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by Daniel Paulling

June 22, 2021

The coronavirus pandemic delayed the Olympics and Paralympics, but it hasn't dulled the excitement for swimming

The games we’ve all been waiting for are finally here.

The world’s best swimmers will take center stage during this summer’s Olympics and Paralympics in Tokyo. Although the coronavirus pandemic will limit the number of fans in the aquatic facility, there’s plenty of excitement heading into these two games.

Here are five storylines to watch for in the midst of what promises to be some of the fastest swimming the world has ever seen.

Caeleb Dressel: The Fastest Ever?

Caeleb Dressel is the undisputed fastest swimmer in the world right now. The question surrounding him this summer is whether he’ll become the fastest swimmer ever.

Dressel hopes to break the world records in the 50 (20.91) and 100 freestyle (46.91), which Brazilian Cesar Cielo set in 2009 at the end of the textile suit era. Dressel came close at the 18th FINA World Championships in 2019, going 21.04 and 46.96, but wasn’t happy with his performance.

“Every time I do a race, I kind of look for the bad points,” Dressel told reporters after that 50 freestyle. “That’s just how I work. My start was so bad. I wish I could have that one back. There’s plenty to improve on. I take each event, and I have to learn from it.”

Setting world records in both of those races, of course, won’t be easy.

Russia’s Alexander Popov was the last man to win both the 50 and 100 freestyle at the same Olympics when he did so in 1996, the year Dressel was born, and no American man has accomplished that feat since Matt Biondi in 1988.

Dressel is also pursuing those records while swimming a challenging slate that figures to include the 100 butterfly, the 4x100 men’s freestyle relay, the 4x100 men’s medley relay, the 4x100 mixed medley relay, and perhaps the 4x200 freestyle relay.

If that weren’t enough to overcome, Dressel enters the Olympics, which start July 23, with the added pressure of being the male face of the U.S. swim team following the retirement of Michael Phelps after the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics, though Dressel doesn’t seem fazed by that.

“I don’t think [picking up the mantle of replacing Phelps] falls on my shoulders alone,” Dressel told reporters at the U.S. Olympic Team swimming trials. “Michael was one guy within USA Swimming, but he wasn’t USA Swimming. I think that’s what makes USA Swimming so strong, is the team as a collective whole.”

A New Wave of U.S. Olympians

Team USA will look a lot different this summer than it did five years ago.

Gone are household names such as Nathan Adrian, Kathleen Baker, Anthony Ervin, Ryan Lochte, and Kelsi Dhalia. They’ve been replaced by a group of swimmers that includes 11 teenagers and 35 first-time Olympians.

That’s just how trials go.

“This meet is where dreams come true, and it’s also where dreams come to die,” Dressel told reporters at trials. “It’s a sad reality the amount of people I have seen walking down from the deck with tears in their eyes. It’s one part of the meet that sucks. It breaks my heart to see people you swam on teams with not make a team, but that’s also my favorite part about making national teams like this—seeing the new faces, seeing these new kids step up. The team is so young. I’m going to have to learn everyone’s name. I’m so bad with names, so I’m kind of nervous about that.”

The first-time qualifiers are headlined by Michael Andrew, who’ll represent the U.S. in the 50 freestyle, 100 breaststroke, and 200 IM, the first American man to qualify for a breaststroke event and a non-IM event. He’s received outsized attention after he became a professional swimmer eight years ago, at age 14, and because of his adherence to ultra-short race-pace training filled with short swims at race pace with lots of rest, a drastic step from how swimmers trained previously.

The U.S. women’s team will be filled with 11 teenagers, the most in 25 years, including Claire Curzan (16 years old), Katie Grimes (15), Torri Huske (18), Lydia Jacoby (17), and Bella Sims (16). Huske broke the American record twice at trials, and her time of 55.66 in the finals was less than two-tenths of a second away from the world record.

Other first-time qualifiers who could figure prominently into Team USA’s success in Tokyo include Annie Lazor, Regan Smith, Emma Weyant, Alex Walsh, and Rhyan White on the women’s team and Hunter Armstrong, Bobby Finke, Bryce Mefford, and Kieran Smith on the men’s team.

Fifteen of Team USA’s 53 competitors at the Olympics will be participating in their first senior-level long course international competition. As they attempt to manage the rigors of the Olympics, they’ll have to do so without their family and friends nearby because of restrictions in place because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“We’re going to have to rely on each other a lot more than we would have to if our loved ones were able to come to Tokyo to watch,” USA Swimming Managing Director of the National Team Lindsay Mintenko told reporters at trials. “We’re lucky we have a wonderful coaching staff and a wonderful group of leaders on our team that we get to take with us to Tokyo. We will support each other and, as parents ourselves, we will do everything we can to support these athletes both in and out of the water.”

Close Races in the Open Water

A two-hour open water race might not seem like the best opportunity for a close swimming competition, but miss the marathon swim on Aug. 4–5 at your own peril.

Dutchman Ferry Weertman won the gold medal in the men’s 10K open water race five years ago by edging Greece’s Spyros Gianniotis by less than a tenth of a second, and Dutchwoman Sharon van Rouwendaal won the women’s competition by 17 seconds.

“A lot of people might not be super excited because it’s a two-hour race,” Team USA open water swimmer Jordan Wilimovsky says. “But it’s super fun, especially the last 1,000. After 9K and an hour and 45 minutes, the race is always close at the end. Oftentimes there’s a group of eight swimmers, five swimmers, whatever it is, all racing for that top spot, and most of the time, the win comes down to a hundredth of a second, which is pretty incredible over a two-hour race.”

Team USA has won just one open water medal—Haley Anderson’s silver in the 2012 London Olympics—something Wilimovsky, the team’s lone male representative, and Anderson and Ashley Twichell, the team’s two female representatives, hope to change.

All competitors will face challenging race conditions.

The saltwater course will be fairly warm, likely somewhere between 83 and 87 degrees. To prepare, Anderson and Twichell trained part of this spring in the diving well at the Mission Viejo Nadadores’s pool, which had been cranked up to 86 degrees.

The swimmers won’t have an opportunity to focus on the heat during their swim.

A competitor or a pack of competitors can pull away without notice, leaving a swimmer who lost his or her focus momentarily facing a difficult decision: Should he or she risk the energy it’ll take to sprint to catch up because of the benefit that comes with riding someone’s draft?

“It’s so, so different from pool swimming,” Twichell says. “There’s strategy involved in pool swimming, but I would argue there’s strategy to a greater extent in open water swimming. Even though it’s a two-hour race, there’s just so much always happening. It goes by so fast. It’s not necessarily the fastest person that’s going to win a race. You have to be thinking and be smart and be focused for quite a while to do well.”

What Else Will Jessica Long Do?

After winning six medals at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Paralympics, Jessica Long was burned out and seriously considering whether she should retire.

But Long over the past five years as taken, as she describes them, “baby steps” that have rejuvenated her passion for swimming and put her in position to add to her 23 Paralympic medals, including 13 golds, at this year’s Paralympics, which begin Aug. 24.

“I’m so thankful that I’m still a part of this sport and so grateful that my shoulders still work and so grateful for the support system I have,” Long says. “There are so many new supporters and people on my team. If I stand on top of the podium, it really is everyone who got me there.”

Much of the country learned about Long during this year’s Super Bowl with her much-acclaimed Toyota commercial that told her life story. Long was adopted from a Russian orphanage at 13 months old by an American family, and five months later, her legs were amputated below her knees so they could be fitted for prosthesis. (Long was born with fibular hemimelia, which affects 1 in 40,000 children. The condition left her without fibulas, ankles, heels, and most of the other bones in her feet.)

“It was unbelievable,” Long says. “It was one of the most insane, crazy things. Being a Paralympic athlete, that’s kind of what you dream about. You also don’t really know if you can dream that far, and I think that’s what made it so special is just how far the Paralympics have come.”

Long started doing competitive swimming at age 10 and splashed onto the international stage when she won three gold medals two years later at the 2004 Athens Paralympics. At 12, she was the youngest member of Team USA’s Paralympic team.

She says she thought of gold at that age as the prettiest color.

Long, 29, continued to win gold medals—10 more at the Paralympics and another 35 at the World Para Swimming Championships—over the next 17 years. Her 23 Paralympic medals span a wide range of events—she swims sprint and mid-distance freestyle, butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke, and IM—are the second most by an American as she approaches this year’s Paralympics, her fifth.

“It’s been incredible,” Long says. “It’s been more I could have ever imagined. I started this sport just because I loved swimming. That’s really what gets me through when I’m having those tough days, that I started this because I loved it.” 

USMS Members Representing Team USA

Six swimmers competing for Team USA at the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics have been members of USMS since 2019.

  • Robert Griswold
  • Jamal Hill
  • Martha Ruether
  • Zach Shattuck
  • Mallory Weggemann
  • Colleen Young


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