Swimming World’s Pre-Olympic Female Rankings: The Top-25 Ahead of Tokyo

ariarne titmus, best women's swimmers
Ariarne Titmus -- Photo Courtesy: Becca Wyant

Swimming World’s Pre-Olympic Female Rankings: The Top-25 Ahead of Tokyo

Ranking the top swimmers in the world involves comparing swimmers from one event, how a 50 freestyler stacks up next to a 200 butterflyer and a 100 breaststroker to a miler. It’s always subjective, depending on what qualities one particular judge finds to be most impressive. Obviously, these rankings can change very quickly before and after swims of significance.

Coming off the last collection of major Olympic Trials, with Australia, the United States and Canada having all wrapped up their meets in the past two weeks, it’s time for one more re-rank of the top 25 swimmers in the world before the Olympics. These rankings especially will represent one snapshot in time. Following the Olympics, the sport’s highest stage, the rankings will represent the swimming community’s collective memory of the pandemic-delayed 2020/2021 Olympics, but these just show the conventional wisdom in the leadup.

But because this is a pre-Olympics exercise, this will be about projecting success at the Tokyo Olympics, beginning in less than four weeks.

So who is the top female swimmer in the world? There were three legitimate candidates, and you can feel very justified in making a case for either of the top two. But for today, right now, the best female swimmer in the world is…

1. Ariarne Titmus, Australia

ariarne titmus, tokyo olympics

Ariarne Titmus — Photo Courtesy: Delly Carr/Swimming Australia

The performances that Ariarne Titmus threw down at Australia’s Olympic Trials were nothing short of stunning as she crept up on two legendary world records. She swam a 3:56.90 in the 400 free, less than a half-second off Katie Ledecky’s world record of 3:56.46, and then she was 1:53.09 in the 200 free, just 0.11 off Federica Pellegrini’s 12-year-old world record from the height of the polyurethane suit era. Both performances were the second-quickest efforts ever recorded, and Titmus is the gold medal favorite for the Tokyo Olympics in both events. She is also a medal favorite in the 800 free after swimming an 8:15.57 for No. 2 in the world behind Ledecky and No. 7 all-time at Trials, and she will lead Australia’s gold-medal hopes in the 800 free relay.

2. Katie Ledecky, USA

katie-ledecky, tokyo olympics

Katie Ledecky — Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Katie Ledecky has not had a perfect year by any stretch, but she is still the heavy favorite for gold at the Tokyo Olympics in the 800 free and 1500 free (making its debut at an Olympics), and the only swimmer capable of matching or beating her in the 400 free is Titmus, and she is a medal favorite in the 200 free and the key to U.S. hopes in the 800 free relay. Even if this is not the peak Ledecky that was the top female swimmer of the Rio Olympics by a large margin, she is still on the very short list of the world’s best.

3. Kaylee McKeown, Australia

kaylee mckeown, tokyo olympics

Kaylee McKeown — Photo Courtesy: Delly Carr/Swimming Australia

Not even 20 years old yet, Kaylee McKeown is the favorite for gold medals in both backstroke events in Tokyo. She won silver in the 200 back at the 2019 World Championships, and without world record-holder Regan Smith in the field, it’s hard to see anyone keeping pace with McKeown, who ranks third all-time at 2:04.28. And in the 100 back, she broke the only women’s world record of the year in an Olympic long course event with her 57.45. Right now, she is set up as the Games’ potential backstroke star.

4. Lilly King, USA

lilly-king, tokyo olympics

Lilly King — Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Perhaps other than Ledecky in the 800 and 1500 free, no single women’s race at the Tokyo Olympics looks so safe as Lilly King in the 100 breast. She is the world record-holder, defending gold medalist and two-time world champion, and she is the only swimmer to crack 1:05 in the event since 2017. She swam a 1:04.72 at the U.S. Olympic Trials. King is also among the medal favorites in the 200 breast, and if the American women are to win a third straight gold in the 400 medley relay, it will be because of King’s decisive advantage on the breaststroke leg.

5. Emma McKeon, Australia

emma mckeon, tokyo olympics

Emma McKeon — Photo Courtesy: Delly Carr/Swimming Australia

The third Australian to finish in the top five, Emma McKeon is a medal threat in four individual events for the Tokyo Olympics as well as a key cog to all four Australian relays. After winning four medals including bronze in the 200 free in Rio, McKeon heads to Tokyo with the fastest time in the world in the 50 free (23.93) and 100 free (52.29) as well as the No. 3 time in the world in the 100 fly (55.93) and No. 4 time in the 200 free (1:54.74). Combine that with the relays, and McKeon could threaten the record for most medals by a female swimmer at one Olympics, the six (all gold) that East Germany’s Kristen Otto won in 1988. After flying under the radar to her more decorated teammates for so many years, the Tokyo Games could be a showcase for McKeon.

6. Cate Campbell, Australia

cate campbell, tokyo olympics

Cate Campbell — Photo Courtesy: Nina Beilby

Yes, that makes four of the top six swimmers on this list Australian, which goes to show how impressive the Aussies were at their Trials earlier this month. Cate Campbell went to the 2016 Olympics favored for gold in the 50 and 100 free, but she faltered in both finals and failed to win an individual medal. The five years since included the meet that was easily the best of Campbell’s career (the 2018 Pan Pacific Championships), and now, she is ranked second-fastest in the world in both the 50 (23.94) and 100 free (52.59) behind McKeon. Tokyo will be Campbell’s fourth Olympics, and she is still chasing an individual gold medal.

7. Hali Flickinger, USA

hali-flickinger, tokyo olympics

Hali Flickinger — Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

The next five to seven spots on this list were a total toss-up based on varying potential for Olympic medals, but the nod went to 26-year-old American Hali Flickinger for her status as medal favorite in two events and her previous experience in major finals. Flickinger’s career has surged over the past several years, particularly since she began training under Bob Bowman, and at the U.S. Olympic Trials, she won the 200 fly and finished second in the 400 IM, both with the second-fastest times in the world. She has never captured gold at a global meet, but Flickinger certainly has two chances at the Tokyo Olympics.

8. Zhang Yufei, China

(140818) -- NANJING, Aug. 18, 2014 (Xinhua) -- Silver medalist Zhang Yufei of China poses on the podium during the awarding ceremony of the women's 200m butterfly final match of swimming event at the 2014 Nanjing Youth Olympic Games in Nanjing, east China's Jiangsu Province, on August 18, 2014. (Xinhua/Fei Maohua)(tjh)

Zhang Yufei — Photo Courtesy: Fei Maohua

While Zhang Yufei finished tied for 13th in the 100 fly and 26th in the 200 fly at the 2019 World Championships, she has blossomed over the past two years, and she is a now a gold-medal favorite in both events for Tokyo. She swam a 55.62 100 fly in December 2020 to become the second-fastest performer in history, and she leads the world rankings in the 200 fly at 2:05.44. She ranks fourth in 2021 among Olympic qualifiers in the 100 free at 52.90 and ninth in the 50 free at 24.32. The only knock on Zhang is that she has not won a medal at a major meet since taking bronze in the 200 fly at the 2015 World Championships.

9. Regan Smith, USA

regan-smith, tokyo olympics

Regan Smith — Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Regan Smith remains the world record-holder in the 200 back, but she finished a stunning third in the event at Olympic Trials. However, she is still a medal favorite for the Tokyo Olympics in her two events, the 100 back and 200 fly. The 100 back has gotten more competitive this year with both Kaylee McKeown and Kylie Masse joining Smith in the sub-58 club, but Smith ranks third in the world (57.92) and also fourth globally in the 200 fly (2:06.99). She will also swim on at least one medley relay in Tokyo, so she’s still a very valuable piece for the American team.

10. Katinka Hosszu, Hungary

katinka-hosszu--team-iron

Katinka Hosszu — Photo Courtesy: Mine Kasapoglu / ISL

Take a look at this year’s world rankings, and Katinka Hosszu does not stand out. She ranks 12th in the 200 fly (2:08.14), 14th in the 200 IM (2:10.12) and fifth in the 400 IM (4:34.76). But she is also the reigning Olympic champion in both IMs, and she has won four straight world titles in both races (a feat only three other swimmers have ever accomplished and no one else in multiple events). Her performance at this year’s European Championships was disappointing by Hosszu’s own standards—gold in the 400 IM but silvers in the 200 fly and 200 IM—but count her out of the medal chase for Tokyo at your own peril.

11. Maggie MacNeil, Canada

maggie-macneil-

Maggie MacNeil — Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Maggie MacNeil shocked the world when the then-19-year-old stormed from fifth place at the halfway point to beat Sarah Sjostrom in the 100 fly final at the 2019 World Championships in 55.83. In 2021, MacNeil has not yet returned to that sterling form, and while three swimmers have dipped under 56 so far this year, MacNeil is ranked fourth in the world at 56.14 from Canada’s Olympic Trials. But MacNeil was pre-selected for the Tokyo Olympics, so she likely has more in the tank. She was absolutely incredible at the NCAA championships this year, where her 100-yard fly time (the fastest in history) was more than eight tenths faster than her mark from a few months before her 2019 world title swim.

12. Kylie Masse, Canada

Kylie Masse-Olympic Swimming Trials-f-19june2021Photo Scott Grant

Kylie Masse — Photo Courtesy: Scott Grant/Swimming Canada

Kylie Masse was the bronze medalist in the 100 back at her first Olympics in Rio and then world champion in both 2017 and 2019. At age 25, she is much older than her closest competitors in the 100 back (Kaylee McKeown and Regan Smith), but Masse swam a 57.70 at Canada’s Olympic Trials to chop four tenths off her lifetime best in the event, making her a very real medal threat and candidate for Tokyo gold. Masse also ranks sixth in the world in the 200 back in 2:06.67.

13. Torri Huske, USA

tori-huske-

Torri Huske — Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Perhaps no performance from the U.S. Olympic Trials was more stunning and spectacular than Torri Huske’s 100 fly, where she broke Dana Vollmer’s American record in the semifinals and then lowered her mark to 55.66 in the final. That’s less than two tenths off the world record, and Huske is the third-fastest performer ever in the event. While making the Olympic team definitely seemed possible prior to the Trials, it seemed unlikely that Huske could drop more than a second from her best to get into contention for Olympic gold, but that’s exactly what happened. And while Huske did not qualify in another event for Tokyo, she is actually the top-ranked American this year in the 100 free (53.46), so she could end up taking a leg on the 400 free relay as well.

14. Tatjana Schoenmaker, South Africa

tatjana-shoenmaker-SA Short course swimming championships - Image: BOOGS Photography / Andrew Mc Fadden

Tatjana Shoenmaker — Photo Courtesy: BOOGS Photography / Andrew Mc Fadden

Only five women have ever swum the 200 breaststroke in under 2:20, and none have done so since 2016. But Tatjana Schoenmaker, a 23-year-old from South Africa, almost joined that club in April when she swam a 2:20.17. Now, she is an Olympic gold medal favorite. Schoenmaker has quickly risen through the world rankings, from not even qualifying for the 2017 World Championships to sweeping the breaststroke events at the 2018 Commonwealth Games and 2019 World University Games to taking silver in the 200 breast at the 2019 World Championships. She has also swum a 1:05.74 in the 100 breast, fifth-fastest in the world this year.

15. Yui Ohashi, Japan

yui-ohashi-tokyo-frog-kings

Yui Ohashi — Photo Courtesy: Mine Kasapoglu/ISL

Over the past four years, Yui Ohashi has been about as consistent as any swimmer aside from Katinka Hosszu in the women’s IM events. Ohashi won a silver medal in the 200 IM at the 2017 World Championships and then a bronze in the 400 IM in 2019, and few other swimmers have both 2:08 (200 IM) and 4:32 (400 IM) potential. Ohashi also swept the IM gold medals at the 2018 Pan Pacific Championships and 2018 Asian Games. Ohashi’s 2021 world rankings are not special—she is seventh in the 200 IM (2:09.59) and sixth in the 400 IM (4:35.14)—but the expectation is her consistency in big spots and the home-pool advantage of the Games will be huge for the 25-year-old.

16. Siobhan Haughey, Hong Kong

siobhan-haughey-energy-standard

Siobhan Haughey — Photo Courtesy: Mine Kasapoglu / ISL

Siobhan Haughey made a name for herself during an impressive college career at the University of Michigan, and the 23-year-old from Hong Kong has established herself as a bona fide international contender. Haughey took fourth in the 200 free at the 2019 World Championships, and she swam as quick a 1:54.44 last year and 1:54.89 so far in 2021, so she should definitely be in the medal hunt at the Tokyo Olympics. She has also been 53.65 in the 100 free this year, and she was one of the most impressive performers during the 2020 ISL season, recording the by far the top times in the 100 and 200 free (short course meters).

17. Yang Junxuan, China

yang-junxuan

Yang Junxuan

At age 17, Yang Junxuan finished fifth in the 200 free at the 2019 World Championships, and she will have an individual medal chance at her first Olympics. Yang currently ranks third in the world in the 200 free at 1:54.57, behind only Ariarne Titmus and Katie Ledecky, and ninth all-time. She is also seventh among Olympic qualifiers in the 100 free at 53.21, and she will certainly play a key role on medal-contending 800 free and 400 medley relays for China.

18. Sarah Sjostrom, Sweden

sarah-sjostrom-energy-standard

Sarah Sjostrom — Photo Courtesy: Mine Kasapoglu/ISL

In three previous Olympic appearances, Sarah Sjostrom has only performed like one of the world’s best swimmers once, when she won three medals (gold in the 100 fly, silver in the 200 free and bronze in the 100 free) in 2016. In Tokyo, unfortunately, Sjostrom is unlikely to be on top form after she fractured her elbow in February and missed months of training. In her return to competition in early June, she swam a 24.68 in the 50 free and 54.84 in the 100 free. She may not even compete in the 100 fly at the Olympics. Still just 27, expect to see more world-class speed from Sjostrom in the future, but maybe it’s not in 2021.

19. Simona Quadarella, Italy

simona-quadarella-800-free-final-2019-world-championships_7

Simona Quadarella — Photo Courtesy: Becca Wyant

Simona Quadarella is as good in the 800 and 1500 free as any swimmer this side of Katie Ledecky. In Ledecky’s absence, she won the 1500 free world title in 2019, dominating the field by eight seconds, and a few days later, Quadarella pushed Ledecky in the 800 free before settling for silver. Quadarella has swept the 400, 800 and 1500 free at the past two European championships, and so far in 2021, she ranks third in the world in the 1500 free, fourth in the 800 free and seventh in the 800 free. She’s just 22, and she already ranks fourth all-time in both distance events.

20. Kathleen Dawson, Great Britain

Kathleen Dawson reswim 2021 European Championships

Kathleen Dawson — Photo Courtesy: Deepbluemedia/Insidefoto

Kathleen Dawson was on no one’s radar as a potential Olympic medalist in the 100 back three months ago, but the 23-year-old from Scotland burst onto the scene with a win in the event at Britain’s Olympic Trials and then a barrage of impressive swims at the European Championships. Dawson first swam a 58.24 at the Trials, and then she won the event twice at the European Championships after the race was re-swum. Finally, Dawson led off Great Britain’s 400 medley relay in 58.08 to break the European record that had belonged to Gemma Spofforth since the supersuit era of 2009. The event will be loaded at the Tokyo Olympics, but Dawson now ranks fifth all-time.

21. Sydney Pickrem, Canada

Sydney Pickrem-Olympic Swimming Trials-f-21june2021Photo Scott Grant

Sydney Pickrem — Photo Courtesy: Scott Grant

Many top Canadians had competed sparingly in 2021 prior to Canada’s recent Olympic Trials, but after she swam in Toronto, Sydney Pickrem showed that she will be a force in the 200 IM in Tokyo. The 24-year-old former Texas A&M Aggie recorded a 2:09.24, which ranks fourth in the world among Olympic qualifiers, and she has been as quick as 2:08.61 in her career. Expect to see about five or six swimmers in contention in the shorter medley race in Tokyo, and Pickrem has been one of the best in this race since the Rio Olympics.

22. Boglarka Kapas, Hungary

Boglarka Kapas of Hungary walks out after winning in the women’s 200m Butterfly Final during the Swimming events at the Gwangju 2019 FINA World Championships, Gwangju, South Korea, 25 July 2019.

Boglarka Kapas — Photo Courtesy: Patrick B. Kraemer

Previous incarnations of this list have omitted Boglarka Kapas, but she cannot be overlooked in the chase for Olympic gold in the 200 fly. Kapas was actually the world champion in 2019, touching out Hali Flickinger in a slower-than-expected final, and in 2021, she won her second straight European title in the 200 fly. At the last Olympics, Kapas was actually a distance specialist who won a bronze medal in the 800 free, but she has successfully made the move to focusing on the 200 fly since. With her knack for success in major races, she has a strong chance to at least be on the podium at the Tokyo Olympics.

23. Abbie Wood, Great Britain

abbie-wood-new-york-breakers

Abbie Wood — Photo Courtesy: Mine Kasapoglu / ISL

Great Britain’s Abbie Wood has yet to make a significant impact at a major meet, but she could be revving up after an incredible start to the year. Wood finished second in the 200 breast at British Trials in 2:21.69 (behind Molly Renshaw, who was also considered for this list), and that swim ranks her as the fifth-fastest performer in the world this year, and she also has been 2:09.23 in the 200 IM for fourth globally. There’s not a lot of overlap on the women’s side between the 200 breast and 200 IM, but Wood could find herself in the medal chase in both. Wood has also been 1:57.48 in the 200 free and could play a relay role for Britain.

24. Annie Lazor, USA

annie-lazor-

Annie Lazor — Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Annie Lazor is making her debut at a major championships at age 26, but she is a viable candidate for gold in the women’s 200 breaststroke. Lazor won the event at the U.S. Olympic Trials over training partner Lilly King, qualifying for her first Olympics just two months after unexpectedly losing her father. Lazor swam a time of 2:21.07, good for third in the world, and she has actually been quicker in the past—she ranks 10th all-time at 2:20.77. Lazor also swam the third-fastest time in the world at U.S. Trials, but she ended up third in the event as well.

25. Ranomi Kromowidjojo, Netherlands

Ranomi Kromowidjojo 2021 European Championships

Ranomi Kromowidjojo — Photo Courtesy: Deepbluemedia/Insidefoto

The last spot on this list goes to Ranomi Kromowidjojo, now 30 and on her way to a fourth Olympics after winning three gold medals between the 2008 Games in Beijing and the 2012 Games in London. She was the best 50 and 100 freestyler in the world in 2012, but now, Kromowidjojo is very much a 50 specialist. Still, she won two gold medals earlier this year at the European championships, in the 50 free and 50 fly, and that 23.97 in the 50 free will definitely have her in contention for the Olympic podium. Kromowidjojo is not as strong a 100-meter swimmer as in the past, but she has been 53.13 this year, sixth in the world among Olympic qualifiers.

THE NEXT 20 IN CONSIDERATION (alphabetical order):

  • Pernille Blume, Denmark
  • Evgeniia Chikunova, Russia
  • Yulia Efimova, Russia
  • Maddy Gough, Australia
  • Sophie Hansson, Sweden
  • Suzuka Hasegawa, Japan
  • Femke Heemskerk, Netherlands
  • Li Bingjie, China
  • Simone Manuel, USA
  • Summer McIntosh, Canada
  • Penny Oleksiak, Canada
  • Margherita Panziera, Italy
  • Federica Pellegrini, Italy
  • Benedetta Pilato, Italy
  • Molly Renshaw, Great Britain
  • Emily Seebohm, Australia
  • Alex Walsh, USA
  • Wang Jianjiahe, China
  • Emma Weyant, USA
  • Rhyan White, USA

8 comments

  1. avatar
    Catherine

    Efimova should be nowhere near this list!

    • avatar
      Phil

      What about Lydia Jacoby?

  2. avatar
    Verram

    I thought Madison Wilson should have also deserved a special mention with her times from the Australian trials ..

    • avatar
      commonwombat

      Fully agree. Despite having no individual swims, her performances are of a level that she would be no1 seed for every other country in the 4X100 and all bar USA & CHN in the 200. Her value should not only be seen in the context of the 2 freestyle relays but also as a high quality heats option for both 4XMED & MMR for both freestyle and backstroke legs.

      There’s certainly an arguable case for her being in the initial 25 named, but most certainly the next 20.

  3. avatar
    Anonymous

    good list… Torry huske has good chanese for 100fly..

  4. avatar
    Anonymous

    Lana Pudar of Bosnia will win a medal! She is completely ignored, very young and already breaking records in Europe

  5. avatar
    Ann M Pearson

    Can’t wait to see Katie break her own records this year! Amazing woman and athlete!

  6. avatar
    Robert Spivock

    What about penny. Should be top 5

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.