Who is the Greatest Female Swimmer? Here Are Some Reader Opinions

Tracy Caulkins

Who is the Greatest Female Swimmer? Here Are Some Reader Opinions

Several days ago, we posed the question: Who is the greatest female swimmer in history? While the choice on the men’s side is simple, with Michael Phelps the lone option, several women have an argument for the top of the pedestal. When we asked the question, we provided six primary options (Tracy Caulkins, Janet Evans, Krisztina Egerszegi, Dawn Fraser, Shane Gould and Katie Ledecky), but indicated readers could suggest additional candidates.

Not surprising, votes were cast and arguments were made for all of the names mentioned, and a few more. While Caulkins and Ledecky received the most support, it was interesting to read the responses and thoughts of the readership on this topic. As promised, here are a few of the comments that were submitted.

  • Tracy Caulkins. Hands down! She excelled at all for strokes plus the I M. She could Sprint and win at distance also. The boycott ruined her chances at Olympic excellence.

  • Arguments can be made for several individuals. (Mary T. Meagher’s fly records are outrageously amazing, but that is only one event. Tracy Caulkins’ accomplishments in all strokes and various distances certainly gets my vote. World, American, and U.S. Open records in all four strokes may never be equaled again. NUFF SAID!

  • Janet Evans. Many forget she could crush the 400 IM as well as the distance freestyles. Some of her records stood over 20 years. And… no fast suits back then.

  • Tracy Caulkins. Great in all strokes and missed out on opportunity to win medals at the boycotted Olympics in 1980. Also disadvantaged in the rankings due to more opportunities for longevity in the sport that current swimmers can benefit from.

  • Definitely Dawn Fraser. Winning 100m freestyle at three consecutive Olympics is something no other swimmer has been able to do. To be top for 12 years is phenomenal!

Katie Ledecky of the United States of America (USA) reacts after winning in the women’s 800m Freestyle Final during the Swimming events at the Gwangju 2019 FINA World Championships, Gwangju, South Korea, 27 July 2019.

Katie Ledecky – Photo Courtesy: Patrick B. Kraemer

  • Katie Ledecky. Base it on breadth of her career, multiple outstanding Olympic and World Champs meet performances combined with year-to-year consistency, dominance of swims, and unmatched depth of historical top times in multiple events. She won 25 international gold medals in her first 27 international finals with more than a dozen world records. Almost a decade in, she is still putting up top times in the world in four events and has “eight-peated” internationally in the 800 Free.

  • I would say Ledecky by a mile (no pun intended), and still rolling. Gould had an abbreviated career, of her own choosing, Caulkins admittedly had some inconsistent rough patches. Ledecky put Evans’ and other records deep in the rearview mirror and has been the most dominant female swimmer in the sport ever. By my count, she has only missed the top step of the podium three times internationally in individual events over nine years, swimming four different events in an era of specialization and greater participation. Five-time female World Swimmer of Year and four years in a row at one point; no one else has done that.

  • Tracy Caulkins. She could swim everything! I remember her breaking the American record in the 500 free at East L.A. Nationals and some ladies on our team saying why doesn’t she stick to her own events?

Olympic gold and a Kangaroo in her pouch

Dawn Fraser – Photo Courtesy: Dawn Fraser Collection

  • Dawn Fraser. Winning 100 free at three consecutive Olympics & would have had a good chance of making it four, if she hadn’t been banned! At her first two Olympics there were only five women’s events – so not much chance of winning multiple medals. If there had been 50 free she would probably won another three gold medals.

  • By combining all of the same objective measures for women used to bestow acclaim on Phelps on the male side–Olympic and Worlds performance, World Records, individual intl victories/medals, top 25 LCM times, win percentage, length of career, dominance of victories measured by times, distance placed between top competitors and level of competition faced, intl event win repeats and consistency, World SOY awards–it’s Ledecky.

  • Tracy Caulkins. At one point she held an American record in every stroke and nearly every distance. She was Phelps before Phelps. She won 12 NCAA titles in 3 years. She survived a boycott and swam into her 20s which was UNHEARD of in the 1980s. She is humble and was the torch bearer for the sport. Versatile, profilic and captain of the Olympic team.

  • Shane Gould. Held every world freestyle record, 100 through 1500 and the world 200 IM record simultaneously.


  1. avatar

    Imagine Ledecky holding the World Record in every Freestyle event and holding a World Record in another stroke. You have Shane Gould.
    Imagine Ledecky dominating the Distance Free’s and the 400 IM. You have Janet Evans.
    Imagine Ledecky dominating a non Freestyle event plus the 400 IM for nearly 12 years. You have Krisztina Egerszecky.
    Imagine Ledecky winning every Event in the program. 100 and 200 Free, Back, Breast, Fly plus 200 and 400 IM. You have Tracy Caulkins.
    Your answer – Tracy Caulkins.

    • avatar

      It’s almost comical when objective times are ignored (even if era-adjusted) in a sport like swimming, and the “all-around, every stroke” and 400 IM canards are used as arguments against Ledecky as GOAT. First, Ledecky has twice broken the American SCY record in the “all-around” 400 IM, with her fastest time 7 seconds faster than that of Caulkins’ best (not a suit differential) in what was Caulkins’ admitted “favorite” event. Ledecky’s best 400 IM LCM time has been three seconds faster than Caulkins’ World Record (which stood only for significantly less than 2 years). In addition, Ledecky has now swum the 400 Free 7 seconds faster, the 800 Free 10 seconds faster, and the 1500 Free 20 seconds faster than Janet Evans, who was voted by 46% of SW poll respondents as the greatest-ever retired female swimmer. By age 21, Caulkins was out of the sport. At age 21, Ledecky lowered her own 1500 Free World record by 5 seconds, and at age 23 she still holds top times in the world in multiple events.

  2. avatar
    Susan Choi

    Ledecky. Get real.

  3. avatar

    Ledecky, Caulkins, Gould, Evans, Egerzegi, in that order. I have been following swimming and attending meets for over 55 years, and don’t have to “imagine” anything as I have seen the swimming and respective athletic abilities of all of these wonderful athletes. I still have my vision, and I can read and interpret objective swim times.

  4. avatar
    Jim Larson

    The number of swimmers and competition in all strokes, distances/events and participation throughout the world and in many more countries, is (fortunately) exponentially better today than in Caulkins’ era. The same can be said of Ledecky’s swimming relative to that of Caulkins. It’s called “progress”, and like “history” it should be embraced and celebrated, not ridiculed.

  5. Johnny Karnofsky

    Mary T’s records would STILL be among the fastest in the world 🌎.


    In a super suit in 2005, she would have JUST edged out Mary without one in 1981!

    It’s not so much the variety of the athletic skills, it’s how far ahead of the world the athlete is and how long it takes for the world to get caught up and how long the records are still in the competitive picture, nearly 4 DECADES and she is STILL being compared with.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.