Ranking the Top-10 Performances of the Year; Caeleb Dressel Leads the Way

Jul 31, 2021; Tokyo, Japan; Caeleb Dressel (USA) after winning the men's 100m butterfly final during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Summer Games at Tokyo Aquatics Centre. Mandatory Credit: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports

Ranking the Top-10 Performances of the Year; Caeleb Dressel Leads the Way

(From December’s issue of Swimming World)

Oh, how it is easy to forget. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Swimming World did not select the top-10 performances of the year for 2020. It wouldn’t have made sense. And in the time that has elapsed since the 2019 list was compiled, the difficulty of the task was forgotten. Add in the fact that it was an Olympic year, and the grinding nature of the chore was magnified.

But the painstaking process was eventually completed, and here are the results, with five-time Olympic champion Caeleb Dressel heading the top-10, thanks to his world record in the 100-meter butterfly at the Olympic Games in Tokyo. Overall, the top-10 performances consisted of seven women’s efforts, and three from the men. A further breakdown reveals seven individual swims and three world-record setting relays.

Sit back and enjoy reliving the best performances the sport produced in 2021.

1. Caeleb Dressel – 100 Butterfly: Olympic Games – 49.45

Jul 31, 2021; Tokyo, Japan; Caeleb Dressel (USA) and Kristof Milak (HUN) react after placing first and second in the men's 100m butterfly final during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Summer Games at Tokyo Aquatics Centre. Mandatory Credit: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports

Photo Courtesy: Rob Schumacher/USA Today Sports

In between victories in Tokyo in the sprint-freestyle disciplines, Caeleb Dressel took care of business in an event in which he boasts historical dominance. En route to a world record of 49.45 in the 100 butterfly, the American sensation turned back a charge by European phenom Kristof Milak, who had already captured the Olympic title in the 200 butterfly.

Dressel and Milak put on a show over their two laps, with Dressel’s early speed pitted against the hard-charging ability of Milak. At the wall, it was Dressel who earned the right to stand atop the medals podium, as his world-record time fended off Milak’s European standard of 49.68. As the year comes to a close, Dressel owns five of the six-fastest times in the history of the event.

“What a close race, and two of the fastest times in history,” Dressel said. “You don’t get that very often. So, to be a part of that is really special.”

2. Tatjana Schoenmaker – 200 Breaststroke: Olympic Games – 2:18.95

Jul 30, 2021; Tokyo, Japan; Tatjana Schoenmaker (RSA) , Lilly King (USA) and Annie Lazor (USA) are congratulated by Kaylene Corbett (RSA) after the women's 200m breaststroke final during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Summer Games at Tokyo Aquatics Centre. Mandatory Credit: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports

Photo Courtesy: Rob Schumacher//USA Today Sports

At the 2016 Olympics, South Africa did not send a female athlete to Rio de Janeiro. Five years later, the nation cheered as Tatjana Schoenmaker emerged as a champion and became the first woman to crack the 2:19 barrier in the 200 breaststroke.

Coming off a silver medal in the 100 breaststroke, Schoenmaker was riding a wave of momentum heading into her premier event. In the final, she was untouchable, as she pulled away from the American tandem of Lilly King and Annie Lazor and set a world mark of 2:18.95. In capturing gold, Schoenmaker became the first South African woman to claim an Olympic swimming title since Penny Heyns in 1996.

Schoenmaker broke the eight-year-old world record of 2:19.11, set at the 2013 World Championships by Denmark’s Rikke Moller Pedersen. Following her win, Schoenmaker was joined for a group hug by King and Lazor, along with fellow South African Kaylene Corbett, who finished fifth. The image was one of the best moments of sportsmanship in the pool, four women celebrating the work they logged to excel in Tokyo.

3. Ariarne Titmus – 400 Freestyle: Olympic Games – 3:56.69

Jul 26, 2021; Tokyo, Japan; Ariarne Titmus (AUS) hugs Katie Ledecky (USA) after the women's 400m freestyle final during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Summer Games at Tokyo Aquatics Centre. Mandatory Credit: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports

Photo Courtesy: Rob Schumacher/USA Today Sports

The clash between Australian Ariarne Titmus and American Katie Ledecky in the 400 freestyle at the Tokyo Games was billed as the most-anticipated women’s matchup. While some of these hyped duels fizzle, Titmus and Ledecky delivered an epic race, with the Aussie assuming the throne with a spectacular final-lap charge. At the finish, it was Titmus in 3:56.69 and Ledecky touching in 3:57.36.

The reigning champion, Ledecky pressed the pace and bolted to the lead from the start, hardly a surprise given her track record. What was different, though, was how Titmus lurked on Ledecky’s shoulder, seemingly biding her time to strike. That moment arrived at the final turn, as Titmus moved ahead of Ledecky and powered to the gold medal.

Although Titmus topped Ledecky in the event at the 2019 World Championships, the American was ill during that competition, leaving the Aussie to prove herself all over again. Clearly, she was up to the task, and her triumph led to coach Dean Boxall erupting into a crazed celebration.

“I just thanked her,” Titmus said of Ledecky. “I wouldn’t be here without her. She’s set this standard for middle-distance freestyle. If I didn’t have someone like her to chase, I definitely wouldn’t be swimming the way I am.”

4. Kaylee McKeown – 100 Backstroke: Australian Olympic Trials – 57.45

McKeown WR with minna 3

Photo Courtesy:

In the leadup to the Australian Olympic Trials, major expectations surrounded Kaylee McKeown – and for good reason. As a blossoming talent under coach Chris Mooney, McKeown had enjoyed a superb campaign, one which included some world-record scares. At Trials, there was no missing out, as McKeown broke Regan Smith’s global standard with a mark of 57.45.

The record was an emotional moment for McKeown, whose 53-year-old father, Sholto, lost his battle with brain cancer a little less than a year earlier. McKeown doubled down later in the summer when she backed up her world record with gold-medal outings in the 100 backstroke and 200 backstroke at the Olympic Games. In the 100 back, McKeown was just outside her own world mark, going 57.47.

5. Australia – 400 Freestyle Relay: Olympic Games – 3:29.69

Jul 25, 2021; Tokyo, Japan; Team Australia members Bronte Campbell, Meg Harris, Emma McKeon and Cate Campbell celebrate their gold medal during the medals ceremony for the women's 4x100m freestyle relay during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Summer Games at Tokyo Aquatics Centre. Mandatory Credit: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Network

Photo Courtesy: Rob Schumacher — USA Today Sports

For the third straight Olympiad, and fourth time in five Games, Australia dispatched the competition in the 400 freestyle relay. However, the showing in Tokyo was easily the most impressive, as the squad of Bronte Campbell, Meg Harris, Emma McKeon and Cate Campbell fired off a world-record time of 3:29.69. The swim chopped .36 off the previous standard.

The back half of the Aussie relay was sensational, with veterans McKeon and Campbell registering respective splits of 51.35 and 52.24. Through those two legs, Australia turned in a tight race with Canada and the United States into a route, with the Aussies prevailing over the Canadians by more than three seconds. For McKeon, the gold was one of a record-setting seven medals.

6. Katie Ledecky – 800 Freestyle: Olympic Games – 8:12.57

In her illustrious career, Katie Ledecky has gone faster than her winning time of 8:12.57 in the 800 freestyle at the Olympic Games on 15 occasions. More, her world record sits nearly eight seconds adrift. But no one else has matched what Ledecky delivered in Tokyo, and the historical significance of the effort is truly what earned the swim a spot on this list.

Jul 31, 2021; Tokyo, Japan; Katie Ledecky (USA) celebrates her gold medal during the medals ceremony for the women's 800m freestyle during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Summer Games at Tokyo Aquatics Centre. Mandatory Credit: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports

Photo Courtesy:

When Ledecky beat rival Ariarne Titmus by more than a second, it marked her third consecutive gold medal in the event and handed the American distance ace entrance into an exclusive club. Including Ledecky, only four swimmers have won the same event at three straight Games – Aussie Dawn Fraser (100 freestyle; 1956-1964); Hungarian Krisztina Egerszegi (200 backstroke – 1988-1996); Michael Phelps (200 individual medley – 2004-2016).

“I think I saw a statistic two years ago that said no one’s ever three-peated in that event, and that’s been in the back of my mind,” Ledecky said. “At one point, I thought, ‘Huh, I wonder if there’s a reason why no one has ever three-peated.’ It’s tough. It’s tough to win one gold and to do it three times in a row in that event is really amazing.”

7. United States – 400 Medley Relay: Olympic Games – 3:26.78

Aug 1, 2021; Tokyo, Japan; Ryan Murphy (USA) , Michael Andrew (USA) , Caeleb Dressel (USA) and Zach Apple (USA) celebrate during the medals ceremony for the men's 4x100m medley relay during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Summer Games at Tokyo Aquatics Centre. Mandatory Credit: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports

Photo Courtesy: Rob Schumacher/USA Today Sports

Heading into the final event of the Tokyo Games, Team USA had never lost the 400 medley relay in Olympic competition. Only in 1980, which the United States boycotted, was another country on top of the podium. Yet, that streak was thought to be in jeopardy, thanks to Great Britain fielding a stacked squad.

When it mattered most, however, the U.S. excelled, as the quartet of Ryan Murphy, Michael Andrew, Caeleb Dressel and Zach Apple combined for a world record of 3:26.78. The performance capped an Olympiad in which the United States won 30 medals in the pool, including 11 gold, and it left Great Britain with the silver medal at 3:27.51, a European record. Dressel, in a fitting conclusion to his five-gold haul, popped the fastest butterfly split in history, going 49.03 on the third leg to move the United States into the lead.

8. Kyle Chalmers – 100 Freestyle (SCM): World Cup – 44.84

kyle chalmers

Photo Courtesy: Delly Carr/Swimming Australia

The only performance on this list from the post-Olympic competition window was produced by Australian Kyle Chalmers during the last stop of the World Cup circuit. After narrowly missing the world record in the short-course version of the 100 freestyle by a slim margin earlier in the series, Chalmers popped a mark of 44.84 in Kazan, Russia to clip a tenth of a second off the previous global standard.

Using his trademark closing speed to finish strong, Chalmers established the first world record of his career and took down the 2008 super-suit standard of Frenchman Amaury Leveaux. The 2016 Olympic champion in the 100 freestyle and the 2020 Olympic silver medalist in the event, it was a matter of time before the Aussie headliner set a world record.

“It was definitely a dream,” Chalmers said. “I am not sure if I was planning it, but I knew exactly what I had to do to swim that fast. To deliver this performance was rather a big challenge.”

9. China – 800 Freestyle Relay: Olympic Games – 7:40.33

Jul 29, 2021; Tokyo, Japan; China relay team celebrates their victory in the women's 4x200m freestyle relay final during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Summer Games at Tokyo Aquatics Centre. Mandatory Credit: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports

China’s 800 free relay celebrates with Zhang Yufei, right, after winning gold; Photo Courtesy: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports

A bronze medal? For China, earning hardware in the 800 freestyle relay at the Olympics was considered a reasonable expectation. Mining gold? No, that possibility was not deemed manageable. Ahead of the final, Australia was the overwhelming favorite for the gold medal and viewed as a lock to break the world record.

Yet, thanks to the perfectly balanced lineup of Yang Junxuan, Tang Muhan, Zhang Yufei and Li Binjie, China produced a world-record outing of 7:40.33 to defeat the United States (7:40.73) and Australia (7:41.29), which also went under the previous global mark. Zhang was a major factor in China’s surprise win, as she learned of her participation just before the relay, and not long after she took gold in the 200 butterfly. All Zhang did was split a career-best of 1:55.66.

10. Maggie MacNeil – 100 Butterfly: NCAA Championships – 48.89

maggie-macneil

Photo Courtesy: Walt Middleton Photography 2019

There is only one performance on this list that was posted during the American collegiate season, and it was a slam-dunk choice. When University of Michigan standout Maggie MacNeil contested the 100-yard butterfly at the NCAA Championships, she became the first woman to crack the 49-second threshold in the event. Simply, to see a 48.89 effort flash on the scoreboard was mind-boggling.

For MacNeil, the effort at the NCAA Champs was merely a harbinger of what the Canadian would achieve at the Olympic Games. It was in Tokyo where MacNeil, as the reigning world champion, added Olympic titlist to her portfolio. En route to her Olympic crown, MacNeil bested a star-laden field, one that included silver medalist Zhang Yufei of China and bronze medalist Emma McKeon of Australia.

The following performances were considered for inclusion in the top-10. They are listed alphabetically.

Benedetta Pilato – 50 Breaststroke (European Championships) – World Record
Bobby Finke – 1500 Freestyle (Olympic Games) – Distance Double
Coleman Stewart – 100 Backstroke (ISL) – World Record (SC)
Great Britain – Mixed Medley Relay (Olympic Games) – World Record
Kliment Kolesnikov – 50 Backstroke (European Championships) – World Record
Wang Shun – 200 Medley (Olympic Games) – Asian Record

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Mark
5 months ago

Adam Peaty has normalized greatness in the 100 breast to the point that he did not make this list or the honorable mention list. Back-to-back Olympic gold with a time that is so far ahead of what any other person has is truly greatness. Any other swimmer that posted a time over a half second faster than the next fastest performer of all time would be at worst a top 3 performer on this list. He was only overlooked due his historical dominance. He should not be compared to SCY, SCM or relay swims. Peaty is a such a historical outlier that a 57.37 gold medal win is overlooked..

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Joel
5 months ago

American bias. Schoenmaker should be number one. She did not previously hold the world record and it was unexpected. The 2.19 barrier is huge.