Grind of Tokyo Olympics Produces Less Gold But Still Grand Medal Haul for Team USA

Aug 1, 2021; Tokyo, Japan; Caeleb Dressel (USA) competes in the men's 50m freestyle final during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Summer Games at Tokyo Aquatics Centre. Mandatory Credit: Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports
Photo Courtesy: Robert Hanashiro/USA Today Sports

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Grind of Tokyo Olympics Produces Less Gold But Still Grand Medal Haul for Team USA

Exactly one week ago, the message in this space was about how the United States was off to an unbelievably hot start at the Olympic Games, every bounce going their way, a six-medal effort on day one more than any reasonable expectations. There had been concerns prior to the meet in about how the Americans would perform. Would they struggle to win 25 medals, even 20? And after night one, had all concerns suddenly been absolved?

Not exactly. Throughout the eight days of swimming finals at the Tokyo Aquatics Centre, the Americans produced special moments and podium finishes aplenty, but the team struggled to gain and sustain momentum. Day two began with a pair of fourth-place finishes for Torri Huske in the women’s 100 butterfly (by one hundredth) and Michael Andrew in the men’s 100 breaststroke, neither one poor swims but both the kind of disappointing results that can drain a team.

On day three, three straight finals included Americans who held the world record in their respective events at the start of June. Two of those swimmers still hold those records – and none of them won gold. Regan Smith, Ryan Murphy and Lilly King ended up with individual bronze medals that night, although 17-year-old Alaska native Lydia Jacoby pulled a stunner that landed her on top of the podium and produced the first rendition of the Star Spangled Banner in honor of a female swimmer.

A day later, Katie Ledecky and Erica Sullivan’s gold-silver finish in the first-ever women’s 1500 freestyle final was followed by the first-ever Olympic swimming relay where the American quartet missed the podium.

And on it went, the pendulum swining back and forth all the way through to Sunday morning in Tokyo, when Caeleb Dressel’s historic third individual gold, Bobby Finke’s second out-of-nowhere gold medal in as many distance finals and a world-record setting effort in the men’s 400 medley relay brought the meet to a close on a high for the U.S. men, while the American women received one final gut-punch when Australia’s Cate Campbell touched out Abbey Weitzeil for gold in the women’s 400 medley relay.

Aug 1, 2021; Tokyo, Japan; Regan Smith (USA) and Lydia Jacoby (USA) watch the women's 4x100m medley final during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Summer Games at Tokyo Aquatics Centre. Mandatory Credit: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports

Regan Smith (left) and Lydia Jacoby cheer Abbey Weitzeil to the finish in the women’s 400 medley relay — Photo Courtesy: Rob Schumacher/USA Today Sports

Weitzeil did not swim poorly — her 52.49 split was the fastest of her career. Neither did Smith, Jacoby or Huske on the first three legs. The silver medal is one to cherish, and when these swimmers look back, they undoubtedly will. But in the moment, Weitzeil looked absolutely crushed by the result. She lingered in the pool before she climbed out and slumped her head on Smith’s shoulder, the 19-year-old left to offer uplifting words to her teammate.

In the one remaining event on the program, the U.S. men captured first place in the men’s 400 medley relay, recording a new world record in the process. The race earned Dressel his fifth gold medal of the week and several new spots in swimming’s history books. But in the minutes after the race ended, Dressel took a seat on the pool deck to catch his breath, the physical and emotional demands of the Games finally getting to him as all the boxes were ticked for the week. He got up only to hug British rivals James Guy and Adam Peaty and congratulate them on a relay well swum.

We have become used to seeing the American swimmers roll through the Olympics — they had won 16 gold medals, or half of the total awarded at the pool, at each of the last two Games. But when not everything is perfect, the Olympics are a brutal ordeal, an eight-day spectacle of a swim meet with millions of viewers tuned into and riding on each moment. It’s an experience so far removed from the everyday experience of swimming. And the one-year delay of the Games, the global pandemic and the locked-down nature of the Tokyo Olympics only exacerbated those stresses and pressures for athletes — not just swimmers but across all sports.

Weitzeil’s blank facial expression after finishing with the silver reflected all those stresses, pressure and emotions. This was a grind, never the downhill-rolling wrecking ball to which we have become accustomed.

Triumphs and Setbacks for Team USA in the Pool

Let’s begin with the men. Obviously, Dressel was simply magnificent all week long. His years-long preparation for these Games culminated in Dressel replicating two dominant World Championships performances, only this time in the amped-up environment that is an Olympics.

For years, the men’s distance events had been basically a black hole for the United States, particularly in the five years since the Rio Olympics when there had been no medal contenders in the 800 or 1500 on the international stage. No American had claimed Olympic or World Championships gold since Mike O’Brien in 1984. Then Finke arrived and absolutely made three of the world’s best distance men look silly on the last 50.

Beyond that, Chase Kalisz and Jay Litherland provided a magnificent U.S. 1-2 in the 400 IM, the meet’s first event. Ryan Murphy did not defend his gold medals in either backstroke race, but he did win individual medals. After the 200 back final, Murphy revealed some of his frustrations, namely that he was getting beaten only by swimmers representing a country rocked with a state-sponsored doping schedule.

Kieran Smith, Finke’s fellow Florida Gator senior-to-be, was tremendous with a bronze medal in the 400 free and becoming the third-fastest American ever in the 200 free behind Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte. Michael Andrew was not great, finishing just off the podium in all three of his events before contributing to the Americans’ meet-ending and record-setting men’s 400 medley relay.

Aug 1, 2021; Tokyo, Japan; Ryan Murphy (USA) and Caeleb Dressel (USA) and Zach Apple (USA) and Michael Andrew (USA) celebrate after winning the men's 4x100m medley final during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Summer Games at Tokyo Aquatics Centre. Mandatory Credit: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports

The U.S. men’s 400 medley relay finished off the Olympics in stunning fashion — Photo Courtesy: Rob Schumacher/USA Today Sports

The American men ended up with a strong eight gold medals, almost half of those offered, but this American men’s team lacked depth, certainly compared to the men’s group that claimed medals in all but one individual event in Rio. The Tokyo team won only five additional individual medals, and men’s breaststroke was a complete shutout.

The women, however, won 17 medals, but the only golds were courtesy of Ledecky in her distance races and Jacoby in the 100 breast. Other than that, the Americans won a lot of silvers and bronzes, mostly with very good performances but a tinge of disappointment that they could not end up one spot better. While all three women’s relays performed well, getting shut out of relay gold was a painful outcome to digest.

Sprint freestyle was a struggle, as expected, but otherwise, the Americans captured medals in nine of 14 individual events. Two of the misses saw the top American take fourth by narrow margins, and in another, Ledecky finished an unexpected fifth in the 200 free. In four events, the Americans went silver-bronze, filling out the podium with great depth behind an unbeatable gold medalist.

This was a really good, well-rounded women’s team, with only the one noticeable deficit area. They just did not match up as well as hoped in the chase for gold medals. It was also a really young team, with a lot of teenager rookies (like Huske, Jacoby, Sullivan and more) thrust into big spots. And now, the next Olympics in Paris are just three years away, so this year’s young guns will undoubtedly grow from this experience when they return to the training pool with sights set on France.

Zooming out, the final medal count was 30, really close to the amazing 33 medals of 2016 or 31 from 2012, although this time, the Americans won three medals (including two golds) in events just added to the Olympic program for these Games. The final tally of 11 gold medals was down significantly from 16 in both 2016 and 2012, but chalk that up more to swimmers from other countries performing admirably and winning tough races. The margins between the U.S. and the rest of the world are simply smaller now. Of course, the Americans had a handful of stunners of their own, Jacoby and Finke among them.

This was not quite the dominant team performance of Olympiads past, but different factors have changed the game, like holding the Olympics during a pandemic and swimming becoming so much more balanced globally. The U.S. is still the world’s premier swimming nation, even if during the grind of Tokyo, that preeminence took slightly different shape.

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Rex Craig
Rex Craig
2 years ago

I realise you are USA based but the name of your magazine is Swimming World!
What about a little less bias?

2 years ago
Reply to  Rex Craig


2 years ago

The worst performance by the USA Olympic Swimming Team this century should not be falsely spun as “Grand Medal Haul”. This is self-evident in the number of gold medals and total medals, especially with the addition of 3 events. The fewest gold medals over the 6 Olympics this century and the second to fewest total medals with the addition of 3 events. And, the worst is directly corollary with the head coaches for costing two USA relays a medal and leaving the USA wining 2 out of 7 relays. Finally, without the 3 Gator men, the USA win no freestyle medals. If USA Swimming had “any” accountability the head coaches and Team Director would be replaced.

Peter Hristov
Peter Hristov
2 years ago
Reply to  Sprintgod

The Americans performed for their level not as good. Especially the females- King,Manuel,Smith etc. were not as goo as expected. Murphy was not as good. They could not be close to their results from 4- years ago including Ledecky- 9 seconds slower than Rio in 800m free. New coach, new approach to training, new technic, ability to breath on both sides etc. is needed in order to be the best again.other people

2 years ago
Reply to  Sprintgod

Wow, maybe the rest of the world is actually getting better? Maybe a few medals were lost to the ROC because of doping. Maybe it has to do with many of the swimmers from around the world are training in the US/at US universities? I also don’t really think that the medal haul is a bad result.
I do question, and have questioned for a long time, the relevance of a single meet to set the team for the biggest competition in the world. The US doesn’t seem to have a coherent development program for that national team… so many swimmers over my life have had to peak at the trials to make the team and performed OK at the games…

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