Tokyo Olympics Analysis (U.S. Women): Lots of Medals, Youth and Potential for Future Brilliance

Aug 1, 2021; Tokyo, Japan; USA medalists Regan Smith (USA) , Lydia Jacoby (USA) , Torri Huske (USA) and Abbey Weitzeil (USA) pose with silver medals during the medals ceremony for the women's 4x100m medley relay during the Tokyo 2020 Olympics at Tokyo Aquatics Centre. Mandatory Credit: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports
Photo Courtesy: Rob Schumacher/USA Today Sports

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Tokyo Olympics Analysis (U.S. Women): Lots of Medals, Youth and Potential for Future Brilliance

It’s true — the American women won just three gold medals in swimming at the Tokyo Olympics, their fewest at any major international meet in recent memory. Katie Ledecky brought home the inaugural Olympic gold medal in the women’s 1500 freestyle, and she earned her historic third straight gold in the 800 freestyle. 17-year-old Alaska-native Lydia Jacoby shocked the world by winning the 100 breaststroke. But the Americans were shut out of gold medals in the relays and in the remaining individual events.

But was this a poor performance in Tokyo? No way. Not even close. Look across the board, and you see an incredibly strong performance by one of the most well-rounded swim teams ever assembled.

Back at the 2016 Olympics, the Americans won eight gold medals and 15 overall medals. This time, the total was 18 medals, although the comparisons are slightly skewed because of an additional event (the 1500 free) on the Olympic program. That total included eight silver and seven bronze, and American swimmers also finished fourth in additional four events. Two American swimmers finished among the top four in eight out of 14 individual events, which is incredible, and of the 28 American individual swims, all qualified for the semifinals and 25 of them advanced to finals.

To only focus on the gold-medal count and lack of relay wins would be an absolute disservice to this American women’s team and the enormous strides taken in just the past two years. Let’s go stroke-by-stroke and see what happened.

Freestyle

In an unexpected twist, sprint freestyle turned out to be the weakest of the disciplines for the American women in 2021. It was a strength in 2019 when Simone Manuel captured world titles in the 100 free and 50 free, but she was diagnosed with Overtraining Syndrome and was not the oft-dominant sprinter of years past. With Manuel struggling, Abbey Weitzeil stepped up and qualified for very fast finals in the 50 free and 100 free and supplied the go-to leg on the 400 free and 400 medley relays. Cate Campbell edged Weitzeil for gold in the medley, but Weitzeil’s 52.49 split was elite.

Jul 31, 2021; Tokyo, Japan; Katie Ledecky (USA) reacts after winning the women's 800m freestyle final during the Tokyo 2020 Olympics at Tokyo Aquatics Centre. Mandatory Credit: Grace Hollars-USA TODAY Sports

Katie Ledecky picked up two gold medals and two silver medals in her third Olympics — Photo Courtesy: Grace Hollars/USA Today Sports

While the Americans had depth in the 100 free, plenty to earn an Olympic medal in the 400 free relay, no one came to Tokyo with a faster best time than 53.5, compared to four Australians under 53. It was the same story in the 200 free where American depth did not measure up to Australia on paper, but Americans like Paige Madden and Katie McLaughlin raised their game significantly and Katie Ledecky was amazing on the anchor leg while Australia underperformed in that event. Given the setup in the freestyle events, the Americans did great to walk away with bronze in the 400 free relay and silver in the 800.

Regarding the longer events, Ledecky did her thing in the 800 and 1500, and she swam one of the best races of her career in the 400 free on the way to the second-fastest mark of her career and best time in five years, only for Ariarne Titmus to be a little bit better. No shame in that. Ledecky and Erica Sullivan provided one of the U.S. highlights of the Games with the 1-2 finish in the 1500, and Katie Grimes was impressive in finishing fourth in the 800 as a 15-year-old.

Backstroke

The results here were fine and in line with pre-Olympicsexpectations, even if you would assume the swimmers were not thrilled with their times. Regan Smith took bronze in the 100 back in 58.05 behind rivals Kaylee McKeown and Kylie Masse after setting the Olympic record in the semifinals. Rhyan White took fourth in the 100 back before White and Phoebe Bacon ended up fourth and fifth in the 200 back, just behind Australia’s Emily Seebohm.

Going forward, American backstroke is still in really good hands. Smith will be motivated to get back to her world-record-setting level from 2019 in both backstroke events, and both White and Bacon were first-timers to the major international level on an upward trajectory. There is more college-aged depth back home with swimmers like Katharine Berkoff and Isabelle Stadden. These were the most competitive events in the country prior to Olympic Trials and will remain so, despite just one Tokyo medal.

Breaststroke

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

Lydia Jacoby was the shocking gold medalist in the women’s 100 breaststroke in Tokyo — Photo Courtesy: Rob Schumacher/USA Today Sports

All American women’s breaststroke swims in Tokyo earned medals. That’s a far cry from the 2016 Games, when no American women were in the final of the 200 breast, but in Tokyo, Lilly King became just the second American to ever break 2:20 while Annie Lazor dashed home to earn her first Olympic level, a bronze. A few days before that, King had been a little off her game in her signature 100 breast, and she ended up not winning the event for the first time at any meet in six years. But then, in an absolute stunner, Lydia Jacoby continued her meteoric rise to win gold.

This group had realistic hopes of a big Tokyo performance, and they completely delivered.

Butterfly

The teenagers representing the U.S. in the 100 butterfly were not perfect in their Olympic debuts. 18-year-old Torri Huske was mere hundredths off her American record in the event, at 55.73, but in the most unlucky of finishes, she ended up fourth by 0.01. Huske was then about four tenths slower in swimming the fly leg on the mixed and women’s 400 medley relays at the end of the week. Meanwhile, Claire Curzan could not replicate her form from the spring and from Olympic Trials as she was 10th in the 100 fly.

In the 200 butterfly, the Americans were aiming to win their first Olympic medal since the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, and they won two behind gold medalist Zhang Yufei of China. Hali Flickinger, one of the best in the world in the event since 2018, took bronze while Regan Smith stormed ahead to win silver become the second-fastest American in history in the event. Zhang became the fastest performer ever in a textile suit in the event, so she was never going to be caught. Silver and bronze was an A+ performance for the Americans in the event.

Individual Medley

emma weyant, hali flickinger, 400 IM, tokyo olympics

Hali Flickinger and Emma Weyant embrace after both won medals in the women’s 400 IM at the Olympics — Photo Courtesy: Rob Schumacher/USA Today Sports

It’s no secret that the Americans had been in the midst of a rough stretch in the women’s IM events, particularly the 400 IM after the retirements of Rio silver medalist Maya DiRado and stalwart Elizabeth Beisel. Since 2016, they had won just one medal at the World Championships, a 200 IM bronze by Madisyn Cox in 2017. And none of the swimmers qualified for the IMs in Tokyo had ever previously represented the U.S. in IM in at a World Championships or Olympics (and other than Hali Flickinger, all were national team rookies).

But the Americans rocked it in the IMs. Sure, they benefitted from generally slower finals than we’ve seen in the IMs at major meets in recent years and from Katinka Hosszu’s drastic decline this year, but they still got the job done. Yui Ohashi turned out to be the IM star of the Games (and also Japan’s only gold medalist in the pool), but Emma Weyant fought her all the way to the finish in the 400 IM. Three days later, Alex Walsh did the same thing in the 200 IM, coming up only 0.12 short of the Japanese winner. Flickinger (400 IM) and Kate Douglass (200 IM) each secured bronzes.

The IM results were by far the biggest surprise for the U.S. women this year, given the struggles of recent years. And Weyant, Walsh and Douglass — all current or soon-to-be Virginia Cavaliers — all competed at the Olympics at 19 years old (Walsh turned 20 three days after the 200 IM final). All of them will be back.

Overall

The U.S. women’s 400 medley relay team that concluded the meet with a silver medal represented this women’s team in a nutshell: good, even if not quite quick enough to secure Olympic gold, and really, really young.

Two years earlier at the World Championships, Regan Smith had forced her way onto the U.S. women’s medley relay by virtue of her performances, and she combined with veterans Lilly King, Kelsi Dahlia and Simone Manuel to set a world record. Smith was the youngest swimmer in that group by five years.

regan smith, torri huske, abbey weitzeil, lydia jacoby, 400 medley relay, usa, olympics

The U.S. women’s 400 medley relay team after taking silver at the Tokyo Olympics — Photo Courtesy: Rob Schumacher/USA Today Sports

By Tokyo, Smith was the only member left as Lydia Jacoby, Torri Huske and Abbey Weitzeil had earned their way on. Now, Weitzeil, at 24, was the oldest by five years. The American women took 10 teenagers to Tokyo, and eight of them earned at least one medal.

All of these swimmers have years of college swimming ahead of them, so you expect them to continue to grow and improve. And the gap between the Tokyo Olympics and the next edition of the Games, in Paris in 2024, is just three years, the shortest ever. Compared to the massive turnover of the U.S. team from the 2016 Games to 2021, we could see a lot of familiar faces back again in Paris.

And the Tokyo Games were hard for the swimmers, more stressful than even the normally very-high-pressured Olympics, thanks to the restrictions induced by the COVID-19 pandemic — swimmers totally secluded, no families in Japan and so on. The swimmers who got through these Games should be so well prepared for a more normal Olympics in 2024, should they make it back to this level.

Despite all that, the American women still won 18 medals, finished 2-3 four times and stacked up medals in breaststroke, butterfly and IM events that had been obvious weaknesses in the not-too-recent past.

So even though the gold-medal count was not quite as impressive as normal, this was a really good American women’s team and perhaps just the beginning for a group that could carry the torch for years to come.

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