The 18-and-Under Swimmers Who Could Steal the Show at the Tokyo Olympics

18-year-old Torri Huske will be a huge factor in her Olympic debut in Tokyo -- Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

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The 18-and-Under Swimmers Who Could Steal the Show at the Tokyo Olympics

At every Olympics, young swimmers emerge from out of nowhere and put on amazing performances to win Olympic medals. It is impossible to predict who is going to lower their best times over and over in one year and make the jump to the Olympic level, but it happens every four years. Who could have imagined Penny Oleksiak tying for gold in the 100 freestyle before the 2016 Olympics or Ruta Meilutyte upsetting Rebecca Soni in the 100 breaststroke four years before that? Not to mention the stunning performance of 15-year-old Katie Ledecky at those London Olympics, where she shocked the world by winning gold in the 800 free, kicking off her now-legendary international career in style.

For the Tokyo Olympics, the influx of new faces may be even more pronounced since the Olympics were delayed one year because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The last time the best swimmers in the world were all in one place was almost two years ago, at the World Championships in Gwangju. So much has changed in swimming that there are at least 11 swimmers ages 18 and younger now ranked in the top 10 in the world in at least one event who did not even participate at the 2019 World Championships.

Some of these swimmers will win individual medals over the course of the Tokyo Olympics, and one of them is currently among the favorites for Olympic gold.

Torri Huske, USA: The breakout star of the U.S. Olympic Trials, Huske was masterful in the 100 butterfly as she went out well under world-record pace and looked smooth and powerful on the back half. The 18-year-old enters the Olympics as the fastest swimmer in the world for 2021 with her American-record time of 55.66, but Huske will have significant competition as she aims to win Olympic gold in the event in Tokyo. She will likely be a key piece to the U.S. women’s 400 medley relay team, and while she did not make the final of the 100 free at Olympic Trials, she is the top-ranked U.S. 100 freestyler this year, so she could be on the 400 free relay as well.

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David Popovici set a world junior record in the 100 free earlier in July — Photo Courtesy: Andrea Masini / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

David Popovici, Romania: Popovici only gained major attention in the past two weeks as he went from never under 48 in the 100 free to breaking the world junior record and claiming the top time in the world with his 47.30. He also moved to sixth in the world in the 200 free with his 1:45.26, more than a second under his previous best time. That was all done at a meet with no significant challengers, and already, Popovici’s 100 free might be fast enough to claim an Olympic medal (although not gold with Caeleb Dressel and co. in the event).

Lydia Jacoby, USA: The first Alaska native to ever qualify for a U.S. Olympic swim team, Jacoby had never broken 1:08 in the 100 breaststroke a year ago. She dropped to a 1:07.57 in November and then a 1:06.40 at the Mission Viejo TYR Pro Swim Series in April to throw her name in the hat for an Olympic spot. After Olympic Trials, though, she is the second-fastest swimmer in the world at 1:05.28 and the second seed in the event for the Tokyo Olympics. Jacoby is already the eighth-fastest performer ever in the 100 breast.

Evgenia Chikunova, Russia: Veteran Yuliya Efimova did not qualify for Russia’s Olympic team in the 200 breaststroke, but Chikunova is perfectly capable of filling that void. The 16-year-old ranks fourth in the world in the 200 breast at 2:21.69, faster than any swimmer besides Efimova swam at the 2019 Worlds. In a wide-open field in that event, Chikunova is one of six swimmers to break 2:22 this year, giving her an excellent shot at an Olympic medal. Chikunova also beat Efimova in the 100 breast at Russia’s Olympic Trials, and she could make the Olympic final in that event after swimming a 1:06.06 to rank 11th in the world.

Claire Curzan, USA: During an amazing spring competition season, Curzan established herself as an Olympic contender in the 100 fly, the sprint freestyle races and even the 100 back, and although she only qualified for one final at Olympic Trials, she finished second to Huske in the 100 fly while holding off gritty veteran Kelsi Dahlia. Now 17, Curzan also has blistering early speed, and her best time of 56.20 from earlier this year ranks her fifth in the world for 2021 and ninth all-time.


Erica Sullivan hugs Katie Grimes after Grimes qualified for the U.S. Olympic team in the 800 free — Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Katie Grimes, USA: Grimes, 15, was on nobody’s radar prior to Olympic Trials, but then she dropped 28 seconds in her 1500 free to finish third behind Katie Ledecky and Sandpipers of Nevada teammate Erica Sullivan. Her 800-meter split in her 1500 was a best time by eight seconds! And then, after Grimes snuck into the 800 free final as the eighth seed, she used another amazing finish to claim second place behind Ledecky and get onto the Olympic team as its youngest member. She heads to Tokyo ranked fifth in the world, and with the way she is dropping time—reminiscent of 15-year-old Ledecky in 2012—you can’t help but wonder what is in store for the Games.

Hwang Sun-Woo, Korea: In May, Hwang broke into the exclusive 1:44 club in the men’s 200 freestyle at the Korean Swimming Trials, his 1:44.96 establishing a new world junior record. Five men have broken 1:45 this year, including the 18-year-old Hwang, but his time would have been good for silver at the 2016 Olympics and the last two World Championships. He also swam an impressive 48.04 in the 100 free, so he will have a chance to qualify for the final in that event at the Tokyo Olympics.

Josif Miladinov, Bulgaria: As Kristof Milak blitzed a 50.18 100 fly to win the European title in May, Miladinov beat out a strong field to finish second in 50.93. It’s a little off the world junior record (owned by Milak at 50.62), but Miladinov could get there at the Tokyo Olympics. At fifth in the world for 2021 and 21st all-time, Miladinov could just be at the beginning of his run in the 100 fly, and he has a chance to become the first male Olympic medalist in swimming ever for Bulgaria, either in Tokyo or later in his career.

Ilya Borodin, Russia: The top eight swimmers in the world this year in the men’s 400 IM are separated by just 1.3 seconds, and this 18-year-old Russian is right in the thick of it. He was the youngest male gold medalist at the European Championships, moving ahead of the field on the backstroke leg and showing strong skills in each of the stroke events. His best time is 4:10.02, ranking him sixth globally, and he is definitely a threat to the medal favorites at the Tokyo Olympics.

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14-year-old Summer McIntosh will compete in her first Olympics in Tokyo — Photo Courtesy: Scott Grant/Swimming Canada

Summer McIntosh, Canada: In 2016, a nine-year-old McIntosh was in attendance watching Canada’s Olympic Trials, and she got a photo with 16-year-old Olympian Penny Oleksiak. Now, McIntosh is an Olympian at just 14, and she and Oleksiak will try to lead Canada to a second straight Olympic medal in the 800 free relay. But McIntosh is also an individual medal contender in the 200 free, where she ranks eighth in the world at 1:56.19, and 14-year-old swimmers can drop massive time chunks regularly. She is also ranked 11th in the world in the 400 free (4:05.13) and 24th in both the 800 free (8:29.48) and 1500 free (16:15.19). McIntosh will be one to watch for many years.

Hubert Kos, Hungary: Kos has not gotten as much attention as anyone else on this list, but he ranks eighth in the world in the 200 IM after topping the semifinal field in the event at the European Championships in 1:56.99, breaking the world junior record. Kos settled for fifth in the final at that meet, but he is also just 18 with a lot of potential for improvement. In Tokyo, Kos will represent Hungary in the 200 IM alongside 35-year-old Laszlo Cseh, swimming in his fifth Olympics after previously winning silver in the 200 IM in 2008 and bronze in 2012.


  1. avatar
    Anne Gatlin

    How can I share this article to social media (to pump up my swimmers for watching the Games?

  2. avatar

    Lana Pudar?

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