Navigating the U.S. Olympic Trials Gauntlet in Men’s 100 Freestyle Will Be No Easy Task

Caeleb Dressel of the United States of America (USA) reacts after winning in the men's 50m Freestyle Final during the Swimming events at the Gwangju 2019 FINA World Championships, Gwangju, South Korea, 27 July 2019.

Navigating the U.S. Olympic Trials Gauntlet in Men’s 100 Freestyle Will Be No Easy Task (October Issue – Swimming World Magazine)

For most of the 21st century, the American men have struggled to maintain hold of the 400-meter freestyle relay. Almost every time they did finish atop the podium at a major meet, it required some heroics. But heading into the 2020 Olympics, a young American sprint corps has turned the United States into heavy gold-medal favorites in both the 100 free and 400 free relay. Now, the real contest will come at the Olympic Trials, where Olympic hopefuls must get through a cutthroat gauntlet of speed in order to earn their spots for Tokyo.

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Ian Thorpe in his signature black bodysuit.

The era of American dominance in the men’s 400 freestyle relay came to a crashing halt in 2000, when Michael Klim and Ian Thorpe led the Australians to an upset Olympic gold medal at the Sydney Olympics. Thorpe and Klim famously stood on the starting blocks after the race strumming air guitars, mocking a pre-meet claim from U.S. anchor swimmer Gary Hall Jr. that the Americans would smash the Australians like guitars.

Before that, the U.S. men had run a nearly unbeaten record in major competitions. In the years after, they couldn’t get the gold medal back. Most embarrassing was the result of the 2004 Olympics, when an upstart squad from South Africa claimed gold, with the U.S. almost a second-and-a-half behind. A few days later, no U.S. man in the individual 100 free even qualified for the semifinals.

In 2008, France appeared to be in position to deny U.S. gold for a third straight Olympics, only for Jason Lezak to swim a 46.06 anchor split—a time that still remains the fastest split in history—to win gold by 8-hundredths. The U.S. time from that day, 3:08.24, remains the world record.

And then, after another dramatic 400 free relay win at the World Championships in 2009, the Americans failed to capture another gold in the event for seven years. The dominant team over that stretch was France. At the 2012 Olympics, French anchor Yannick Agnel tracked down and passed American Ryan Lochte to win gold in a stunning reversal from four years earlier.

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Michael Phelps and Caeleb Dressel celebrate Rio 2016 4×100 free gold – Photo Courtesy: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports

Four years later, in 2016, the Americans again faced an uphill battle for gold with strong French and Russian teams standing in their way. But the U.S. coaches expertly put together a foursome that blended experience and youth, with 19-year-old Caeleb Dressel, 28-time Olympic medalist Michael Phelps, 21-year-old Ryan Held and three-time Olympian Nathan Adrian.

It worked. Dressel kept it close, and Phelps used his signature underwater dolphin kicks off the turn to power the Americans into the lead. Held, also in the biggest spot of his career, hung tough, and Adrian pulled away.

Since 2016, Phelps has retired, while Adrian, now 30, has battled testicular cancer and emerged from that setback as still one of the country’s top 10 freestylers. Meanwhile, Dressel has become the world’s best in the event. In 2017, he won his first world title as he lowered the American record to 47.17, and he topped the field again at the 2019 World Championships in Gwangju, his time of 46.96 falling just 5-hundredths shy of the world record.

Behind Dressel, five more Americans swam under 48 seconds. In 2018, when Dressel was dealing with the aftereffects of a scooter crash and did not perform at his usual level, the winning time at U.S. nationals was 48.08, and no American swam faster than 48.03. But this year, the event has ramped up.

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Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

At 2019 nationals, the top six swimmers in the event from 2018 were all absent after competing at the World Championships, where the Americans captured 400 free relay gold by a significant margin of 9-tenths. In their absence, Dean Farris finished fourth in the 100 free at 48.07—yes, faster than the winning time in a full-strength field one year earlier.

High-Speed Trials

At the Olympic Trials in 2020, the top six swimmers in the 100 free will earn spots at the Tokyo Olympics to compete as part of the now-heavily favored American 400 free relay. And it will be fast. While in 2016, it took just 49.55 to qualify for semifinals and 49.18 to make the final, expect a cutoff somewhere in the 48-mid range just to make semis. To make the Trials final, it will likely take a time in the very low 48s, possibly even under 48.

“There was a time where the time to make the 100 free for Team USA was pretty stagnant and just kind of hanging around 48-high. Maybe 48-mid was a fast year,” Adrian said. “To see this progress, it’s really cool to watch it. Definitely from a fan’s perspective, it’s really cool. As a competitor, certainly it’s a little stressful.”

Some really good swimmers with impressive credentials will be left out of the mix. Whoever the top eight turn out to be, it will only require beating two others to secure a trip to Tokyo, so perhaps the final ends up being slower than the semifinals, but the semifinals will be vicious. With perhaps one exception, every swimmer in the semis will have to give 100 percent just to earn a shot to race for Olympic qualification.

The Contenders

(In order by 2019 ranking among Americans; times/rankings as of Sept. 12)

1. Caeleb Dressel (2019 best: 46.96; world rank: 1)

Dressel is the world’s best in the 100 free, with only Kyle Chalmers of Australia capable of keeping pace. If anyone could cruise through the Trials semifinals, it’s Dressel. Trials will likely mark his next shot at the world record—Cesar Cielo’s 46.91 from the polyurethane suit era of 2009.

2. Ryan Held (2019 best: 47.39; world rank: 3)

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Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

After his golden moment at the 2016 Olympics, Held took a step back in 2017 and 2018, failing to crack the top six in the country in the event in either year. But in 2019, he left his familiar training grounds at North Carolina State and joined up with Coach Coley Stickels, first at Indiana and later at Alabama—and the results have been immediate. Arriving at U.S. nationals with a lifetime best of 48.26, Held swam a 47.43 in prelims and then a 47.39 in finals.

“It’s a huge confidence boost in myself and the training program that I’m in right now,” Held said after his breakthrough swim. “The strongest swimmers are the ones who are mentally confident in themselves and their abilities. I never gave up on myself. It was just two years of, ‘Ugh, next year. I’ve got to try harder and harder.’ But this was the year that everything came together.”

3. Maxime Rooney (2019 best: 47.61; world rank: 5)

Previously best known for his abilities in the 200 free, Rooney gave a taste of his 100 free abilities in 2018 when he swam a 48.27 in the 100 free prelims at nationals before finishing seventh at night. This year, after leaving the University of Florida for the University of Texas, Rooney emerged as the second-fastest swimmer in the world in the 100 fly and also an elite 100 freestyler, dropping down to a 47.61 at U.S. nationals.

Unlike most of the others atop this list, Rooney has very little senior-level international experience, with his only U.S. national team trip coming at the 2017 World University Games. But that performance at nationals thrusts him squarely into the hunt for Trials.

4. Zach Apple (2019 best: 47.79; world rank: 7)

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Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Back in 2017, Apple surprised just about everyone in the building when he turned in the top qualifying time in the 100 free prelims at U.S. nationals. That night, he qualified for his first World Championships, and since then, he has become a consistent depth piece. Apple swam on the finals squad of the 400 free relay at the 2018 Pan Pacific Championships and again at the 2019 World Championships.

This year, before heading to the World Championships, Apple won five gold medals at the World University Games in Naples, Italy, and while there, he broke 48 for the first time. At Worlds in Gwangju, his 46.86 split on the third leg extended the U.S. lead and ended up as the fastest split of the entire field.

5. Blake Pieroni (2019 best: 47.87; world rank: =8)

Since making his first Olympic team in something of a surprising result in 2016, Pieroni has become one of the fastest and most consistent 100 and 200 freestylers in the country. In Gwangju, he joined Dressel as the second U.S. representative in the individual 100 free, and he finished fourth in the final, missing bronze by just 6-hundredths.

Yes, the fourth-place 100 freestyler from the World Championships is fifth best in his own country. But aside from his speed, Pieroni’s best asset may be the track record of delivering in the biggest moments that he has built over the last four years.

6. Tate Jackson (2019 best: 47.88; world rank: =10)

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Photo Courtesy: Andy Ringgold / Aringo Photos

Jackson has less name recognition than most others on this list, but after steadily improving through four years of swimming at Texas, he’s no slouch. Before nationals this summer, his claims to fame included a ninth-place finish in the 100 free at 2018 nationals (albeit in an impressive time of 48.20) and finishing his senior year ranked third in the country in the 100-yard free at 41.08.

Jackson had an unimpressive final NCAA Championships, where he finished in the top 16 in just one individual event. Heading into the Olympic year, he has never represented the U.S. at a senior-level international meet, but his sub-48 credentials mean he can’t be taken lightly.

7. Dean Farris (2019 best: 48.07; world rank: 13)

Farris has received no shortage of hype, thanks to his exploits in the short course pool while swimming for Harvard. He owns the fastest time in history in the 200-yard freestyle, and he won NCAA titles in the 100-yard back and 100-yard free in 2019. This past summer, he made his first major impact on long course swimming with a pair of relay golds and times of 48.07 in the 100 free and 1:46.45 in the 200 free that thrust him into the Olympic conversation.

8. Nathan Adrian (2019 best: 48.17; world rank: 18)

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Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Despite missing more than a month of training early in 2019 while he treated his testicular cancer, Adrian had an impressive three-week span of racing in 2019 between the World Championships and Pan American Games. He hasn’t broken 48 from a flat start since 2017, but he split as fast as 47.08 on a relay in Gwangju. Make no mistake: Adrian will be in the hunt come Trials. In the biggest moments, the veteran almost always delivers.

“It’s a fun time to be a sprinter in the U.S. Whoever is going to be on that relay, they’re knocking on the door of that world record that was so legendary for so long, and that’s awesome,” Adrian said. “I’m way more excited about that prospect than I am scared of not being on the relay or not being on the team.”

9. Robert Howard (2019 best: 48.37; world rank: 26)

Like Jackson who is ranked sixth, Howard steadily improved over his four years in college to make himself a relay contender. Formerly a member of the Alabama Crimson Tide, but now training with Coach Jonty Skinner at Indiana, Howard will have to drop more time to be in the hunt at Trials.

10. Jack Conger (2019 best: 48.47; world rank: 29)

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Photo Courtesy: Becca Wyant

Better known for his 200 free (the event in which he qualified for a relay at the 2016 Olympics) and his butterfly, Conger has improved his 100 free to a point that, in most previous years, he would have been considered one of the country’s key relay cogs.

11. Daniel Krueger (2019 best: 48.55; world rank: 39)

A bit of a longshot, Krueger was fourth in the 100-yard free at the NCAA Championships as a freshman this past season for Texas. He has steadily improved each year, so a few more tenths would put him squarely in the conversation.

12. Townley Haas (2019 best: 48.60; world rank: 44)

Haas is better known for his 200 free, where he won silver at the 2017 World Championships, but he’s been a player on 400 free relays, too. Back in 2017, he split 47.46 on the finals relay at the World Championships to help nail down a U.S. gold medal.

13. Michael Chadwick (2019 best: 48.70; world rank: =46)

Like Haas, Chadwick has been a part of prelims relay squads at the last two World Championships, but he has struggled to get past the 48-mid plateau. However, he didn’t get a chance to swim a flat-start 100 free at a major meet this summer, so his season best of 48.70 is deceiving. After flaming out in prelims at the 2016 Olympic Trials after a bad start, Chadwick gets a second shot in 2020.

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