As Olympics Approach, Swimming World’s World Female Rankings (May Update)

katie ledecky, best women's swimmers
Katie Ledecky and Simona Quadarella after the 800 free final at the 2019 FINA World Championships -- Photo Courtesy: Patrick B. Kraemer

As Olympics Approach, Swimming World’s World Female Rankings (May Update)

Ranking swimmers who specialize in different events is a very subjective exercise, even in the most normal of times. Judging a 50 freestyler against a 400 IMer means comparing two very different skill sets with little overlap. Should we weigh more heavily consistency or best times or performances in certain meets? All that depends on who is doing the ranking.

And of course, the world has been besieged by the COVID-19 pandemic over the past year. Access to training facilities and to competitions has been uneven, and some swimmers have not raced in a major event in almost two years, while others have already completed their Olympic Trials. Certainly, these rankings will be a lot more clear after the Olympics this summer or even after the full gamut of Trials meets is complete.

But for now, here is where we stand. This list is heavily weighted toward long course performances, particularly in an Olympic year, and given the inconsistency in racing opportunities, this list captures a moment in time that stretches all the way back to the 2019 World Championships. Plenty of you may disagree with this ordering, and there can even be a legitimate argument for replacing some of the swimmers at the bottom of this list. That’s all fine. This is just one opinion.

Beginning with the list of the top female swimmers in the world, there still is no competition for the No. 1 spot.

1. Katie Ledecky, USA

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Katie Ledecky — Photo Courtesy: Connor Trimble

The only break in Katie Ledecky’s dominance came at the 2019 World Championships, when she finished a surprising second to Ariarne Titmus in the 400 free and withdrew from two races before finally winning a grueling showdown for gold in the 800 free. That made Ledecky one of just two women to ever win four straight world titles in one event (and one of just four swimmers total). She is the fastest swimmer ever in the 400 free by more than two seconds, the 800 free by more than nine and the 1500 free by more than 18. She could bring in another very impressive Olympic medal haul in Tokyo. Even though the 200 free shapes up as a competitive race, and Titmus awaits in the 400, it’s almost impossible to see Ledecky not winning a third straight gold medal in the 800 free or not winning the inaugural gold in the 1500.

2. Lilly King, USA

lilly king, best women's swimmers

Photo Courtesy: Becca Wyant

Lilly King has not lost a 50 or 100 breaststroke race since 2015, and she holds the world record in both events. Her 100-meter world record is 1:04.13, and the only active swimmer within a second and a half of that mark is longtime Russian rival Yulia Efimova. King is lurking in the 200 breast, as well, and if she can navigate the U.S. Olympic Trials in that event, she would be a threat for an Olympic medal in another event.

3. Kaylee McKeown, Australia

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Kaylee McKeown — Photo Courtesy: Becca Wyant

Perhaps no swimmer has improved her stock more during the COVID-19 pandemic than Kaylee McKeown. In 2019, she earned her first individual medal at a major meet when she took silver in the 200 back, but she has consistently thrown down elite times in the 100 and 200 back, moving to second-fastest all-time in the 100 and third all-time in the 200. In May, McKeown just missed Regan Smith’s 100 back world record with a 57.63, and she also improved her 200 back best time to 2:04.31. McKeown is one of just two sub-58 swimmers in the 100 back, and only Smith and Missy Franklin have been quicker in the 200 back. McKeown has also made herself a gold-medal contender in the 200 IM after swimming a 2:08.23, good for eighth all-time, and McKeown has been consistent, with scintillating times at five different meets since November. She could make her Olympic debut this summer at age 20 with a shot at some significant hardware.

4. Regan Smith, USA

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Regan Smith — Photo Courtesy: Connor Trimble

The last time there was a full global swimming competition, Regan Smith was the undisputed star in the women’s competition. She did not debut until day six of eight, but she ended up smashing world records in both the 100 and 200 back (and as part of the U.S. women’s 400 medley relay). Smith, now 19, hasn’t had a chance to show her best form since the pandemic, but despite McKeown’s emergence as a rival, but she enters the Olympic summer as at least co-favorite in both backstroke events, and she also stands a strong chance of qualifying for the U.S. Olympic team in the 200 fly.

5. Simone Manuel, USA

simone manuel, best women's swimmers

Photo Courtesy: Becca Wyant

The first swimmer on this list who does not own a world record, Simone Manuel has developed a knack for coming up huge in the most important races. She has won gold medals in the 100 free at the last three major events, the 2016 Olympics, the 2017 World Championships and the 2019 World Championships, and she added a 50 free gold in 2019. Each victory has been considered a big upset, but given her track record, each win is just a little less surprising. Going into Tokyo, Manuel is best positioned in the 100 free, where she ranks third all-time in 52.04.

6. Ariarne Titmus, Australia

ariarne titmus, best women's swimmers

Ariarne Titmus — Photo Courtesy: Becca Wyant

At the 2019 World Championships, Ariarne Titmus became the first swimmer to ever become a rival for Katie Ledecky in a freestyle race 400 meters and up. In a stunning moment in the women’s 400 free final, Titmus came from behind over the final 100 meters and then swam away from Ledecky to win gold in 3:58.76, making her just the second woman to ever break 4:00 in a textile suit. Titmus added a silver medal in the 200 free and a bronze in the 800 free, and although she has dealt with some injury issues this year, she should be positioned to aim for a big medal haul in Tokyo.

7. Maggie MacNeil, Canada

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Maggie MacNeil — Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Maggie MacNeil pulled off the biggest upset of the 2019 World Championships when she stunned Sarah Sjostrom to win gold in the 100 fly, and now, MacNeil is considered the favorite for Olympic gold in the event, with the potential to challenge Sjostrom’s world record of 55.48. MacNeil has closing speed unlike any of her competitors, and when she won the world title, she actually turned fifth before blasting the back half. Since 2019, she has been tearing up her competition at the NCAA level as a Michigan Wolverine. In March, she became the first woman ever under 49 in the 100-yard fly while also winning the NCAA title in the 100 free and taking second in the 50 free, and last week, MacNeil swam a 56.14 100 fly to reaffirm her status as favorite for Olympic gold.

8. Emma McKeon, Australia

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Emma McKeon — Photo Courtesy: Delly Carr/Swimming Australia

Few swimmers have made more of an impact across a span of events as Emma McKeon. She has won silver and bronze medals at the World Championships in the 200 free and 100 fly, and she provides absolutely critical legs on all of Australia’s free relays. She has never had the chance to show off her individual 100 free skills at a major international meet, but she has been as fast as 52.29 in the 100 free this year, first in the world rankings and good enough to move her to sixth all-time in the event. This year, McKeon has also been as fast as 24.17 in the 50 free, 1:55.56 in the 200 free and 56.44 in the 100 fly. Even though her only individual gold medals on the international level have come at the Commonwealth Games, McKeon’s versatility and talent make her a shoo-in for a high spot on this list.

9. Sarah Sjostrom, Sweden

sarah sjostrom, best women's swimmers

Photo Courtesy: Gian Mattia D’Alberto/LaPresse

No need to overthink this. Sarah Sjostrom has been dealing with some injuries in recent months that have hampered her preparation for the Olympics, and her performance at the 2019 World Championships was not her best, but she remains the world record-holder in the 50 and 100 free and 50 and 100 fly. She won three medals, one of each color, at the 2016 Olympics in Rio. If she can return to her best form by the Olympics, she could be in the running for all three Olympic gold medals.

10. Katinka Hosszu, Hungary

katinka-hosszu-team-iron, best women's swimmers

Photo Courtesy: Mine Kasapoglu / ISL

Katinka Hosszu is another swimmer who may fall a little bit short in the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately rankings, but her résumé in the IM events is unmatched. She has won four consecutive world titles in both the 200 and 400 IM events, and she holds world records in both. She will have trouble duplicating her results in the backstroke events from the 2016 Games (gold in the 100 back and silver in the 200 back), but in the IMs, Hosszu’s world records are a significant distance ahead of her closest competition—two seconds in the 200 IM and six seconds in the 400 IM.

11. Zhang Yufei, China

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Zhang Yufei — Photo Courtesy: Fei Maohua

Zhang Yufei comes in much higher on this list than she might have one year ago. At the 2019 World Championships, Zhang finished tied for 14th in the 100 fly and 26th in the 200 fly, but she topped the world rankings in both events during the pandemic-affected 2020. She almost broke the world record in the 100 fly with her 55.62, and this year, she also put up impressive times of 55.73 in the 100 fly and 2:05.44 in the 200 fly at China’s Olympic Trials that rank her first globally. The 23-year-old helped China break the world record in the mixed 400 medley relay, and she may also have Olympic medal potential in the 100 free, where she swam a 52.90 in May.

12. Cate Campbell, Australia

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Cate Campbell — Photo Courtesy: Becca Wyant

Perhaps she gets a bad rap because she has never won an individual gold medal, but Cate Campbell has already won medals in three Olympics—at her first Games in 2008, she was just 16—and she will look to add to that total in 2021. At the 2019 World Championships, she won silver in the 100 free and bronze in the 50 free, and a year before that, she posted the best performance of her career with five golds at the Pan Pacific Championships. But Campbell is at her best on relays. She has posted the seven fastest 100 free relay splits ever, all since 2018, almost all of them in clutch anchor situations.

13. Kylie Masse, Canada

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Kylie Masse — Photo Courtesy: Scott Grant

It would be fair to call Kylie Masse the most consistent backstroker in the world since the Rio Olympics. After tying for Olympic bronze in the 100 back in Rio, she returned a year later to set a world record and win the world title in the 100 back, and she defended that gold medal in 2019 while also adding a bronze in the 200 back. In fact, Maase has not lost an individual 100 back race since 2016. The backstroke events have gotten quicker in recent years, but she remains squarely in the Olympic medal picture.

14. Simona Quadarella, Italy

simona quadarella, best women's swimmers

Simone Quadarella — Photo Courtesy: Giorgio Scala/ Deepbluemedia /Insidefoto

Simona Quadarella is as good in the 800 and 1500 free as any swimmer this side of Katie Ledecky. She swept the 400, 800 and 1500 free gold medals at the 2018 European Championships, and then, in Ledecky’s absence, she won the 1500 free world title in 2019, dominating the field by eight seconds. Quadarella also pushed Ledecky in the 800 free before settling for silver. This year, Quadarella again swept the 400, 800 and 1500 at the European Championships. She’s just 22, and she already ranks fourth all-time in both distance events.

15. Tatjana Schoenmaker, South Africa

tatjana-schoenmaker, best women's swimmes

Tatjana Schoenmaker — Photo Courtesy: Becca Wyant

Only five women have ever swum the 200 breaststroke in under 2:20, and none have done so since 2016. But Tatjana Schoenmaker, a 23-year-old from South Africa, almost joined that club last month when she swam a 2:20.17. Now, she is an Olympic gold medal favorite. Schoenmaker has quickly risen through the world rankings, from not even qualifying for the 2017 World Championships to sweeping the breaststroke events at the 2018 Commonwealth Games and 2019 World University Games to taking silver in the 200 breast at the 2019 World Championships. She has also swum a 1:05.74 in the 100 breast, second-fastest in the world this year behind Lilly King.

16. Federica Pellegrini, Italy

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Federica Pellegrini — Photo Courtesy: Mine Kasapoglu / ISL

Federica Pellegrini has been one of the world’s best swimmers since 2004, when she won her first Olympic medal in the 200 free. The 32-year-old has not come close to her suit-aided world record of 1:52.98 in years, but in 2019, she still won the fourth world title of her career in the 200 free and won a medal in the event for the eighth straight World Championships. She has not won an Olympic medal since 2008, when she captured gold in the 200 free, so she will try to break that drought in 2020.

17. Siobhan Haughey, Hong Kong

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Siobhan Haughey — Photo Courtesy: Mine Kasapoglu / ISL

Siobhan Haughey made a name for herself during an impressive college career at the University of Michigan, and the 23-year-old from Hong Kong has established herself as a bona fide international contender. Haughey took fourth in the 200 free at the 2019 World Championships, and she swam as quick a 1:54.44 last year, suggesting she could be in gold-medal contention at the Olympics. Haughey also was one of the most impressive performers during the 2020 ISL season, recording the by far the top times in the 100 and 200 free (short course meters).

18. Yui Ohashi, Japan

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Yui Ohashi — Photo Courtesy: Mine Kasapoglu/ISL

Over the past four years, Yui Ohashi has been about as consistent as any swimmer aside from Katinka Hosszu in the women’s IM events. Ohashi won a silver medal in the 200 IM at the 2017 World Championships and then a bronze in the 400 IM in 2019, and few other swimmers have both 2:08 (200 IM) and 4:32 (400 IM) potential. Ohashi also swept the IM gold medals at the 2018 Pan Pacific Championships and 2018 Asian Games. It’s consistency over a long stretch, not any recent fireworks, that gives Ohashi the nod for this spot.

19. Wang Jianjiahe, China

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Wang Jianjiahe — Photo Courtesy: FINA

Wang Jianjiahe was only 17 years old when she won her first World Championships medal, a silver in the 1500 free in 2019, but even before that meet, she had already moved to third all-time in the 800 free, behind only Katie Ledecky and Rebecca Adlington, with an 8:14.64. Wang will be 19 for the Olympics this summer, and her times suggest she will be a medal contender in the 800 and 1500 free. If she can replicate that 8:14 form, she will be squarely in the mix for 800 free silver.

20. Melanie Margalis, USA

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Melanie Margalis — Photo Courtesy: Becca Wyant

Melanie Margalis has been on the international scene for a long time, but she is really starting to come into her own at age 29. She has been fourth in the 200 IM at the 2016 Olympics, 2017 World Championships and 2019 World Championships, and she has been a key member of the U.S. women’s 800 free relay, but only recently has she begun to embrace the 400 IM. She has never swum the event internationally, but her best time of 4:32.53 is by far the fastest by an American since 2016. She could contend for a medal in both IMs in Tokyo, although the 200 IM will require her to beat out a deep field at the U.S. Trials.

21. Evgeniia Chikunova, Russia

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Evgenia Chikunova — Photo Courtesy: FINA / Budapest 2019

For years, Yulia Efimova has been one of the world’s top breaststrokers, but in 2021, 16-year-old Evgeniia Chikunova has surpassed Efimova as Russia’s top breaststroker. Chikunova won the 100 breast over Efimova at Russia’s Olympic Trials in 1:06.06, and she and Maria Temnikova combined to deny Efimova an Olympic spot in the 200 breast, where Efimova is the two-time reigning World Champion. Chikunova’s 200 breast time of 2:21.63 ranks third in the world this year, and she will surely contend for an Olympic medal in that event.

22. Hali Flickinger, USA

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Hali Flickinger — Photo Courtesy: Mine Kasapoglu / ISL

Hali Flickinger has been the top 200 butterflyer in the United States since 2017, but she has slowly developed into one of the world’s best in that event as well. She won gold at the 2018 Pan Pacific Championships and then silver at the 2019 World Championships, after swimming times in the prelims and semifinals quicker than the eventual gold medal-winning time. The 200 fly has improved considerably since 2019, but Flickinger should be in the hunt come Tokyo.

23. Kathleen Dawson, Great Britain

DAWSON Kathleen GBR 100 Backstroke Women Final Gold Medal Swimming Budapest - Hungary 21/5/2021 Duna Arena XXXV LEN European Aquatic Championships Photo Andrea Staccioli / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

Kathleen Dawson — Photo Courtesy: Andrea Staccioli / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

Kathleen Dawson was on no one’s radar as a potential Olympic medalist in the 100 back two months ago, but the 23-year-old from Scotland burst onto the scene with a win in the event at Britain’s Olympic Trials and then a barrage of impressive swims at the European Championships. Dawson first swam a 58.24 at the Trials, and then she won the event twice at the European Championships after the race was re-swum. Finally, Dawson led off Great Britain’s 400 medley relay in 58.08 to break the European record that had belonged to Gemma Spofforth since the supersuit era of 2009 and move to fourth all-time in the event.

24. Claire Curzan, USA

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Claire Curzan — Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Had the Olympics gone off as scheduled in 2020, Claire Curzan would have had an outside chance at making the U.S. team at best. Now, the 16-year-old has vaulted from Olympic longshot to medal contender in the 100 fly with just a few stunning performances. She improved her lifetime best from 57.87 in 2019 to 56.61 in November 2020 to 56.20 in April 2021. She is now the eighth-fastest performer ever in the event and within striking distance of Dana Vollmer’s American record of 55.98. In May, Curzan expanded the list of events where she could be a factor at the U.S. Olympic Trials and perhaps the Olympics with a 24.17 50 free, 53.55 100 free and 58.82 100 back.

25. Madisyn Cox, USA

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Madisyn Cox — Photo Courtesy: Connor Trimble

Madisyn Cox has been absent from the world stage since winning bronze in the 200 IM at the 2017 World Championships thanks to a doping suspension which was later ruled no fault, but Cox is gearing up for a big summer in what she insists will be the swansong of her swimming career. Cox swam lifetime bests in the 200 IM (2:08.51) and 400 IM (4:36.61) at her last tuneup meet before Olympic Trials, and she jumped to first in the world in the 200 IM and fifth globally in the 400 IM. Cox will face a deep fight in the IM events at the U.S. Olympic Trials, but she is hitting her stride at the right time.

THE NEXT 15 IN CONSIDERATION (alphabetical order)

  • Minna Atherton, Australia
  • Kathleen Baker, USA
  • Yulia Efimova, Russia
  • Suzuka Hasegawa, Japan
  • Femke Heemskerk, Netherlands
  • Boglarka Kapas, Hungary
  • Ranomi Kromowidjojo, Netherlands
  • Annie Lazor, USA
  • Margherita Panziera, Italy
  • Sydney Pickrem, Canada
  • Benedetta Pilato, Italy
  • Molly Renshaw, Great Britain
  • Taylor Ruck, Canada
  • Olivia Smoliga, USA
  • Yang Junxuan, China

9 comments

  1. avatar
    Robert Weidner

    Great update- Thanks!

    • avatar
      Anonymous

      Ha this article left off Leah Smith what??

  2. avatar
    Cait

    How about Kaylee Mckeon AUS? She is posting the fastest backstroke times recently in the 50,100 and 200

    • avatar
      David Rieder

      McKeown is having a fantastic year, and if I was ranking swimmers today, I think she would be higher than No. 6. Definitely one to watch in the next few months.

  3. avatar
    Bojan

    50 breast WR was just broken in recent Europe championship…

    • avatar
      David Rieder

      That is true, and that’s why I added Benedetta Pilato to the honorable mention section. But this being an Olympic year, I wanted to focus on Olympic events, and Pilato did not qualify for Tokyo since she was third in the 100 breast at Italy’s Trials.

  4. avatar
    yunhai

    can’t figure out Canada’s penny,Rio Olympics 100m free champion

  5. avatar
    Yozhik

    Very interesting reading. But this update is still relies heavily on swimmers’ pre-pandemic resumes. And having just two months left before OG I would be more interested in ranking that would help with the prediction of Olympic races outcomes. But we probably have to wait with that until the completion of Trials period.

  6. avatar
    Emily

    Why is there zero mention of the fact Katie Ledecky lost the 400 free in 2019 to Titmus and withdrew from competition because she was *violently ill*? That is a serious omission, and you made it twice.