No Tokyo, No Problem: The Non-Olympians Turning Heads in ISL Season 3

Linnea Mack and Ali Deloof (photo: Mike Lewis)
Linnea Mack, left, and Ali DeLoof of the DC Trident; Photo Courtesy: Mike Lewis/ISL

No Tokyo, No Problem: The Non-Olympians Turning Heads in ISL Season 3

Every season of the International Swimming League has carried a notable first. The inaugural campaign in 2019 was an experiment in every aspect. The 2020 season brought expansion and a bubble amid a global pandemic.

The question this year would be about the Olympics. Much as the league might aspire to displace the Olympics’s primacy in swimming, you won’t find a swimmer whose yet in that mindset. How ISL would fit into the schedule of athletes recovering, reloading or resting was an open question for ISL Season 3. The role of the league as a force multiplier, keeping in the headlines athletes who’d thrust themselves into the mainstream for the first time this summer, was one obvious possibility.

Marco Orsi (photo: Mike Lewis)

Team Iron’s Marco Orsi; Photo Courtesy: Mike Lewis/ISL

But ISL has also revealed another dynamic, beyond reminding those other than swimming diehards that Caeleb Dressel and Lilly King aren’t just dominant racers once every four years. The league is giving swimmers who missed the Tokyo festivities a way to showcase their abilities on the global stage and to make money doing it.

The most spectacular embodiment of this phenomenon was Coleman Stewart, who set the world record in the men’s 100 backstroke in his debut for the Cali Condors with a time of 48.33 seconds.

“I had absolutely no idea what to expect,” Stewart said then. “This was a complete shock. I was not expecting to go best times, really. Obviously super happy with it.”

Stewart missed out on Tokyo with just a so-so Olympic Trials. He was 10th in the 100 back in Omaha, fourth in the 100 butterfly and eighth in the 100 freestyle, just missing a relay spot.

Stewart is hardly alone in leading the pack in ISL without having swum in Tokyo. Through six matches in ISL Season 3, with every team having swum at least twice, the fastest times in no fewer than eight events belong to non-Olympians.

Kelshi Dahlia (who was an Olympian in 2016) leads the way in the women’s 100 fly and 200 fly. Her Cali Condors teammate Beata Nelson owns the top time in the 200 back and 100 individual medley, among a slew of top-10 times. Ali DeLoof of the DC Trident owns the top time in the women’s 50 back; she’s second in the 100 back to LA Current’s Ingrid Wilm.

Women’s backstroke is particularly fascinating: Seven of the top 12 in the 100 and seven of the top 10 in the 50 are swimmers absent from Tokyo.

On the men’s side, beyond Stewart, Nicholas Santos owns the top time in the 50 fly. Two other notables: Marco Orsi is second to Dressel in the 100 IM after the Team Iron swimmer missed the Olympics for Italy. The top 200 freestyler is Aleksandr Shchegolev of DC Trident, who swam only in prelims for the Russians’ 800 free relay.

There are a few broad categories to sort these swimmers into. Some are specialists in the short-course, either for the frequent walls or the 50-stroke/100-IM offerings. Stewart would fall into this category (though it’ s a tough line to walk, as his disqualification in Match 6 for not surfacing before 15 meters showed.) Santos, who set a world record in the 50 fly at age 40, is an obvious example.

Others are veterans of the international scene still turning in strong swims and able to physically and financially extend their careers. You’d place Holly Barratt, Alicja Tchorz, Orsi, Felipe Silva Franca, Santos and Leonardo Santos into that bucket.


Aqua Centurions’ Holly Barratt; Photo Courtesy: Mine Kasapoglu/ISL

We’d be remiss not to recognize the unlucky category: Swimmers who are victims of extreme depth in their national programs. The roster of American women in this category – Nelson, Dahlia, Maddy Banic, Emily Escobedo, Linnea Mack, Ali and Gabby DeLoof, Aly Tetzloff – is voluminous. Italian breaststroker Alessandro Pinzuti, who is swimming well for the Tokyo Frog Kings, falls under that category, stuck behind Nicolo Martinenghi and Fabio Scozzoli. The Canadian Wilm is mired behind Taylor Ruck and Kylie Masse on the backstroke depth chart (at least for long-course).

Perhaps the most intriguing group of non-Olympians is the up-and-comers. So often after an Olympic cycle completes, the ensuing World Championships is a telling harbinger of the next four years. ISL Season 3 is serving as an advance on that, albeit with the short-course caveats.

This category is the most exciting, for ISL’s place in the swimming universe and for fans. Watching young swimmers like Takeshi Kawamoto (who was in Tokyo, but still) upset Dressel in the 50 fly is an example. London’s Teppei Morimoto has a 200 fly win. Valentine Dumont has done so well in ISL that it’s easy to forget the Belgian is just 21. Ilia Borodin has a pair of 400 IM wins for Energy Standard, and fellow Russian Tatiana Belonogoff has been one of the top breaststrokers for DC. Great Britain’s Katie Shanahan (London) and Imogen Clark (LA) have started strong. Toronto has gotten a big boost from Luc Kroon (Netherlands) and Grigory Pekarski (Belarus).

All those swimmers are showing that in extracting value from the 2021 season, the Olympics is not the be-all-and-end-all.

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8 months ago

Olympics is overrated – so happy for these swimmers!