The Crystal Ball: How the Tokyo Olympics Swimming Competition Will Unfold

Caeleb Dressel -- Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

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The Crystal Ball: How the Tokyo Olympics Swimming Competition Will Unfold

Finally, the Olympics have arrived, the week the global swimming community has been anticipating for five years. The athletes and coaches are in the Olympic village and training at the Olympic Aquatics Centre in Tokyo (and Rowdy Gaines is posting a new photo of the exquisite venue on Twitter almost daily). The action kicks off Saturday, at 7 p.m. local time in Tokyo and 6 a.m. in the United States on the east coast.

The Swimming World team had gone race-by-race to predict what will unfold in each event, and definitely check out that Special Edition covering all 35 races. These predictions, meanwhile, will cover some general trends and storylines that we should follow throughout the Games. We will find out soon enough if any of them will come true.

1. Team USA Will Not Match Recent Medal Hauls

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The U.S. women’s Olympic team introduced at the end of Olympic Trials — Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

This comes with a qualifier: the American team won 33 swimming medals in Rio, 16 of them gold (half of the overall gold medals awarded in the pool). The previous Games, in London, it was 31 medals and 16 gold, and the 2008 Beijing Games also saw the U.S. win 31 medals, this time with 12 golds. That will not happen again, even with three new events added to the program for the Tokyo Olympics. Still, don’t expect the Americans to completely collapse. Maybe a reasonable projection is something like 23-28 medals and 9-14 golds?

We should note, however, that the schedule shapes up for the Americans to get off to a slow start. They will not be favored in any of day one’s finals (men’s 400 IM and 400 free, women’s 400 IM and 400 free relay), and day two is no sure thing either, although Torri Huske (100 fly), Katie Ledecky (400 free) and the men’s 400 free relay team each have a shot at gold. The first gold medal the Americans are heavily favored to win is the women’s 100 breast on day three. But during the second half of the meet, particularly the last two days, the Americans could take off.

Regarding relays, the U.S. won four of six relay events in London and five of six in Rio, but at this point, the Americans are at best co-favorites in one of the four freestyle relays. The medleys are a bit more promising, but women’s sprint freestyle and men’s mid-distance and distance freestyle is a weakness of an otherwise well-rounded team.

2. Australia Holds its Own But Won’t Rival U.S. Medal Count

It is no secret that Australia has not performed to its expectations at the last two Olympics, winning just 10 medals on each occasion. The 2012 Games started off strong, with gold in the women’s 400 free relay on day one, but Australia did not top the podium again after that. In 2016, the Aussies looked to have a very complete team, but after Mack Horton won the men’s 400 free and the women again won the 400 free relay, the team one just one more gold medal the rest of the way, with Kyle Chalmers scoring an upset in the men’s 100 free.


Ariarne Titmus — Photo Courtesy: Delly Carr/Swimming Australia

Rest assured: this team will do far better. Ariarne Titmus and Kaylee McKeown could be among the stars of the Games, with both having multiple chances to win gold and take down world records, and Emma McKeon could finally get her shining individual moment. Cate Campbell is still around. The men have Elijah Winnington, Jack McLoughlin, Zac Stubblety-Cook and even Chalmers as threats for the top of the podium. Both women’s freestyle relays are heavy gold-medal favorites.

They will end up behind the Americans, but Australia certainly could earn 20 medals or more at the Tokyo Olympics and maybe double-digit golds. The pressure is certainly on to come through after two straight deep disappointments.

3. Adam Peaty and Kristof Milak Post “Wow” Times

You just have a feeling with the way they have performed in the build-up. Peaty, the reigning Olympic gold medalist and three-time world champion in the 100 breaststroke, told Swimming World, “If we put all our best parts of our race into the data—to the best 50 we’ve ever done, the best 25 we’ve ever done—if we put all that together, it’s a 56 low or a 56.1.” He thinks he will “certainly” be able to beat his world record of 56.88. The world has closed the gap on Peaty in the all-time rankings this year, but he is going to move into the 56-mid range (at least) at the Tokyo Olympics3

And Milak has twice beaten Michael Phelps’ best time in the 200 butterfly this year (at Hungary’s national championships and at the European Championships), so when he wins Olympic gold in the 200 fly, his time will be a 1:49.

4. Maggie MacNeil Tops the Heavily-Anticipated Women’s 100 Butterfly

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Maggie MacNeil at Canada’s Olympic Trials — Photo Courtesy: Scott Grant/Swimming Canada

You hear about Torri Huske and Zhang Yufei and Emma McKeon as the prime contenders for gold in the 100 butterfly at the Tokyo Olympics, and people are sleeping on MacNeil. At just 19, she stunned world-record holder Sarah Sjostrom and won the world title in the 100 fly, and two years later, she will compete in her first Olympics.

The key race that shows MacNeil’s top form is not her 56.14 from Canada’s Olympic Trials, which ranks her merely fourth in the world. MacNeil was pre-selected for that meet, so she did not have to be perfect at Trials. But she swam a 48.89 in the 100-yard fly at the NCAA championships in March, by far the fastest time ever—and almost eight tenths faster than she swam in March 2019, four months before her breakout performance at Worlds.

5. Sarah Sjostrom Wins At Least One Medal

Speaking of Sjostrom, she will not be at her best at the Tokyo Olympics after fracturing her elbow earlier this year, but her improvement between her first two competition back shows that we should not count her out. Her season-best time in the 100 fly is 57.65, so winning a medal there would probably be tough (and Sjostrom still might choose not to swim that race). She has been as quick as 53.47 in the 100 free, so maybe she could get on the podium there, but the 50 free is wide open, and Sjostrom has already gotten down to 24.25.

6. It Takes a 2:05 to Win the Men’s 200 Breaststroke

Another prediction that seems very logical. Anton Chupkov has the world record at 2:06.12, and both Zac Stubblety-Cook (2:06.28) and Shoma Sato (2:06.40) have come really close to that mark this year. The Netherlands’ Arno Kamminga is better known for becoming the second man ever under 57 in the 100 breast, but he has been 2:06.85 in the 200 as well. And no one in the world has ever finished this race like Chupkov, who won the 2019 world title after sitting in dead last after 100 meters.

7. Danas Rapsys Wins Crazy, Unpredictable 200 Freestyle

This prediction is made without a ton of conviction because of how many 200 freestylers have impressed so far this year. Rapsys, the 26-year-old from Lithuania, has not been under 1:45 in the event since 2019, and five other men have done so this year. And while Duncan Scott, Tom Dean and Katsuhiro Matsumoto, the top three swimmers in the world so far in 2021, like to go out really fast, Rapsys will hang back and explode on the last two 50s. The 200 free is always a high-octane, hyped-up race, and this clash of styles in an event that has gotten a lot faster this year will be fascinating to watch.

And speaking of predictions without conviction, it’s the same situation in the 400 free and 800 free. How will Australians Elijah Winnington and Jack McLoughlin hold up in the biggest moments of their careers? What kind of shape is Gregorio Paltrinieri in after battling mononucleosis in recent months? It’s tough to get a full sense of what to expect here.

8. No Crowds = Slower Times = More Upsets?

With a mostly empty venue (aside from teams, officials and media), the atmosphere inside the Olympic Aquatic Centre will be much more muted than we’re used to at major swimming competitions (or even your local summer league meet). That is bound to affect the swimmers, likely some more than others. Could a low-energy venue mean slower times across the board? Possibly. Part of this situation depends on what swimmers and teams best adapt to the conditions and get themselves pumped up to race.

But the prediction is that at some point during the eight days of competition at the Tokyo Olympics, one final will be much slower than anticipated, and someone will come from well off the radar to storm in and win gold. It’s impossible to project an event where that might happen, but expect at least one such outcome.

9. Caeleb Dressel Shows His Greatness and Delivers Signature Performance


Caeleb Dressel at U.S. Olympic Trials — Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Finally, we arrive at Dressel, the 24-year-old American who has received top billing despite having never won an individual Olympic medal. He has twice come up with amazing performances at the World Championships, winning a record-tying seven gold medals in 2017 and a record-breaking eight overall medals in 2019, but now he takes his show to prime time, with a much larger audience watching.

So often, a swimmer or an athlete in any sports receives so much hype and then does not quite match it. The swimmer might perform very well but not quite enough to match the build-up. Only the best manage to equal and surpass the hype—like Michael Phelps in 2008 (and other Olympics) and Katie Ledecky in 2016.

At the Tokyo Olympics, in the biggest moment of his career, Dressel will match the hype. He becomes just the third man to ever win three or more individual gold medals at an Olympics, joining Mark Spitz (1972) and Phelps (2004 and 2008) and breaks multiple world records along the way. The best show up in big moments, and that will be Dressel this week.

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