No Need to Panic: As 2020 Tokyo Games Beckon, Team USA Will be Just Fine

Caeleb Dressel Hyping Up Before 100 Fly World Record (No Overreaction)

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Throw away that paper bag. Put down the antacids. Get off the ledge. There’s no need to hyperventilate. No reason for indigestion. Jumping is an overreaction. A year out from the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, the United States is going to be just fine. History dictates this much to be true.

Through six days of the World Championships, some concern has arisen regarding the Stars & Stripes’ performance in Gwangju, South Korea. What’s wrong with Team USA? Is this week an indicator of what will unfold next summer? Will things turn around? Those are just a few of the questions that have been posed about the status of United States Swimming.

In truth, the U.S. has not been overly sharp this week, and has not matched some past years, when everything has gone pretty much to plan. With two days remaining in the competition, the United States boasts 17 medals – six gold, six silver and five bronze. While that total leads the medals count, the effort is not as overwhelming as what has previously been seen, and what is remembered. Two years ago, for example, Team USA steamrolled the competition at the World Champs in Budapest, piling up 38 medals – 18 of which were gold – with the closest competitor capturing 10 medals.

But there are also prior examples of the United States not excelling at the World Champs, the 2015 edition of the meet in Kazan standing out. It is important to focus on those World Champs, since it was also a year before an Olympiad. In Kazan, the United States managed only 23 medals, including eight gold. As the team exited Russia, the same what’s wrong questions were flying. Yet, at the Olympic Games in Rio, the U.S. was superb on the way to 33 medals, almost half (16) of them gold.

So, why possess a positive view for 2020? Well, here are a few reasons.

  • There isn’t a meet in the world – the Olympics included – that is as cutthroat and demanding as the U.S. Olympic Trials. The do-or-die and deep nature of the meet, held about a month before the Games, finely sharpens athletes mentally and physically, and sends the team into the Olympics on an upswing. Get through Trials and many swimmers are of the belief that the more-difficult minefield has already been navigated.
  • What are the odds that Katie Ledecky is going to fall ill again? Answer: slim. The fact that Ledecky had to opt out of two events – one a guaranteed gold medal – hurt the American medal count. And like Michael Phelps throughout his career, Ledecky has the ability – through her sheer talent and presence – to generate momentum and confidence within the team.
  • Some athletes have set their quadrennial clocks to Tokyo, unconcerned with what occurs in non-Olympic years. For a veteran like Ryan Murphy, who pocketed three gold medals in Rio, his focus is on the next Olympic Games. For that reason, his training has been geared to peak in the Orient above anywhere else.
  • The American women, in case it has been missed, have set a pair of American records at Worlds, the 400 freestyle relay pushing Australia to the wall, and the 800 freestyle relay going under the previous world record, albeit slightly slower than what the Aussies went for a new global standard.
  • Did anyone see what the United States did on Night Six at the Nambu University Aquatics Center? No, one night and just a few names – Simone Manuel and Caeleb Dressel, for instance – do not erase the deficiencies that have emerged. But the fact that the United States can catch fire as quickly as it did in Korea is proof of the country’s punching ability. There isn’t another nation with the firepower of the United States, and when the bazooka is loaded, it’s a scary weapon.

“This is where Team USA needs to be,” said Rowdy Gaines, the three-time Olympic champion and NBC analyst. “They are swimming better than 2015 and we all know what happened in 2016. I feel like quoting Matthew McConaughey when he got his Oscar. ‘All right. All right. All right… Everyone needs to settle down.’ Team USA will be just fine. There’s a reason why they’ve been No. 1 for 63 years.”


Photo Courtesy: Becca Wyant

If the above bullet points are not enough to assuage the slight worries that have been attached to the Red, White and Blue (or is it, for some, boo-hoo?), let’s remember that further ammunition is on the way. The world record that 17-year-old Regan Smith blasted in the semifinals of the 200 backstroke is just the start of what is shaping up to be an extraordinary international career. Ask any of the sport’s experts about Smith and they’ll indicate she’s the Tokyo favorite for gold in both backstroke events. And the backstrokes are just the start for Smith, who could be a factor in butterfly events, too, and as a member of the American 800 freestyle relay.

On the men’s side, Team USA is staring at the impending impact of Luca Urlando. The California teen recently posted a time in the 200 butterfly that would have been good for the silver medal at the World Champs, and his versatility could be beneficial in other areas as well. More, Carson Foster is lurking in multiple events, his role on the U.S. landscape dependent on just how fast he develops ahead of Omaha. If 2020 is too soon, his force should be felt not long after.

“I was truly blown away watching Regan swim 2:03.3 (yes, I typed that right) and absolutely smash it,” Tweeted Missy Franklin about Smith breaking her world record in the 200 backstroke. “I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. People will forget our times, they’ll forget the color of your medals, but they will never, ever forget how you made them feel. I truly couldn’t be happier seeing my world record go to someone who I believe at the bottom of my heart is one of the greatest inspirations and kindest humans in the world. Congrats my dear @reganesmith4. Thank you. For sharing your gift with us. You’re beyond a joy to watch.”

Look, it would be ignorant to suggest the week has been spectacular, or even above average. Some exquisite performances from a handful of elite athletes have helped cover up some of the shortcomings. There are still some problems. For the men, the distance freestyles have been a mess, and while Andrew Wilson has been solid in the breaststroke, development is necessary in that stroke. Among the women, there has been greater consistency, but the individual medley can be identified as an area in need of growth.

Part of the recipe for the World Championships included a far-off qualifying format. The process that was used to select the team for Korea utilized a combination of results from Nationals and the Pan Pacific Championships. The same format was used for Kazan, and the primary drawback of this approach is the way it limits rising stars from qualifying. An argument can also be made that for some, once the Worlds invitation was booked, a sense of complacency set in.

But this is the way USA Swimming has opted to handle pre-Olympic years, and going by the results of Rio, the organization knows what it is doing. So, sit back, take a deep breath and relax. By the time Tokyo rolls around, all will be fine.


  1. Ivan Picado

    Six golds is a monumental failure so far…. Hopefully they can pick three more golds in the next two days of competition…

  2. Dave Hoover

    Joel Dodds I think I declared that myself just a couple of days ago too…

  3. Jennifer Chu

    It’s so great to see all the up and coming young swimmers of the World swimming so well and showing enthusiasm and good sportsmanship!