The Olympic ‘Quadrennium:’ A Look Back and a Look Ahead

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
Caeleb Dressel after winning gold at the Tokyo Olympics -- Photo Courtesy: Rob Schumacher/USA Today Sports

The Olympic “Quadrennium:” A Look Back and a Look Ahead

(From October’s Swimming World Magazine)

Swimming World reflects on the last five years since the last Olympic Games in Rio and ponders the questions that lie ahead during the next three years leading up to Paris 2024.


Five years ago, the swimming world had just watched as the sport’s all-time greatest, Michael Phelps, finished his swimming career with another history-making performance. In Rio, Phelps was not at the level of the historic Beijing Olympics in 2008 where he won eight gold medals and set seven world records, but he recaptured gold in the 200 meter butterfly, his signature event, and won his fourth straight gold medal in the 200 IM (while no other man has ever even three-peated in an Olympics). He also was critical in three American relay gold medals. With Phelps retiring, the sport would certainly have a void to fill, the role of world’s best now up for grabs.

Today, there is 25-year-old Caeleb Dressel. Dressel bristles at comparisons to Phelps, and no swimmer deserves being compared to a man who won 28 Olympic medals, 23 of them gold. But Dressel’s emergence as the world’s best swimmer was the No. 1 story of the last five years, the “quadrennium” that became five years because of the COVID-delayed Olympic postponement from 2020 to 2021.

Jul 31, 2021; Tokyo, Japan; Caeleb Dressel (USA) with his gold medal at the medals ceremony for the men's 100m butterfly during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Summer Games at Tokyo Aquatics Centre. Mandatory Credit: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports

Caeleb Dressel with one of his five gold medals from the Rio Olympics — Photo Courtesy: Rob Schumacher/USA Today Sports

The first major meet after the Rio Olympics, the 2017 World Championships, saw Dressel tie Phelps’ record with seven gold medals at one Worlds, including three on one night. Dressel benefited from some relay events added to the program, but his haul was stunning and impressive, nonetheless.

Two years later, Dressel won eight medals (six gold and two silver) at Worlds, setting the all-time record. But his biggest moment would come at the showcase of the Olympic Games in Tokyo, and he delivered there, too. He won three individual gold medals—in the 100 freestyle, 100 butterfly and 50 freestyle—to become just the third man after Phelps and Mark Spitz to win more than two individual golds in one Olympics. He lowered his world record in the 100 fly and led two American relays to gold medals.

At least on the men’s side, Dressel is the new face of swimming. No, he is not Phelps, and he will never be—not just because he specializes in sprints while Phelps was more of a 100/200 swimmer. But like Phelps, Dressel is versatile and dominant in multiple events, and he has shown a knack for putting forth his best performances while in the brightest of spotlights.

The Women from Down Under Dominate

At the end of the last Olympics, Katie Ledecky was the world’s dominant swimmer, having become just the second female swimmer ever to capture gold in the 200, 400 and 800 freestyle in one Olympics, the latter two performances coming with massive world records. Over the next five years, Ledecky would never again reach that level of dominance or speed, but she has remained one of the world’s best.

In Tokyo, she swam the second-best performance of her career in the 400 free as she brought home a hard-fought silver medal, and then, just over an hour after finishing a disappointing fifth in the 200 free, she became the first-ever female gold medalist in the 1500 free. She then used a brilliant anchor leg on the 800 free relay to elevate the Americans to silver before winning her third straight gold medal in the 800 free, becoming just the third woman (along with Dawn Fraser/100 free and Krisztina Egerszegi/200 back) to three-peat in any race.

Aug 1, 2021; Tokyo, Japan; Australia relay team of Kaylee McKeown (AUS), Chelsea Hodges (AUS), Emma McKeon (AUS) and Cate Campbell (AUS) during the medals ceremony for the women's 4x100m medley relay during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Summer Games at Tokyo Aquatics Centre. Mandatory Credit: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports

Australia’s gold-medal winning 400 medley relay team of Kaylee McKeown, Chelsea Hodges, Emma McKeon & Cate Campbell — Photo Courtesy: Rob Schumacher/USA Today Sports

But the biggest story of the Tokyo quad for the women took longer to develop. At the past two Olympics, Australia had entered the Games with gold medal threats, particularly in 2016, only to finish with very underwhelming medal tallies. In 2021, three Australians looked like gold-medal favorites in multiple individual events, and all three of them came through.
First, there was the pair of 20-year-olds. Ariarne Titmus was the swimmer who took down Ledecky in the 400 free, recording the second-fastest time in history and just missing Ledecky’s world record in the process, and she also was impressive in winning gold in the 200 free, just a month after recording history’s second-fastest time. Meanwhile, Kaylee McKeown had recorded scorching backstroke swims seemingly every time she raced since November, and she broke the 100 back world record in June. In Tokyo, she scored gold medals three times—in the 100 back, 200 back and as part of Australia’s 400 medley relay.

The Games’ star, however, was Emma McKeon, a long-overshadowed sprinter who won seven medals, more than any female swimmer ever at one Olympics. She took home individual gold medals after dominant wins in the 100 freestyle and 50 freestyle—approaching world records in both—and she was the best swimmer on two golden Australian relays, the 400 free and 400 medley. She also won three bronze medals. McKeon had shown talent and versatility and particular aptitude for fast relay swims time after time over her elite international career, which stretches back to 2013, but her emergence as the best swimmer in the world was less expected.

Changing of the Stars

In 26 individual pool swimming events contested at both the Rio and Tokyo Olympics, only two of them had repeat gold medalists in 2021. That was Ledecky in the 800 free and Adam Peaty in the 100 breaststroke—in the same year when only the second swimmer ever (Arno Kamminga) joined him under 58 seconds in the 100 breast. (Peaty has gone under 58 seconds 20 times!)

Why so few repeat winners? Certainly, the five-year gap between Olympics made some impact as veterans struggled to hold off improving young talent. On the women’s side, Lilly King was upset as a big favorite in the 100 breast, Sarah Sjostrom’s elbow fracture hampered her training for Tokyo, and Katinka Hosszu was nowhere near her record-breaking level of 2016.

For the men, a handful of the gold medalists from Rio simply never returned to their elite form, but many were still in contention, just not atop the podium. While Ryan Murphy swept the backstroke events in 2016, he ended up with a bronze and a silver this time, as Evgeny Rylov took over as the new gold-medal man in backstroke. Kyle Chalmers, the shocking teenage 100 free gold medalist in Rio, was part of one of the Games’ best showdowns, as he and Dressel battled to the wall in the 100 free, with Chalmers emerging as the silver medalist by just six hundredths.

Distance man Gregorio Paltrinieri was also a victim of life’s circumstances in Tokyo, as he dealt with mononucleosis, but he still left Tokyo with two medals, while 2016 400 free gold medalist Mack Horton swam what was at the time the world’s third-fastest 400 free, but it was not good enough to qualify for Australia’s Olympic team with two men finishing ahead of him. All of these swimmers were good, but the cycle of swimming meant that this would no longer be their turn to stand atop the podium.

Jul 27, 2021; Tokyo, Japan; Tom Dean (GBR) and Duncan Scott (GBR) celebrate with their medals during the medals ceremony for the men's 200m freestyle during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Summer Games at Tokyo Aquatics Centre. Mandatory Credit: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports; olympics

Tom Dean (right) and Duncan Scott went 1-2 in the men’s 200 free in Tokyo — Photo Courtesy: Rob Schumacher/USA Today Sports

Meanwhile, the men’s field has plenty of new entrants that impressed in Tokyo, and maybe with only a three-year leadup to the next Olympics in Paris, they will be better equipped to make a run at a repeat. Great Britain’s men were brilliant in Tokyo, with Tom Dean and Duncan Scott going 1-2 in the 200 free, and Scott also finishing with a silver medal in the 200 IM. Scott and James Guy each contributed to multiple relay medals.

Russia has been building for years toward an elite men’s squad, and that showed with Rylov’s two gold medals in backstroke and 21-year-old Kliment Kolesnikov earning two individual medals of his own. Another of Russia’s stars, 200 breast world record holder Anton Chupkov, was just off the podium in that event.

And how about Italy, in a twist few saw coming, winning two relay medals, silver in the 400 free and bronze in the 400 medley? In addition to Paltrinieri, Italy saw 22-year-old Nicolo Martinenghi and 19-year-old Federico Burdisso each get on the podium individually, and 20-year-old Thomas Ceccon came very close to joining them with a fourth-place finish in the 100 back.

But the biggest rising superstar among men is Kristof Milak, the 21-year-old Hungarian who was absolutely dominant in the men’s 200 butterfly, his 2.48-second margin of victory far more than any of Phelps’ golden efforts in that event. He has already beaten Phelps’ world record in the 200 fly, and in Tokyo, he went faster than Phelps ever did in the 100 fly, pushing Dressel all the way to the wall. Do not be surprised if by Paris, Milak is the world’s best swimmer.

Teenagers Propel U.S. Women

Australia was the team of the Olympics for the women with eight gold medals, but the United States actually captured more medals overall (18, compared to Australia’s 13)—with a team that included 10 teenagers. It was an impressive performance, but still not a perfect one—not with the women earning just three golds. Ledecky won two of her events, and 17-year-old Alaskan Lydia Jacoby was a stunning winner in the 100 breast.

Jul 27, 2021; Tokyo, Japan; Lydia Jacoby (USA), Tatjana Schoenmaker (RSA) and Lilly King (USA) react after finishing first, second and third in the women's 100m breaststroke final during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Summer Games at Tokyo Aquatics Centre. Mandatory Credit: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports

Lydia Jacoby (left) with Lilly King after Jacoby won a stunning gold medal in the women’s 100 breast — Photo Courtesy: Rob Schumacher/USA Today Sports

But no American women’s relays won gold for the first time since 2008. Sprint star Simone Manuel struggled in 2021 after being diagnosed with overtraining syndrome, and King was beaten in the 100 breast for the first time in six years, although her silver medal in the 200 breast was by far her best-ever performance in that race. Regan Smith, a world record breaker in 2019, struggled in 2021 and did not even qualify for the U.S. Olympic team in the 200 back, although she did win bronze in the 100 back and swim a very impressive 200 fly to win silver.

But the Americans had Jacoby plus three teenagers who made the podium in the IM events, Emma Weyant, Alex Walsh and Kate Douglass. Torri Huske barely missed the podium (by one hundredth) in the 100 fly, and Erica Sullivan swam an amazing race to capture silver in the 1500 free behind Ledecky. Katie Grimes, just 15, was fourth in the 800 free.

That’s by no means an exhaustive list of the young American talent on the women’s side, and this group has an incredibly bright future. They did not match up well as far as gold medals this year, but there could be a lot more to come—particularly with the next Games just three years away.

The Amazing Moments of the Olympics

Every single Olympics produces out-of-nowhere stunners. Remember Dmitriy Balandin winning the 200 breast at the 2016 Games? Well, there are two in particular to make note of from Tokyo, both involving swimmers from Africa.

First, Ahmed Hafnaoui in the men’s 400 free: Seeded 16th prior to the meet and barely qualifying for the final as the eighth seed, Hafnaoui hung with leader Jack McLoughlin of Australia and then sprinted past him on the last length to capture gold. Then, the world witnessed an emotional celebration as the 18-year-old became just the second Tunisian man after Ous Mellouli to win Olympic gold (or even an Olympic medal) in swimming.

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

Lilly King, Annie Lazor, Tatjana Schoenmaker & Kaylene Corbett celebrate after the women’s 200 breast final — Photo Courtesy: Rob Schumacher/USA Today Sports

Five days later, South Africa’s Tatjana Schoenmaker captured gold in the women’s 200 breast after she already won silver and set an Olympic record in the 100 breast. South Africa has won a medal in swimming at every Olympics since 1996, and the men have won gold as recently as Cameron van der Burgh in 2012. But the last woman from the country to win gold was Penny Heyns back in 1996, and the last women’s medalist was Heyns in 2000.

And at the last Olympics in Rio, South Africa did not send a single female participant. None at all. This time, they had two in the 200 breaststroke final alone.

Unlike Hafnaoui, Schoenmaker was among the favorites, at least in the 200 breast, but she simply blew expectations out of the water. She got herself into contention in the 100 breast, which few saw coming, and then, in her preferred event, she lowered an eight-year-old world record and became the first woman ever to break 2:19.

After that race, Schoenmaker and American medalists King and Annie Lazor came together for a celebratory hug, then Schoenmaker’s fellow South African in the final, Kaylene Corbett, joined them to create one of the most heartwarming moments in any sport of the Tokyo Games.

What’s Next

After Tokyo, the swimming world is embarking on a new quadrennium, albeit a very unusual one with the Paris Games only three years away. We have questions to ask, but no answers…not yet. Those will develop in 2022, 2023 and 2024.
Among those questions:

  • Because of the shortened gap between Olympics, will less about the sport and its stars change before Paris arrives? The logical answer is “yes.” Young swimmers, such as that contingent from the United States, could continue to develop and improve, but we cannot know for sure.
  • Can the Australian women maintain their incredible momentum after their rebound performance in Tokyo? Swimmers such as McKeon, Titmus and McKeown are battling history, as only one Australian woman has ever successfully defended an individual Olympic gold medal in swimming: Dawn Fraser, who won the 100 free in 1956, 1960 and 1964. Recent stars such as Stephanie Rice, Leisel Jones, Libby Trickett and Petria Thomas could never return to the top of the podium. Susie O’Neill, the only Aussie woman besides Fraser to win individual golds in multiple Olympics, came close to successfully defending her 1996 Olympic gold in the 200 fly, but American Misty Hyman got the better of her in one of the biggest upsets ever at an Olympics.
  • Can swimmers like Dressel and Peaty maintain their margins atop the world? And how about Ledecky? She may be slightly past her incredible peak when you consider times, but she will have a chance to become the first woman to win four straight swimming gold medals in one event (and only Phelps has done so among men). Can these all-time greats sustain their momentum for three more years?
  • What do the Canadian women have in store after two straight historic Olympic performances? Two Games in a row have seen Canadian women win individual gold (Penny Oleksiak in 2016 and Maggie MacNeil in 2021), and Canada has won four relay medals during that span. The next budding star is 14-year-old Summer McIntosh, who did not win a medal in Tokyo, but was fourth in the 400 free and swam an incredible leadoff on Canada’s 800 free relay, which also ended up fourth. She is already one of the world’s best in the middle distance freestyle races, and she has shown potential in other events, too. Think how good McIntosh could become.
  • And since the Olympics will be in Paris, how about France’s swimming prospects? Florent Manaudou was the country’s only medalist in Tokyo with his silver in the 50 free, marking the third straight Games when the 30-year-old has made the podium in that event. The men’s 400 free relay, medalists in 2008, 2012 and 2016, finished sixth in Tokyo following a wave of turnover. It was only nine years ago that France was, for a brief moment, leading the gold-medal count at an Olympics. In three successive races, the late Camille Muffat won gold in the 400 free, Yannick Agnel overtook Ryan Lochte for the men’s 400 free relay gold, and then, the next day, Agnel dominated the individual 200 free. Maybe this country will have some magic in store for its home Games.

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But we don’t know what the build-up to Paris will look like, and that’s what makes the beginning of the new Olympic cycle so amazing for all those involved and watching from near and far. Whatever the next three years hold, there will undoubtedly be many fascinating and dramatic and special moments along the way, with another Olympics looming at the end.