Are We In the Golden Age of Women’s Swimming?

Photo Courtesy: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports

By Andy Ross, Swimming World Contributor

It has been a little over a month and a half since the Rio Olympics ended. It was an emotional rollercoaster for us fans at home, watching some of our favorite swimmers succeed (as well as fail) on the biggest stage in the sporting world.

We’ve all had some time to digest the results that happened and it got me thinking. The ‘golden age’ is a term referring to a period in time where the best athletes and teams are all playing in a sport at the same time. People talk about it all the time saying “Man, I miss the good old days when…” and then also say “I wish people would tell us we are in the good old days so we can appreciate it more.” Well, I’m here to make an argument that we are in the golden age for women’s swimming.

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Photo Courtesy: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports

Every single Olympics has a similar controversy with sexism in the media. There is always controversy around the way women are portrayed or how they are not celebrated as much as their male counterparts. But for the first time in Rio, I believe the women’s swimmers finally got the recognition they deserved; some long overdue attention.

It’s not like the men weren’t doing anything spectacular though. Anthony Ervin became the first swimmer ever to win the same event at the Olympics 16 years apart. Michael Phelps added to his treasure trove of Olympic medals. Adam Peaty broke his world record by almost a second in a 100. Dmitriy Balandin and Joseph Schooling won their respective country’s first gold medal in swimming while Schooling won Singapore’s first gold medal in any sport. Kosuke Hagino broke the American’s longest gold medal streak in an individual event by winning the 400 IM and Ryan Murphy won two individual gold medals, while taking down the legendary Aaron Peirsol‘s 100 back world record in the process.

The men were spectacular, but the women were even better. But how great were they?

Let’s start with Katie Ledecky. She broke two individual world records in the 400 and 800 free and added another gold in the 200 free with the fastest swim in a textile suit. She is only 19, but you could make an argument Ledecky is the greatest female swimmer of all time. In four years, we could really see where she fares in a list of the top swimmers ever. But for now, you can make a strong argument that she is number one.

Then there was Katinka Hosszu. She won four individual medals; starting her meet off with a world record in the 400 IM where she won by almost five full seconds. Hosszu backed that up with a win in the 100 back and 200 IM and was a half-stroke away from winning her fourth gold in the 200 back where she settled for silver. She also became the first person to win the 400 IM and 100 back in the same Olympics since Krisztina Egerszegi did it in 1992. To be put in the same sentence as Egerszegi is an accomplishment in itself as she is known as one of the best swimmers of all time.

And what about Sarah Sjostrom? She started her Olympics off with a world record in the 100 fly and went toe-to-toe with Ledecky in the 200 free. It looked for a second at 190 meters that Sjostrom could do the unthinkable and go by Ledecky, but alas, she couldn’t overcome her and settled for an impressive silver. Sjostrom then claimed bronze in a stacked 100 free final for her third medal of the meet. Sjostrom also became the first Swedish woman to win a gold medal in swimming.

Maya DiRado was the fourth swimmer to win three individual medals at these Olympics. She pulled off one of the biggest upsets of the meet when she out-touched Hosszu at the last stroke in the 200 back to win gold. DiRado had finished behind Hosszu in her two other events, the 400 and 200 IM. She quickly became one of the most popular members of the US Swim Team because of her sincere personality and overall appreciative demeanor throughout the Olympics.

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Photo Courtesy: Erich Schlegel-USA TODAY Sports

So why do I say we’re in the golden age? The four aforementioned swimmers are all in the prime of their careers. DiRado did just retire, but Ledecky, Hosszu and Sjostrom all have a few more prime years left in them, in which they could break a few more world records. Also, do you know how often it is that four different women win at least three individual medals in an Olympics? It’s only ever happened once and that was in 2004.

Inge de Bruijn, Laure Manaudou, Kirsty Coventry and Otylia Jedrzejczak all won three individual medals at those Olympics, but they all only won one gold that year. Hosszu and Ledecky each won THREE golds! That has never happened before in an Olympics, with the exception of 1988 when Kristin Otto won four golds and Janet Evans won three. But those games were marred by the East German doping scandal, so the results of Otto have often not been credited.

If the gold medals don’t impress you, take a look at the record books. Every single Olympic record on the women’s side has been broken in a textile suit, relays included. Twelve world records have been broken after 2009 on the women’s side, compared to just half of that — six — on the men’s side.

And the public reaction of these women? I’ve had a few casual conversations with people about what they thought about the Olympics where I would ask their favorite parts. Most of the answers people gave were about the women. Whether it was Ledecky’s world records, DiRado’s surprise win, Simone Manuel‘s upset or Lilly King‘s statement win, a lot of the performances that got people talking were done by women.

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Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

And this is not discounting any of the men in Rio. Every Olympian has a story worth telling, with some stories being more story-worthy than others. Often the accomplishments of female swimmers has been overlooked by reporters. This year I believe was one of the first years where the men finally took a backseat to these impressive women.

Ledecky got to go on the Ellen Show. Manuel was featured and interviewed live on ESPN. King became an Internet sensation and a meme overnight for her fearlessness in the pool and out. Penny Oleksiak became a national hero in her native Canada. The 16-year-old was named Canada’s flag bearer at the Closing Ceremony for her Rio performances after tying Manuel for gold in the 100 free and winning silver behind Sjostrom in the 100 fly.

The talk of personal comebacks was also worth noting with swimmers like Mireia Belmonte Garcia and Allison Schmitt. Belmonte sat out of the 2015 World Championships due to injury and rebounded to win gold in the 200 fly and bronze in the 400 IM. She is now the most decorated swimmer from Spain. Schmitt rebounded from depression after the 2012 Olympics and lead off the winning 800 free relay team for the United States.

The support for these women has been outstanding, including the women that didn’t quite live up to expectations. Missy Franklin, Elizabeth Beisel and Cate Campbell are all beloved in the swimming world and on their national teams. The support for these three after leaving Rio with no individual medals was still overwhelming.

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Photo Courtesy: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports

The ‘golden age’ is still a relevant term. There isn’t a committee that names eras or decides when a golden age starts or ends. But the state of women’s swimming is stronger than it has ever been, so I believe it is safe to say we are in the golden age right now. Let’s enjoy it while it is here.

7 Comments

7 comments

  1. Lori Carena

    I think golden age implies a pinnacle. There will be other pinnacles.

  2. avatar
    Jake Renie

    Wonderful article!!! Couldn’t agree more with you!!

  3. Diane Pavelin

    The late ’70’s, with Meagher, Caulkins, Woodhead, Sterkel, Linehan, Hogshead, and others was a pretty good time. Unfortunately, it didn’t last because of the ’80 Olympic boycott.

    • avatar

      Agree with that. But the East German doping scandal plus the 1980 and 1984 boycotts severely hurt the international scene and the image of the sport.

  4. avatar
    YY

    Katie Ledecky hasn’t broken Olympic record of Allison Schmitt. Allison’s gold in the 200 free in London Olympic Games (2012) IS the fastest swim in a textile suit.

Author: Andy Ross

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Andy Ross is the new man on board at Swimming World. He is based out of Fort Lauderdale, Florida at the International Swimming Hall of Fame. He is a 2017 graduate of Southern Illinois University where he graduated cum laude.

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