Ranking the Best Women’s Swimmers in the World From 1-25 As Olympic Year Arrives

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Photo Courtesy: Mine Kasapoglu/ISL

Ranking the Best Women’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 women’s swimmers in the world ranked as objectively as possible.

Other swimmers considered:

  • Freya Anderson, Great Britain
  • Evgeniia Chikunova, Russia
  • Boglarka Kapas, Hungary
  • Ranomi Kromowidjojo, Netherlands
  • Maggie MacNeil, Canada
  • Federica Pellegrini, Italy
  • Sydney Pickrem, Canada
  • Benedetta Pilato, Italy
  • Anastasiya Shkurdai, Belarus
  • Leah Smith, United States
  • Kira Toussaint, Netherlands
  • Marie Wattel, France

25. Annie Lazor, United States

Annie Lazor

Photo Courtesy: MIKE LEWIS / ISL

Lazor had the top time in the world in both 2019 and 2020 in the 200 breaststroke, which should be noted whenever mentioning her name. She has resurrected herself as one of the top breaststrokers in the world after initially retiring after missing the Olympic team in 2016. Now in her mid-20’s, she is in line to make her first USA “A” team after winning double gold at the Pan American Games in 2019. Lazor will have her work cut out for her – the USA women are particularly deep in breaststroke.

24. Ye Shiwen, China


Photo Courtesy: Becca Wyant

Ye has come a long way since winning double IM gold in London at just 16-years-old back in 2012. Now at 24, she made her way back to the podium at the 2019 Worlds with double silver in the 200 and 400 IM, and also reached the final in the 200 breaststroke. Many thought Ye was done after finishing eighth in the 200 IM in Rio but she is now among the best in the world in both IMs and has also developed into a world class breaststroker ahead of what would be her third Olympics.

23. Beryl Gastaldello, France


Photo Courtesy: Mine Kasapoglu / ISL

Gastaldello really made a name for herself in 2020 during the International Swimming League, putting up the fastest time in the world in the 100 fly and 100 IM, and also putting herself second in the 100 free and sixth in the 50 free. If she can translate that success to long course, she could be sniffing the podium in Tokyo. The sprint events are already particularly stacked with the presence of swimmers like Sjostrom, Campbell and Manuel, but Gastaldello proved she could compete with the best in short course meters, it is just a matter of can she replicate that in the Olympic pool.

22. Minna Atherton, Australia

Minna Atherton

Photo Courtesy: Delly Carr/Swimming Australia

Atherton had a lot of momentum on her side in the second half of 2019, where she set the short course meters world record in the 100 backstroke a few weeks removed from her first international medal in the 100 back at Worlds. Atherton had a promising junior career, winning the 2015 World junior titles in the 100 and 200 back, but had a lull of improvement in between then and 2019 where she finally broke through with a silver in Gwangju. Australia, like the US, has a deep talent pool in the backstroke events, and if Atherton can make her way onto the plane to Tokyo, she could be a medal favorite.

21. Olivia Smoliga, United States


Photo Courtesy: Becca Wyant

Smoliga proved pivotal for the Cali Condors in the ISL this season, leading the world rankings in the 100 backstroke, nearly breaking Atherton’s world record in the process. Smoliga had been on a tear in 2019 where she finished with an individual bronze in the 100 back and a gold in the non-Olympic 50 back. Smoliga is a gamer, and will be tough to beat if she is at her best in 2021. In the last couple years, she has also developed a strong 200 back that could land her a place on the team to Tokyo.

20. Siobhan Haughey, Hong Kong


Photo Courtesy: Mine Kasapoglu / ISL

It seems like every time Haughey dives into the pool, she sets a new best time. After just narrowly missing the podium in the 200 freestyle at the 2019 Worlds, Haughey has been on a tear. She had the top 200 freestyle time in the ISL last year, and did not lose a single 200 free race in the 2020 ISL season. She also led the world rankings in the 100 freestyle this year in short course meters with her ISL performances. Haughey was a 1:54 in long course this season and she could be a dark horse gold medal favorite for Tokyo. Hong Kong has never had a finalist in Olympic swimming, let alone a medalist.

19. Katinka Hosszu, Hungary


Photo Courtesy: Becca Wyant

Even with a disappointing showing at the ISL, where she only had one swim ranked in the top eight in the league – a fourth place effort in the 200 butterfly, this is still the Iron Lady we are talking about. Hosszu has won five World titles in the 400 IM, and is one of the best racers in the entire world. It will be a huge surprise if she doesn’t show up to Tokyo 100% ready to defend her three gold medals she won in Rio – the 200 & 400 IM and the 100 back. Hosszu was a 4:36 pre-pandemic in the 400 IM, and will still not be counted out as we get closer to the Games.

18. Kathleen Baker, United States


Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Although Baker had an off 2019, she returned in pre-pandemic 2020 with some really eye-popping swims, including leading the world rankings in the 200 IM in February. In previewing the women’s backstroke at US Olympic Trials, many are focusing on Smoliga and Regan Smith as the front-runners with Phoebe Bacon as a potential spoiler. But Baker is the reigning Olympic silver medalist in the 100 back and the former world record holder in the event so she should never be taken lightly. At the US Open, she swam another sub-59 to gain some momentum heading into 2021.

17. Yulia Efimova, Russia


Photo Courtesy: Becca Wyant

Efimova is the reigning Olympic silver medalist in both the 100 and 200 breaststroke, but her status in Tokyo remains up in the air after Russia’s flag was banned from the next two Olympic Games. Russian athletes will still be allowed to compete at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics if they are not implicated in doping or covering up positive tests, according to the ruling. Efimova has already served two doping suspensions in her career, so her status for Tokyo is unknown if she is to make it in Russia’s deep breaststroke field. But if Efimova is to race in Tokyo, then she will be a gold medal favorite in both the 100 and 200 breast.

16. Hali Flickinger, United States

Hali Flickinger

Hali Flickinger; Photo Courtesy: MIKE LEWIS / ISL

Flickinger has long been one of the most versatile swimmers in the United States, dating back to her collegiate days at the University of Georgia. Now swimming for legendary coach Bob Bowman, Flickinger has remained one of the best racers in the world, carrying favorite status leading into 2021 in the 200 butterfly after multiple 2:05’s in 2019. And in ISL circles, she proved valuable in the 200 and 400 free as well as the 400 IM, all three events she could very well slip into Olympic contention if someone else falters.

15. Kylie Masse, Canada


Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Masse is the two-time reigning World champ in the 100 back, and also won a medal in the 200 at the 2019 Worlds. She has proved to be a great racer, even in a stroke where it is difficult to see those around you. Masse has a tendency to get her hand on the wall first and consistently crank out 58s in the long course 100 back. She made her Canadian senior debut in Rio, picking up a bronze in the 100 back, and she could upgrade that to a silver or perhaps gold in 2021.

14. Wang Jianjiahe, China

Wang Jianjiahe

Photo Courtesy: Becca Wyant

Wang was a 15:45 in the 1500 this year in September for seventh all-time and also sits third all-time in the 800 from 2019. Wang won the bronze in the 1500 at the 2019 Worlds and it is worth noting she just celebrated her 18th birthday earlier this summer. She is still young and has room to improve, which could spell out good things for the Chinese heading into 2021. China’s national swim team has looked strong in the last few months and Wang is no exception.

13. Simona Quadarella, Italy


Photo Courtesy: Becca Wyant

Quadarella gave Katie Ledecky everything she could handle in the 800 free final at the 2019 Worlds, finishing with the silver medal. She won the 1500 World title in Ledecky’s absence and is a big favorite to compete for a medal in the inaugural 1500 Olympic final. Now at age 22, she is continuing Italy’s strong tradition in the distance freestyle events as she is ranked fourth all-time in both the 800 and 1500 free. Quadarella seemed a little off her game at the Sette Colli in her first meet in the pandemic but many will not count her out heading into 2021.

12. Melanie Margalis, United States


Photo Courtesy: Becca Wyant

Margalis is perhaps one of the most underrated swimmers in the world. She hasn’t won an individual medal at the world level yet, finishing fourth in the 200 IM at the last two Worlds and the 2016 Olympics. She has gotten agonizingly close to an individual medal for so many years, and 2021 could be her best chance. She was a 4:32 in the 400 IM before the pandemic and was a 2:08 in the 200 in December of last year. Margalis had been leading the ISL in both the 200 and 400 IM before exiting for personal reasons, and not many will take her lightly in Tokyo despite her lack of an individual medal.

11. Yui Ohashi, Japan


Photo Courtesy: Becca Wyant

Ohashi had a strong showing in the ISL this season with the top times in both the 200 and 400 IM after coming off a 2019 where she won Worlds bronze in the 400 IM. With a home Olympics upcoming, Ohashi will be a crowd favorite on night one in the 400 IM and the Japanese crowd could push her to a medal, and perhaps a gold one. Ohashi has been a steady performer the last few years and would be making her Olympic debut in Tokyo if she is to make the team at age 25.

10. Zhang Yufei, China


Photo Courtesy: Fei Maohua

Zhang had a huge 2020 year in joining the sub-56 club in the 100 butterfly, and also swam a 52.9 in the 100 freestyle. Zhang was on China’s mixed medley relay that set the only long course world record of 2020 where she split a 55.3 butterfly in the process. Zhang has flown under the radar in the butterfly events and the 100 free, but if her 2021 is anything like her 2020, then Zhang could find herself on the podium in Tokyo in more than one event. It is worth noting that China has won two of the last three Olympic gold medals in the 200 butterfly and Zhang was a 2:05 within the last few days.

9. Cate Campbell, Australia


Photo Courtesy: Becca Wyant

Campbell has long been one of the top sprinters in the world in the last ten years, first reaching the Olympic podium as a young teenager at the Beijing Games in the 50 free 12 years ago. Campbell is still at the top of her game leading into what would be her fourth Games if she makes it to Tokyo. If Campbell is on, she could walk away with a number of gold medals, including the 50 and 100 free, and the three relays – mixed and women’s medley, and the 4×100 free. Campbell was underwhelming in Rio in 2016, so she will be looking to avenge those demons this time around in 2021.

8. Ariarne Titmus, Australia

Ariarne Titmus

Ariarne Titmus – Photo Courtesy: Becca Wyant

Titmus made headlines in 2019 when she took down the almighty Katie Ledecky in the 400 free at the World Championships. She didn’t race much in 2020 but has still been tabbed as a gold medal threat in both the 400 and 200 freestyle at the Olympic Games. It is just a matter of getting on the plane to Tokyo for her. Although Titmus is ranked among the best in the world in her events, Australia is particularly deep in the 200, 400 and 800 freestyle so she will not be able to afford to take it easy at Trials.

7. Regan Smith, United States


Photo Courtesy: Becca Wyant

Smith was our world swimmer of the year in 2019 after breaking the world records in the 100 and 200 back, becoming the first woman to break 58 and 2:04 in those two events. At just 18, Smith is a big favorite to make a number of events for Tokyo and in the early days of the pre-pandemic 2020 year, she had proved 2019 was no fluke by sitting near the top of the world in both the 100 and 200 back, as well as the 200 fly. Smith is staying one more year with coach Mike Parratto in Minnesota before she heads to Stanford with Olympic coach Greg Meehan.

6. Emma McKeon, Australia


Photo Courtesy: Becca Wyant

McKeon has seemed wildly underrated the last few years, often getting overshadowed by her peers Campbell and Titmus, but McKeon has been a key piece for Australia’s women’s team since she broke out in 2014. Leading into 2021, she could play a role in four of Australia’s relays that all have medal potential – all three women’s relays and the mixed medley. Add in the individual 100 & 200 free and the 100 butterfly, and McKeon is arguably one of the most versatile swimmers in the world without needing to throw down a 200 IM.

5. Lilly King, United States


Photo Courtesy: Becca Wyant

King has been the top 100 breaststroker in the world since winning gold in Rio 2016. She hasn’t medaled in the 200 at the world level, albeit with a disqualification in the heats at the 2019 Worlds where she was a gold medal favorite. King hasn’t shown her cards in the 200 fully rested just yet, but it is safe to say if she can get through the gauntlet that is the US Olympic Trials, she will be the dual gold medal favorite for the breaststroke events to potentially become the first ever to successfully repeat in the 100.

4. Kaylee McKeown, Australia

Kaylee McKeown

Photo Courtesy: Delly Carr

McKeown had a big breakout year in 2020, moving up to second all-time in the 100 backstroke and third all-time in the 200. McKeown also broke the short course meters world record in the 200 back this year, putting a target on her back heading into 2021 as the one to beat for Olympic gold. Australia has a deep talent pool in both the 100 and 200 back with Atherton and Emily Seebohm in pursuit, but McKeown has momentum on her side. It is hard to believe she is still only 19, as she chases her first Olympic berth.

3. Simone Manuel, United States


Photo Courtesy: Becca Wyant

Manuel carries the mantle as perhaps the greatest American sprinter of all-time, winning the last two World titles in the 100 free, as well as the 2019 title in the 50. Manuel also made history in 2016 when she tied for gold in the 100 freestyle as the first black woman to win an individual Olympic gold medal. With that swim, she also became the first American to win that event at the Games since 1984, breaking the longest gold medal drought the Americans had. Manuel has proven time and time again to be a clutch performer in the 50 and 100 freestyle, and with her hand in a number of relays, Manuel could walk away from Tokyo with a big medal haul.

2. Sarah Sjostrom, Sweden


Sarah Sjostrom – Photo Courtesy: Becca Wyant

Is the word underrated applicable to Sjostrom – a winner of three Olympic medals and eight individual World titles? Probably not. But Sjostrom has become such a prevalent force in the sport of swimming, winning a World title at age 15 all the way back in 2009, that when you stop and take a look at what she has achieved, it is almost overwhelming. She holds three long course world records in Olympic events and holds two more in short course meters. It is worthy to note that no woman has successfully defended the 100 butterfly at the Olympic Games, something that Sjostrom has a real chance to end in 2021.

1. Katie Ledecky, United States


Katie Ledecky – Photo Courtesy: Becca Wyant

It is difficult to imagine a scenario where Ledecky isn’t the top swimmer in the entire world. She has completely dominated the distance freestyle events since winning Olympic gold at age 15 in 2012. Now heading into 2021, Ledecky is head and shoulders above the rest of the world in the 800 and 1500 free, with some serious pressure brewing for her in the 200 & 400 free where she is the reigning Olympic champ. If Ledecky can touch the wall first after 16 laps in the pool in Tokyo, she would be the first to win the event at three straight Olympics, and just the fourth swimmer to ever to achieve such a feat, joining Australia’s Dawn Fraser (100 free), Hungary’s Krisztina Egerszegi (200 back) and USA’s Michael Phelps (200 IM; 4x), which could cement her as the greatest female swimmer of all-time.

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3 years ago

Federica would easily be in my top 10

The 200 free is always a monster race (regardless of sex) at olympic and world champ level, the only 2 that really matter, and time after time she’s right in it.

3 years ago
Reply to  TCD

I’ll co-sign that!

3 years ago

A bit biased with Ledecky the greatest of all time, and the opening sentence of how it is unimaginable that she is not the best on any list.

3 years ago
Reply to  Attis

Ledecky is the best. She wins almost every race that she enters, generally by a wide margin. She is the most likely person to be able to break any of her own world records. That means that she should be #1 on a list of the world best swimmers.

3 years ago

All I see from Yulia Efimova is Instagram fashion posts and no swim results for 2020. SoCal is pretty much locked down for swimming in 2020. Given this sort of annual swim results most Instagram posers could be a ranked swimmer

3 years ago

#1 Ledecky and #3 Manuel have been training and racing each other at Stanford during Covid. I can’t wait to see them race the rest of the world when Greg feels it’s safe to leave Palo Alto. How lucky to have each other as training and racing partners.

3 years ago

Where’s Penny?…

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