Can Team USA Keep Its Longest Gold-Medal Streak Alive in Tokyo?


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Can Team USA Keep Its Longest Gold-Medal Streak Alive in Tokyo?

After a year delay due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games are just a few days away. Though a lack of spectators may change the spectacle’s atmosphere, one aspect that should be constant is Team USA’s strength in the pool. 

Over the history of swimming at the Olympic Games, the USA has won more gold medals in swimming than any nation other than Great Britain and the now-defunct Soviet Union has in all Olympic sports. Considering its dominance, the United States unsurprisingly has gold-medal streaks spanning decades in multiple events. 

None has lasted longer than the streaks in the men’s backstrokes. Team USA has won gold in the men’s 100 and 200 backstrokes in the past six Olympic Games. 

Looking at Tokyo, the USA is not necessarily favored to win gold in either event. Over the past five seasons, excluding 2020, Team USA has only been top-ranked in the world once (Ryan Murphy, 100 back, 2018) in either backstroke event. Additionally, the team has not won a backstroke gold medal at any of the World Championships leading up to the Olympics. 

With that in mind, will Team USA’s golden backstroke run end in Tokyo? 

Let’s look at the USA’s top prospect to keep the streak alive at the Games, defending Olympic champion in both backstrokes, Ryan Murphy, and the men who look to dethrone him and the United States in each event. 

100 Backstroke

The 100 back promises to be one of the most intriguing events in Tokyo. The event has never been deeper in history. Sixteen men have broken 53 so far this season, and we still have the Olympic Games to go. To put that into perspective, in 2016, only eight men accomplished the same feat. Even taking out the three men from the elite group who won’t be participating in the event in Tokyo, multiple 52-second swimmers will undoubtedly miss out on the final. 


Photo Courtesy: Mine Kasapoglu / ISL

The Russian duo of Evgeny Rylov and Kliment Kolesnikov head the field with 52.1 efforts from the Russian Trials and European Championships, respectively, earlier this year. The two head into Tokyo as slight favorites. Three men sit within four-tenths of their times this season, though. Murphy looked emphatic at U.S. Trials, dropping a 52.22 in the semifinals, and certainly has more in the tank for the Olympics. Two-time world champion Xu Jiayu of China has consistently been at the top end of the world rankings during the Olympic cycle and will look to go one better than his silver from Rio. 

A surprise Tokyo qualifier for Team USA, Hunter Armstrong, could factor in the gold-medal conversation as well. A bit of a dark horse at the Olympic Trials, he used a stellar back half to upstage his more experienced competitors and grab the second spot. Being an underdog again in Tokyo could work to his advantage, as he could fly under the radar and deliver arguably the biggest upset of the competition. No one should count him out to possibly be the one to keep the USA’s golden 100 backstroke streak alive. 

While Murphy may not have done as well as people expected at the last two World Championships, his 2021 form shows he might be in even better shape than he was heading into Rio. If that’s the case, it will take a world record to beat him. Though nothing is certain until the race is swum, Team USA should take comfort in those statistics. 

200 Backstroke

Although the 200 is not as deep as the shorter event, it will still be fast in Tokyo. 

Since his bronze medal as a 19-year old in Rio, European record holder Rylov has been the top 200 backstroker in the world. He’s won every major title in the event except the Olympics. He will be looking to change that in Tokyo while simultaneously ending Team USA’s golden run in the longest backstroke race. 

The biggest obstacle in his way? Defending Olympic champion Murphy. While he has lost to Rylov at the last two Worlds, he has arguably looked better in the 200 throughout the Olympic cycle. He was a touch slower at Olympic Trials than he was in 2016, but with Murphy only being partially rested in Omaha, that’s a positive sign for U.S. swimming fans. He won’t let his title and the USA’s streak go without a fight, so while the odds may not look in his favor, do not rule him out. 

One person who could spoil the party? British record holder Luke Greenbank. The 23-year old has continued to improve since his breakout World Championships bronze in Gwangju, and we should expect the same in Tokyo. With the focus on Murphy defending his title and keeping the streak alive, in addition to Rylov being the favorite, the Chesire, England native has gone unnoticed in the gold medal conversation. That could work to his advantage. 

Overall, the 200 may be the tougher of the two to repeat for Murphy. But swimming fans know the Olympics is what really gets the former Cal Bear’s gears turning. He is most definitely saving his best swim for Tokyo. Will it be enough to take down Rylov and Greenbank? We will find out in a little over a week.

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