Ranking the Best Men’s Swimmers in the World From 1-25 as Olympic Year Arrives

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Photo Courtesy: Mine Kasapoglu/ISL

Ranking the Best Men’s Swimmers in the World From 1-25

Looking ahead to yet another Olympic year and putting 2020 in the rearview mirror, Swimming World decided to compile a list of the 25 best swimmers in the world leading into 2021. There was a lot of fast swimming in the first three months of 2020 (pre-pandemic), and even with an extended time out of the water during the summer, many of the world’s elite returned to either the ISL or various regional meets to put up times quicker than expected.

In compiling this list, we took into account what happened in 2019 as well as what each athlete showed in 2020. There was no perfect way to rank every swimmer in the world, but we tried to stay as objective as possible when weighing each swimmer’s achievements in the pandemic year of 2020. The ISL swims were taken into account as well as what happened in January and February before the pandemic shut everything down and pushed the Olympic Games back a full year.

So looking ahead to 2021, here are the top 25 best men’s swimmers in the world ranked as objectively as possible.

Other swimmers considered:

  • Zach Apple, United States
  • Alexander Graham, Australia
  • Townley Haas, United States
  • Mack Horton, Australia
  • Ryosuke Irie, Japan
  • Chase Kalisz, United States
  • Marco Koch, Germany
  • Will Licon, United States
  • Katsuhiro Matsumoto, Japan
  • Maxime Rooney, United States
  • Emre Sakci, Turkey
  • Shoma Sato, Japan
  • Andrew Seliskar, United States
  • Tom Shields, United States

25. Elijah Winnington, Australia


Photo Courtesy: Connor Trimble

It is worth noting that Winnington was a 3:43 in the 400 free in December and a 1:45 in the 200 free. People may not know his name just yet, and not being allowed to swim in the ISL this year certainly hurt his stock, but Winnington is a part of a very competitive freestyle field in Australia. The green and gold haven’t seen this much depth since Ian Thorpe and Grant Hackett won the 2001 Worlds final in the 4×200 free relay by six seconds. The Aussies are the reigning World champs in the 4×200 free, and Winnington wasn’t even in Gwangju. If he can get out of Australia’s Olympic Trials with a spot in Tokyo, he could be dangerous for medals.

24. Wang Shun, China


Wang Shun – Photo Courtesy: Becca Wyant

Wang has flown slightly under the radar the last few years since winning Olympic bronze in the 200 IM in 2016. He followed that up with a bronze in the 2017 Worlds in the 200 IM, but missed the podium in 2019. Wang was a 1:56.2 in October to be ranked second in the world this year. The 200 IM field feels wide open heading into Tokyo with no one really standing out as the heavy favorite. So if he plays his cards right, and he has been a consistent performer the last five years, Wang could see himself at the top of the podium.

23. Ilya Shymanovich, Belarus


Photo Courtesy: Mine Kasapoglu / ISL

Many forget that Shymanovich sits second all-time in the 100 breaststroke in long course with his 58.2 in March 2019. He was unable to follow that at the 2019 Worlds, not advancing past the semi finals. But in this year’s ISL, he gave Adam Peaty all he could handle every time they locked horns in the water in Budapest, and a few weeks removed from the league, Shymanovich broke Peaty’s world record. Although it was in short course, it is still a world record, and Shymanovich established himself as a player for Tokyo.

22. Mykhailo Romanchuk, Ukraine


Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Romanchuk is still searching for that elusive long course gold medal, taking silver in the 1500 at the last two World Championships and also finished off the podium in the 800 free both times. Romanchuk has one of the smoothest freestyle strokes you may ever see, and it is that precision that has propelled him to one of the top distance freestylers in the world. He was a 14:41 in the 1500 before the pandemic and was a 7:43 in the 800 – both swims put him second in the world rankings in 2020.

21. Florian Wellbrock, Germany


Photo Courtesy: Becca Wyant

Wellbrock showed a great deal of stamina at the 2019 Worlds, winning the 10K open water title, and then over a week later winning gold in the 1500 freestyle. Now he is a distance swimmer, so the grind is not foreign to him, but it is a hard achievement, no matter who you are. No man has ever won the 10K and 1500 in the same Olympic Games, and Wellbrock is certainly in position to become the first to do so. In February before the pandemic, Wellbrock was a 14:46 to solidify his place on Germany’s Olympic team.

20. Mitch Larkin, Australia


Photo Courtesy: Becca Wyant

Larkin was the gold medal favorite heading into Rio in both the 100 and 200 back, ultimately coming away with just a silver in the 200. Since then he has changed coaches and has changed his event focus, becoming more of a threat in the 200 IM than the 200 back. He was back on the podium in the 100 back at the 2019 Worlds with a bronze, and also led off Australia’s mixed medley relay that won gold. Larkin will play a big role again in those events and could surprise in the 200 IM – he was the only swimmer to break 1:56 in all of 2019.

19. Kliment Kolesnikov, Russia


Kliment Kolesnikov; Photo Courtesy: Becca Wyant

Kolesnikov had a promising junior career for Russia, but had an off 2019 due to illness. He had gotten off to another slow start in the ISL this season but got better each time he swam, and broke the world record in the 100 back short course meters. The backstroke field internationally is stacked and if any of the favorites falter, Kolesnikov could slip in – either the 100 or 200 back. Kolesnikov also has a strong 100 free, which could land him on the podium in the 4×100 free relay at the Games.

18. Gabriele Detti, Italy


Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

It is worth noting that Detti had the fastest time in the world this year in the 400 freestyle with a 3:43 in August. Detti has often been overshadowed by fellow Italian Gregorio Paltrinieri, but Detti has two Olympic medals to his name – with two bronzes in the 400 and 1500 in Rio. Detti is in a good position to win gold in the 400 free in an event that is wide open pending what happens with Sun Yang, and he will also play a big factor in the inaugural 800 free final.

17. Florent Manaudou, France


Photo Courtesy: Mine Kasapoglu / ISL

Manaudou came back in a big way in late 2019, with a strong first ISL season where he seemingly picked up right where he left off after Rio in 2016. Manaudou looked like the sure bet to win the one lap gold medal in Rio before he was out-touched by Anthony Ervin by 0.01. With some soul searching, Manaudou is back in full force and is again a favorite to make his third straight podium in the 50 free at the Games. Manaudou was ranked second in the world this year in the 50 free in short course meters and fourth in the 100.

16. Kyle Chalmers, Australia


Photo Courtesy: Becca Wyant

It is hard to believe Kyle Chalmers was just 18 when he won the 100 freestyle in Rio, surprising the field that included world #1 Cameron McEvoy and defending Olympic champ Nathan Adrian. Chalmers has been overshadowed by American Caeleb Dressel in the last few years, but his 47.0 silver medal at the 2019 Worlds proved that he should not be taken lightly in that race in Tokyo. In January last year, he went a speedy 47.9 and Chalmers has been known to be a big rest swimmer so expect him to show up ready to rip in Tokyo. And who knows…it may take a world record to win the 100 freestyle.

15. Chad Le Clos, South Africa


Photo Courtesy: Becca Wyant

Le Clos is still one of the top butterflyers in the world, as the now 28-year-old is looking to medal in this third straight Olympics in the 100 butterfly and is looking to win his gold medal back in the 200 fly after winning in 2012. Le Clos had the top time in the world this year in the 200 fly in short course and was also second in the 100. Le Clos did win the bronze in both the 100 and 200 fly at the 2019 Worlds while battling with a hernia, so he should not be written off going into 2021.

14. Danas Rapsys, Lithuania


Danas Rapsys; Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Even though he doesn’t have any tangible hardware, Rapsys was the fastest man in the 200 free final at the 2019 Worlds, but he flinched at the start and wasn’t able to celebrate. But since then, he has had the fastest time in the world in the 200 free with a 1:44.3 at the World Cup, and followed that up with a 1:45 at the FINA Champions Series in January. Rapsys had the top time in the world this year in the 400 freestyle in short course meters, and he will be a big gold medal favorite in both the 200 and 400 free after not advancing past the heats in the 100 and 200 back in Rio. It is worth noting Lithuania has never had a male Olympic gold medalist in swimming.

13. Andrei Minakov, Russia


Photo Courtesy: Becca Wyant

It is hard to believe Minakov is still 18 as he set the world junior records in the 100 free and 50 butterfly this year. Now as his junior career comes to a close, he will try to make his mark on senior waters. But with a silver medal already under his name in the 100 butterfly from the 2019 Worlds, the ceiling seems to be pretty high for Minakov. Russia will not be able to fly its flag in Tokyo, but if Minakov is to make the Games, he could be in line for a few medals in the 100 fly and 100 free, as well as the medley and freestyle relays.

12. Kosuke Hagino, Japan

Kosuke Hagino

Photo Courtesy: MIKE LEWIS / ISL

Hagino was one of the top swimmers in the world in 2016, winning Olympic gold in the 400 IM along with a silver in the 200, as well as an appearance in the finals of the 200 free. Hagino had some struggles in replicating those performances in the years afterwards and took an extended break from the sport in 2019. But fans were reassured he is back in top form after the ISL season, where he had the second fastest time of the season in the 400 IM and was ranked fifth overall in the 200. With a home crowd backing him in Tokyo this summer, expect him to be a factor in the medals of both IMs as well as Japan’s 4×200 free relay.

11. Kristof Milak, Hungary


Photo Courtesy: Becca Wyant

Milak made a name for himself at the 2019 Worlds when he took down Michael Phelps’ legendary 200 butterfly world record, vaulting himself to legendary status at just 19-years-old. He finished off the podium in the 100 fly a few days later, but will still be a gold medal favorite in both butterfly distances in Tokyo. He was ranked second in the world this year in the 100 fly and was fourth in the 200 in long course, proving he is in good shape to follow his world record in 2019 with Olympic glory in 2021.

10. Arno Kamminga, Netherlands


Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Kamminga has seen age group drops all year, improving from a 59.1/2:08.7 breaststroker in 2018 to a 58.4/2:06.8 in 2020, and is ranked third all-time in the 100 breast and fourth all-time in the 200. Kamminga has found himself as a medal favorite in Tokyo despite never swimming in a World Championship final. But with his rapid improvements in the last 12 months, he is among the best breaststrokers in the world, and could be the first Dutch breaststroker since Wieger Mensonides in 1960 to medal at the Olympics.

9. Anton Chupkov, Russia


Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Chupkov has been the man in the 200 breaststroke since winning bronze in Rio. He’s won the last two world titles and also had the fastest time in 2018. Chupkov set the world record in 2019 with a 2:06.1 as he has rewritten the record books in that event, holding five of the ten fastest times in history, including four under 2:07. Chupkov has also brought along his 100 speed as he could challenge for a medal in that event as well. Seven of the eight fastest performers in history are all still active, and it may take a world record to win the 200 breast in Tokyo.

8. Xu Jiayu, China


Photo Courtesy: Becca Wyant

Xu is the two-time reigning World champ in the 100 back and the reigning Olympic silver medalist in the event. He has been able to step up to the occasion even if he has swum slower in the finals than in the semis. Xu swam on China’s mixed medley relay that broke the only long course world record of 2020 and will definitely have the target on his back heading into Tokyo in the 100 back and the mixed medley relay. The backstroke fields are wide open at the moment but Xu has proved he can get his hand on the wall first in a tight race.

7. Ryan Murphy, United States


Photo Courtesy: Mine Kasapoglu / ISL

Murphy is the reigning Olympic champ in both the 100 and 200 back, and is the world record holder in the shorter distance. After a disappointing 2019 Worlds, he has proven he is still one of the top backstrokers in the world. At the ISL this season, he was ranked second overall in both the 100 and 200 back, and was an incredible racer every time he dove into the pool. Murphy has a lot of pressure on his shoulders – the United States hasn’t lost the Olympic crown in either the 100 or 200 back since 1992, before Murphy was even born.

6. Evgeny Rylov, Russia


Photo Courtesy: Becca Wyant

Rylov is the two-time reigning World champ in the 200 back and had the fastest time in the world in the 100 back in 2019. Rylov had the fastest time in the world this year in the 200 back in short course meters with his efforts in the ISL, proving he is still the one to beat ahead of Tokyo. And for relay purposes, Rylov anchored Russia’s 4×100 free relay at the 2019 Worlds to a silver medal, and the Russians look like the one team that can push the heavy favorites from the United States. Rylov seems to have the perfect mix of speed and endurance that will make him dangerous in both the 100 and 200 back.

5. Duncan Scott, Great Britain

Duncan Scott

Photo Courtesy: MIKE LEWIS / ISL

Scott made a name for himself at the end of the 2019 Worlds with a 46.1 relay split on the end of Great Britain’s medley relay, which gave them the gold medal. Scott also led off GB’s 4×200 free relay at those championships in a time quicker than the gold medal winning swim. We know what he is capable of – it is just a matter of putting it together when it matters the most for Scott. He is very versatile and has a legit chance to medal in Tokyo in the 100 and 200 free, as well as the 200 IM. He will also play a pivotal role in Great Britain’s relays that have a shot at gold in the medley and the 4×200 free.

4. Gregorio Paltrinieri, Italy


Photo Courtesy: Becca Wyant

Paltrinieri made headlines this summer when he scorched a 14:33 in the 1500 in his first meet post-pandemic. He was under Sun Yang’s world record pace through 1450 meters, but did not have the speed to surpass the record on the last lap. With that impressive swim under his belt, many have tabbed Paltrinieri as potentially the first man to break 14:30. If he can successfully defend his Olympic title in the 1500, Paltrinieri could challenge for the mantle of greatest distance swimmer ever – already he has an Olympic gold and two world titles. The only thing missing is the world record, and a second Olympic gold may cement his legacy. And it’s not just the 1500, Paltrinieri is a favorite to win gold in the 800 and 10K.

3. Daiya Seto, Japan


Photo Courtesy: Becca Wyant

Seto was on fire to start 2020, with number one ranked times in the 200 & 400 IM and the 200 butterfly, including an impressive 1:52 in the latter, and a 4:06 in the 400 IM. Seto will have a lot of attention on him leading into a home Olympics, as the 400 IM on night one may be the hottest ticket event of the Games. But Seto’s suspension through the end of 2020 for an extramarital affair may hurt his stock heading into this summer’s Olympics.

2. Adam Peaty, Great Britain


Adam Peaty – Photo courtesy of Becca Wyant

Is this a controversial placing for the Brit? Well, when you are almost a second and a half quicker than the second fastest man in history in a 100, then no. Peaty has transcended the 100 breaststroke in long course meters, swimming faster than what many people thought was humanly possible when he swam a 56.88 at the 2019 Worlds. Peaty is the huge favorite to win back to back in Tokyo in the 100 breast, and could be the X factor in getting Great Britain’s first relay Olympic gold medal since 1912.

1. Caeleb Dressel, United States


Caeleb Dressel – Photo Courtesy: Becca Wyant

The sky seems to be limit for Dressel, who torched the short course world record books in 2020 with all-time marks in the 50 free, 50 and 100 fly and the 100 IM. The men’s 100 free field in the US is particularly deep, but many are already penciling Dressel in as the #1 guy to lead the Americans to back to back gold in the 4×100 free relay. It seems like every time he dives into the water, a record is in danger, and even with a lot of hype around him leading into 2021, Dressel could be the face of the Games in Tokyo. He is the gold medal favorite in the 50 and 100 free, and the 100 fly, and will play a role in three of USA’s sprint relays with gold medal potential.

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3 years ago

Post the top 25 in each event!

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22 days ago

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