How the U.S. Men’s Swim Team Stacks Up Before Olympic Trials

caeleb dressel, 2019 fina world championships, olympic trials
Caeleb Dressel before a race at the 2019 World Championships -- Photo Courtesy: Becca Wyant

How the U.S. Men’s Swim Team Stacks Up Before Olympic Trials

Even before the Olympic Trials, it appears the American women’s team headed to Tokyo will end up one of the most well-rounded squads ever assembled. The men’s team, on the other hand, does not have quite so much promise.

Michael Phelps has appeared in five straight Olympics for the U.S., and he has anchored the team in the last four, so losing him to retirement certainly hurts, but Caeleb Dressel has stepped admirably into the role of world’s best swimmer, and he is positioned to pursue a nice haul of medals from the Tokyo Olympics. But beyond Dressel, the American men have some holes.

The team should consist of one returning gold medalist from the 2016 Olympics and one swimmer with multiple world titles to his credit, but neither is positioned as a clear favorite right now. Right now, several events appear to lack credible American medal contenders at all. And the Americans are at risk of missing the podium entirely in one relay, which has never happened, outside of the boycotted 1980 Games. So across the board, the U.S. men will have much more to prove at Trials than the women’s team.


Freestyle

Caeleb Dressel has won two straight world titles in both the 50 free and 100 free, and his best times are within hundredths of the world records in both events. Projecting Dressel to take down Cesar Cielo’s decade-old marks in both events is not a reach. Dressel will have tough opponents waiting for him at the Olympics, particularly defending champion Kyle Chalmers in the 100 free, but he is the favorite. And depending on the results of Olympic Trials, the Americans could send another medal contender to Tokyo in the 100 free, particularly after Ryan Held swam as quick as 47.39 in 2019.

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Americans Zach Apple and Townley Haas prior to warming up at the 2019 World Championships — Photo Courtesy: Becca Wyant

But in any longer freestyle events, the Americans have been struggling. Townley Haas took silver in the 200 free at the 2017 World Championships, but he has not approached his lifetime best of 1:45.03 since then. At the 2019 World Championships, no American made the final in the 200 free or finished in the top 10 in the world in the event. In the 400 free, Zane Grothe has been a finalist at the last two World Championships, but he finished seventh in 2017 and eighth in 2019. No American made the 800 or 1500 free final at the 2019 Worlds.

However, there is potential to see some big improvements in the mid-distance and distance races. Two Florida Gators, Kieran Smith and Bobby Finke, have both posted significant improvements in short course since 2019, but they have yet to swim in a championship long course meet in that span. Smith is the top American this year in the 200 free (1:46.30) and 400 free (3:47.71), and Finke has swum a 15:09 1500 free this spring (along with numerous 14:12s in the short course yards 1650), but neither projects to make the improvements necessary to jump into medal territory.


Backstroke

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Ryan Murphy at the 2019 FINA World Championships — Photo Courtesy: Becca Wyant

Defending 100 and 200 back gold medalist Ryan Murphy is at the center of the backstroke discussion, and he should certainly be a medal favorite in both events in Tokyo. Murphy still owns the world record in the 100 back at 51.85, set leading off the U.S. men’s 400 medley relay in Rio, but that event figures to be tightly packed at the top in Tokyo. In the 200 back, Murphy has been the clear No. 2 swimmer in the world over the past five years behind Russia’s Evgeny Rylov. Regardless, Murphy should do his part for the medal count, and it would be no surprise to see a second medal contender emerge at Trials, particularly in the 100 back.


Breaststroke

While some men’s events are fairly weak internationally right now, breaststroke is not among them. Both the 100 and 200 breast have improved drastically over the past four years, to the point where efforts in the 58-low and 57 range will be mandatory for medal contention in the Tokyo 100 breast and in 2:06 territory in the 200 breast. Meanwhile, only two Americans (Michael Andrew and Nic Fink) have cracked 1:00 in the 100 breast this year, and despite Andrew’s impressive 58.67 last month, he would still need to be much faster to make a medal run.

In the 200 breast, no American has ever been under 2:07. Will Licon and Andrew Wilson were both in the 2:07-mid/high range in 2019, and in the early stages of 2021, only Daniel Roy, Fink and Licon have even been under 2:10. Again, you would need to see a substantial jump in time at Olympic Trials for them to contend for medals in Tokyo.


Butterfly

In the 100 fly, Caeleb Dressel owns the world record at 49.50, and he won the 2019 world title by more than a second. Kristof Milak has thrown down some impressive performances thus far in 2021, but he’s the only man capable of touching Dressel here—and still a big underdog. Meanwhile, Michael Andrew ranks second in the world at 50.80, and Maxime Rooney swam a 50.68 in 2019, so there could be a second medal contender here, as well.

But the 200 fly is a different story. Over the past five Olympics, Michael Phelps has finished fifth, first, first, second and first, so that’s a significant vacuum to fill. After years of middling results in the 200 fly, teenager Luca Urlando put up a 1:53.84 in 2019, but he has not come close to replicating that form in two years. He dealt with a shoulder subluxation over the winter, and his season best this year is 1:57.21. The top American this year is Trenton Julian, who swam a lifetime best of 1:55.77 in May, but anyone who even wants to be in the Olympic medal conversation will need to be in the 1:54-low range or 1:53s.


Individual Medley

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Chase Kalisz in 2019 — Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

The IM events are probably the biggest wildcard here, and that’s largely because of Chase Kalisz. In 2017, he was dominant in both the 200 IM and 400 IM at the World Championships, improving to No. 3 all-time in the longer event. At the 2019 Worlds, he fell to third in the 200 IM and missed the final entirely in the 400 IM. And he has not competed in a championship meet since then, so it’s really tough to gauge where Kalisz will be this year. If he’s close to his best times (1:55.40 in the 200 IM and 4:05.90 in the 400 IM) at Olympic Trials, he will head to Tokyo as the favorite for Olympic gold. He probably has a better shot at an elite 200 IM, but his form remains a question mark.

Beyond Kalisz, Michael Andrew has been 1:56 each of the last two years in the 200 IM, and his only missing piece of the IM is the finishing freestyle leg. Meanwhile, Jay Litherland took fourth in the 400 IM in Rio and took silver at the 2019 World Championships, so he should have medal potential again in the longer race, and teenager Carson Foster ranks fourth in the world at 4:11.13, with the 400 IM representing his best shot at qualifying for Tokyo.


Relays

The U.S. men’s 400 free relay took gold at the 2016 Olympics and has not lost since, with Caeleb Dressel handling leadoff duties each time. The Americans looked really strong in the 100 free in 2019, when six men broke 48, the most ever by one country in a year. The performances so far in 2021 have not been great, but the times should return to close to that 2021 level by Olympic Trials. The only obstacle for gold will be Russia, which already this year has four swimmers at 48.00 or better (including world leader Kliment Kolesnikov at 47.31).

The American 800 free relay, on the other hand, could be in trouble. This is the team that is in danger of missing the podium, which no American men’s relay has ever done in an Olympics they participated in. In 2018 and 2019, Townley Haas and Andrew Seliskar each swam times in the 1:45-high range, with Kieran Smith leading the next pack at 1:46.21. The men will need to post big improvements to get into the medal picture, with Great Britain’s Duncan Scott and Tom Dean holding the top two spots the world rankings, Russia boasting a deep team and Australia entering as the reigning world champions. The Americans have won four straight Olympic golds in this event, but they would multiple swimmers in the 1:44 and 1:45-low range to reclaim the title of favorite for Tokyo, and that looks farfetched. Dressel has never swum on the 800 free relay internationally, but he could enter the mix and be an X-factor.

And in the 400 medley relay, the Americans have good to great legs with Ryan Murphy on back and Dressel on fly, and a solid freestyler is likely to emerge from the aforementioned depth, but the key here is breaststroke. Someone will need to be 58-low or 58-mid from a flat start to give the Americans hope of fending off Great Britain, which will have Adam Peaty handling the breaststroke. There’s probably no other country besides Britain that can beat the Americans here, but it would be too soon to name a gold-medal favorite before seeing what happens at Trials.


Overall

As of today, before Olympic Trials begins, this American men’s team has some pretty glaring weaknesses. Anything freestyle longer than 100 meters and breaststroke are the most glaring, and it’s certainly plausible that no American man other than Dressel captures an individual gold (which is exactly what happened at the 2019 World Championships). Of course, it bears repeating that a lot can and will change over the course of eight days in Omaha, and maybe this entire analysis looks silly on June 21. Maybe some young swimmers raise the bar in some events and either qualify for Tokyo themselves or push the veterans to some quicker times. We will find out soon enough.

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