The Top Five Stories of 2021: Tokyo Olympics, Return from COVID Highlight Year

Aug 1, 2021; Tokyo, Japan; Caeleb Dressel (USA) celebrates after winning the men's 50m freestyle final during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Summer Games at Tokyo Aquatics Centre. Mandatory Credit: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports
Caeleb Dressel won five gold medals at the Tokyo Olympics -- Photo Courtesy: Rob Schumacher/USA TODAY Sports

The Top Five Stories of 2021: Tokyo Olympics, Return from COVID Highlight Year

(From January’s Swimming World Magazine)

In 2021, major swimming competition made its triumphant return after the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 canceled college swimming’s championship season and so many other meets while delaying the Olympic Games one year. But while the pandemic and its massive effects on the sport were the lone top story of 2020, the action in the pool returned to center-stage in 2021. Unsurprisingly, the focus of the year’s top stories centers on Tokyo, where the Olympics produced some amazing performances and historic results.

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1. Caeleb Dressel Wins Five Gold Medals in Tokyo

Aug 1, 2021; Tokyo, Japan; Caeleb Dressel (USA) in the men's 4x100m medley final during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Summer Games at Tokyo Aquatics Centre. Mandatory Credit: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports

Caeleb Dressel — Photo Courtesy: Rob Schumacher/USA TODAY Sports

The dominant male swimmer of the past four years brought his talents to the Olympic stage and delivered as promised. Caeleb Dressel competed at the 2016 Olympics, where he won a pair of relay gold medals and qualified for the individual final of the 100 meter freestyle, but it was not until one year later that Dressel broke out. At the 2017 World Championships, he won seven gold medals, equaling the record set by Michael Phelps. Two years later, he captured six world titles and eight total medals, breaking the record for most total medals at a World Championships. Two of those medals were in non-Olympic events, but it was clear that Dressel was set up to excel at his second Olympics — and the one-year delay to 2021 did not affect him.

In Tokyo, Dressel won five gold medals. His first individual gold came in the 100 freestyle, when he held off a furious back-half charge from chief rival Kyle Chalmers of Australia to win by a mere six hundredths, 47.02 to 47.08. Dressel broke the Olympic record in the process. Two days later, he fended off another late push from Hungarian teenager Kristof Milak to capture gold in the 100 butterfly, and he clipped his own world record with a 49.45. Finally, he set another Olympic record on the way to gold in the 50 freestyle, and this one wasn’t close. His victory by 0.48 more than doubled the previous largest margin of victory in the event.

Dressel also led the United States to gold medals in the 400 freestyle relay (with the fastest leadoff split) and 400 medley relay (with the fastest butterfly split). His only blemish came in the mixed 400 medley relay, when the American lineup strategy backfired, leaving the Americans in a stunning fifth place. But otherwise, after years of hype around the American, Dressel lived up to every bit of it in Tokyo. Although Dressel himself shuns comparisons to Phelps, he has surely taken over the mantle of world’s top male swimmer, the one Phelps held for so many years.


2. Emma McKeon’s Seven Medals Leads Australian Women in Stunning Tokyo Performance

For two straight Olympics, Australia’s typically excellent women were underwhelming. At both the 2012 London Games and the 2016 Rio Games, Australia won gold in the women’s 400 freestyle relay on Night 1, and then the women from Down Under were shut out from the top of the podium for the remainder of the Games. But this time, when another group of Australian women arrived in Tokyo with high expectations, they delivered.

world-cup-MCKEON Emma LON London Roar (LON) ISL International Swimming League 2021 Match 6 day 1 Piscina Felice Scandone Napoli, Naples Photo Giorgio Scala / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

Emma McKeon — Photo Courtesy: Giorgio Scala / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

The headliner was Emma McKeon, a relay standout for Australia every year going back to 2013 and the owner of one career individual Olympic medal prior to Tokyo, a bronze in the 200 free in Rio. She had never won an individual gold at a World Championships either. But in Tokyo, the 27-year-old McKeon stepped up and became the world’s best sprinter.

McKeon won gold medals in the 100 freestyle and 50 freestyle, just missing the world record in both events. She took bronze in a tight 100 butterfly final, and she led Australia to gold medals in the 400 freestyle relay and 400 medley relay. She also was part of bronze-medal efforts in the 800 free relay and mixed 400 medley relay. That gave her seven total medals in Tokyo, breaking a record shared by Kristin Otto and Natalie Coughlin for most total medals at a single Games.

The other standouts for Australia were 20-year-olds Ariarne Titmus and Kaylee McKeown. Two years earlier, Titmus had uncorked a massive stunner when she beat Katie Ledecky for the world title in the 400 freestyle, and the two faced off again in Tokyo. The much-anticipated grudge match turned into a race for the ages, as the two went blow-for-blow. On the final 100, Titmus surged ahead, and Ledecky tried to respond, but the Australian hung tough. Titmus swam a time of 3:56.69, just two tenths off Ledecky’s world record, to win Olympic gold, while Ledecky produced a 3:57.36, the second-fastest mark of her career. That was the moment when Titmus officially arrived on the Olympic stage, and she backed that up two days later when she won another gold in the 200 free, her time of 1:53.50 an Olympic record.

Finally, McKeown was this year’s backstroke queen. She broke the world record in the 100 backstroke in June, and she finished just off her own mark as she out-dueled two-time world champion Kylie Masse and former world record-holder Regan Smith for gold. Then, she finished eight tenths ahead of the field in the 200 back for another gold.

Five women won double individual gold medals at the Olympics, and four of them were from Australia. Not a bad way to answer the critics after two profoundly disappointing Games in a row!


3. Katie Ledecky Makes History — Twice

Jul 28, 2021; Tokyo, Japan; Katie Ledecky (USA) celebrates after winning the women's 1500m freestyle final during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Summer Games at Tokyo Aquatics Centre. Mandatory Credit: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports

Katie Ledecky — Photo Courtesy: Rob Schumacher/USA TODAY Sports

In her first two Olympic appearances, Katie Ledecky was basically perfect. As a 15-year-old in London, she stunned the world to win Olympic gold in the 800 free. Four years later, she was the dominant performer of the Rio Olympics, becoming just the second woman to win gold in the 200, 400 and 800 free in one Olympics (after Debbie Meyer in 1968). This time, Ledecky would add the 1500 free (making its debut at the Olympics) to her program, and while she was not perfect, she added to her already sterling legacy that has made her one of the greatest swimmers in history.

Ledecky’s dual with Ariarne Titmus in the 400 free was one of the most anticipated races of the Games, and Ledecky produced a performance quicker than any in the last five years. She claimed a silver only because Titmus was better. However, she was well off her best time in the 200 free final, and for the first time in an Olympic race, she did not win a medal, finishing fifth. But later in that same session, Ledecky dominated the 1500 free final, becoming the first Olympic champion for women in that event.

Finally, Ledecky defended her gold medal in the 800 free, her time eight seconds off her own world record but good enough to make her just the third female ever to three-peat at the Olympics. The only others to do so have been Dawn Fraser (100 freestyle in 1956, 1960 and 1964) and Krisztina Egerszegi (200 backstroke, 1988, 1992 and 1996).

Ledecky’s remarkable career is not done yet, but this was just another item for the record books in Tokyo.


4. College Swimming Successfully Returns and Its Greatest Coach Makes History

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Texas captured another team title at the 2021 Men’s NCAA Championships — Photo Courtesy: NCAA Media

In 2020, the NCAA Championships were one of the first cancellations due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Only the Division II Championships managed to get in one day of action, while the Division I and Division III meets were called off in advance. In 2021, most college action successfully returned, although some groups (including all of Division III and the Ivy League) will not resume championship competition until February and March of 2022. The return of those meets will undoubtedly be one reason to celebrate in this new year.

The NCAA meets held in 2021 went off in a slightly different format than usual, with no fans allowed in the building and relays held in timed finals with heats of four to maximize social distancing. But the conference and national championship meets were successes, with the excitement of college swimming showing through despite the pandemic.

In Division I, the women’s meet saw a changing of the guard and an eastward shift in power as the University of Virginia captured its first-ever national team title, with head coach Todd DeSorbo leading the way, and North Carolina State (led by DeSorbo’s former boss, Braden Holloway) placing second. The men’s meet saw the University of Texas prevail over California in a tough battle that came down to the final day and a margin of just 27 points.

That title gave Texas coach Eddie Reese his record-setting 15th national title, but two days later, Reese announced he would be retiring from coaching following the summer’s Olympic Trials. Tributes poured in as the swimming world learned one of its greatest coaches would be walking away, but after the Trials, Reese announced he would be coming back to Texas. He said, “There’s more that I want to do.”

So Reese, now 80, will lead Texas in pursuit of a 16th national title in 2022, with the Longhorns slightly favored in what shapes up as another exciting meet against Cal.


5. Young Stars Shine at the Olympics

While plenty of established stars came through at the Olympics, we also saw plenty of new faces taking advantage of their opportunity to come through and shine on the sport’s grandest stage — including some athletes who may not have been in position to excel one year ago. Nine teenagers won individual medals in Tokyo, including two gold medalists who pulled off stunning upsets.

Jul 25, 2021; Tokyo, Japan; Ahmed Hafnaoui (TUN) celebrates after winning the men's 400m freestyle final during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Summer Games at Tokyo Aquatics Centre. Mandatory Credit: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Network

Ahmed Hafnaoui — Photo Courtesy: Rob Schumacher/USA TODAY Sports

In the men’s 400 freestyle, Ahmed Hafnaoui became the second man to win an Olympic swimming medal for Tunisia (following Oussama Mellouli in 2008 and 2012) as he stunned the field from Lane 8. Hafnaoui was just 18 years old at the time, making him the youngest man to win individual gold since Ian Thorpe in 2000. Two days later, 17-year-old American Lydia Jacoby stormed past the field, which included teammate Lilly King — the gold-medal favorite — to win individual gold in the women’s 100 breaststroke.

Hafnaoui and Jacoby were the biggest surprises, but so many less heralded stars produced amazing moments in Tokyo. Twenty-one-year-old Canadian Maggie Mac Neil captured gold in an extremely tight women’s 100 fly, giving Canada an individual gold for the second straight Games after the country had not topped the podium since 1984. Siobhan Haughey won the first-ever Olympic swimming medal for Hong Kong with her silver in the 200 free, and then she won another silver medal (this one a big surprise) in the 100 free. Previously, Haughey had never won a medal at a major international championship. And South Africa’s Tatjana Schoenmaker broke the only individual world record in the women’s competition with an emotional victory in the 200 breast.

On the men’s side, who can forget how Tom Dean stormed to gold for Great Britain in the 200 free or how Bobby Finke overcame massive deficits to stun the world’s best distance swimmers and steal away gold medals in both the 800 free and 1500 free? And in the butterfly events, Kristof Milak was more dominant than Michael Phelps ever was in the 200 fly while pushing Caeleb Dressel to the limit in the 100 fly. And all three of these men won their Olympic medals at just 21 years old, hinting at further bright futures for all of them.

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