not recorded any stunning swims in recent months, but Danas Rapsys took the world by storm in the 200 free prior to the pandemic. He touched first in the World Championships final but was disqualified for a false start, and his lifetime best of 1:44.38, which ranks him sixth all-time, is the quickest by any swimmer since 2013. Rapsys also finished a narrow fourth in the 400 free at the 2019 World Championships, and during the 2020 ISL season, he posted the fastest time in the 400 free and the third-fastest time in the 200 free.

17. Mack Horton, Australia

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Mack Horton celebrating his 2016 Olympic gold medal in the 400 free — Photo Courtesy: Swimming Australia

In 2016, Mack Horton captured Olympic gold in the 400 free in 2016, defeating Chinese favorite Sun Yang after Horton had criticized Sun’s previous ban for use of banned substances. That victory made Horton the first Australian man to win Olympic gold in 12 years, and he will be in position to run it back in 2021, particularly if Sun’s latest doping ban is reinstated in an appeal. Horton ranks seventh all-time in the 400 free in 3:41.55 and also 18th in history in the 800 free in 7:44.02, but his best medal chances for Tokyo will be in the 400 free and as part of Australia’s 800 free relay, which he anchored to the 2019 world title in 1:44.85.

18. Andrei Minakov, Russia

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Andrei Minakov at the 2019 FINA World Junior Championships — Photo Courtesy: FINA / Budapest 2019

Andrei Minakov is just the second teenager on this list after Shoma Sato, and the future Stanford swimmer has a bright future ahead after he captured silver at his first senior World Championships in the 100 fly in 2019. He ranks 14th in history in that event in 50.83, and already in 2021, he ranks second in the world in the 100 free in 47.77 and fourth in the 100 fly in 51.17. The 19-year-old figures to play a significant role in the individual 100 fly in Tokyo along with Russia’s gold medal-contending 400 free relay, and he likely has a long and productive career ahead of him.

19. Chase Kalisz, USA

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Chase Kalisz at the 2019 FINA World Championships — Photo Courtesy: Becca Wyant

At this point, it is impossible to know which version of Chase Kalisz will show up to the U.S. Olympic Trials next month. Kalisz won Olympic silver in the 400 IM in Rio and then went to the World Championships one year later and captured gold medals in both IM events. He is the third-fastest performer in history in the 400 IM in 4:05.90 and sixth all-time in the 200 IM in 1:55.40. But Kalisz fell to third in the 200 IM at the 2019 World Championships and missed the 400 IM final altogether. He has shown very little since then, with his best times this year sitting at 2:00.79 in the 200 IM and 4:16.53 in the 400 IM. Kalisz at his best is one of the world’s best IMers, but it’s unclear if he will be there or anywhere close in June and July.

20. Ilya Shymanovich, Belarus

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Ilya Shymanovich during the 2020 ISL season — Photo Courtesy: Mine Kasapoglu / ISL

While Adam Peaty is the dominant 100 breaststroker of the era in long course, he had a rival this past short course season in Belarusian Ilya Shymanovich. At the ISL final in November, Peaty lowered the short course meters 100 breast world record to 55.41, but Shymanovich tied Peaty’s previous record in finishing second in 55.49. A few weeks later, Shymanovich broke the world record with a 55.34. In long course this year, Shymanovich has been as quick as 58.77, leaving him in a tight bunch behind Peaty and Arno Kamminga in the event, but he’s been as fast as 58.29, which ranks third all-time.

21. Mitch Larkin, Australia

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Australia’s Mitch Larkin during the 2019 ISL season — Photo Courtesy: Dan D’Addona

Now 27, Mitch Larkin has never recaptured the form that helped him win world titles in both the 100 and 200 back in 2015, but he’s still one of the best backstrokers in the world and also one of the best in the 200 IM. He captured bronze in the 100 back and gold in the mixed 400 medley relay at the 2019 World Championships, and at the Australian Swimming Championships last month, Larkin swam his quickest mark in years in the 200 back with a 1:54.38 along with a 1:56.74 in the 200 IM. Larkin will choose between those two events, which overlap in the Olympic swimming schedule, and he will be a medal factor in whichever he chooses along with the 100 back and as the medley relay leadoff swimmer.

22. Chad le Clos, South Africa

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Chad le Clos during the 2020 ISL season — Photo Courtesy: Mine Kasapoglu / ISL

It has been nine years since Chad le Clos scored his stunning, career-defining upset of Michael Phelps in the men’s 200 fly at the London Olympics, and le Clos is now 29 years old, but he remains one of the world’s top butterflyers and a certain medal contender for the Tokyo Olympics. In 2019, le Clos won bronze medals in both the 100 and 200 fly at the World Championships, and in the fall of 2020, he had a strong ISL season when he took second to Caeleb Dressel in the 100 fly in the ISL final and won the 200 fly in 1:48.57, just a few tenths off Daiya Seto’s world record. In long course, le Clos ranks fifth all-time in the 200 fly (1:52.96) and eighth all-time in the 100 fly (50.56).

23. Matthew Wilson, Australia

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Matthew Wilson after tying the 200 breast world record at the 2019 FINA World Championships — Photo Courtesy: Patrick B. Kraemer

Another standout breaststroker making the list, Matthew Wilson won his first international medals in 2018 when he took bronze in the 200 breast at both the Commonwealth Games and Pan Pacific Championships, and then his career really took off in 2019 when he tied the 200 breast world record in the semifinals with his 2:06.67. He swam one hundredth slower in the final and settled for the silver. Wilson should be among the many in medal contention in that event in Tokyo, but he will face some tough competition at Australia’s Olympic Trials from Zac Stubblety-Cook, who beat Wilson at Australia’s national championships last month, 2:08.28 to 2:09.44.

24. Gabriele Detti, Italy

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Italy’s Gabriele Detti — Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Gabriele Detti can get overshadowed by his Italian compatriot and fellow distance standout Gregorio Paltrinieri, but Detti has built a very solid résumé of his own. After winning bronze medals in Rio in the 400 and 1500 free, he won the world title in the 800 free in 2017 while adding bronzes in the 400 free at both the 2017 and 2019 World Championships. Detti has eschewed his old focus on the 1500 free in recent years, but he has the top 400 free time in the world since the start of 2020 with his 3:43.73 from August 2020, and he is second in the 800 free behind Paltrinieri at 7:46.04. Detti is a solid bet for medals in both the 400 and 800 free this summer and could be in the gold-medal hunt in the 400 should circumstances go his way.

25. James Wilby, Great Britain

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James Wilby during the 2020 ISL season — Photo Courtesy: Mine Kasapoglu / ISL

While Adam Peaty has stamped his utter dominance on the 100 breast since 2015, James Wilby has given Great Britain a very solid No. 2 punch in the event in recent years. Wilby took the silver medal in the 100 breast behind Peaty at the 2019 World Championships in 58.46, and he ranks fifth-fastest all-time. Wilby has already swum a 58.76 this year as well as a 2:08.06 in the 200 breast, although he will need to drop that time further to qualify for the Olympic final. Aside from his own individual medal potential, Wilby provides a nice piece for Great Britain’s men’s and mixed medley relays as a prelims swimmer, allowing Peaty to rest for the final.

THE NEXT 15 IN CONSIDERATION (alphabetical order)

  • Michael Andrew, USA
  • Federico Burdisso, Italy
  • Louis Clareburt, New Zealand
  • Tom Dean, Great Britain
  • Bruno Fratus, Brazil
  • Nicolo Martinenghi, Italy
  • Martin Malyutin, Russia
  • Florent Manaudou, France
  • Katsuhiro Matsumoto, Japan
  • Vladimir Morozov, Russia
  • Ben Proud, Great Britain
  • Mykhailo Romanchuk, Ukraine
  • Zac Stubblety-Cook, Australia
  • Wang Shun, China
  • Elijah Winnington, Australia

3 comments

  1. avatar
    Don

    Thanks for sharing what about the ladies ?

    • avatar
      John Lohn - Associate Editor-in-Chief

      The women’s list was posted last week. Please search the site.

  2. avatar
    Kim

    It’s not looking too good for the Australian male team this time around – let’s hope it looks better after the trials 🙂

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