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Bright Future Ahead for U.S. Swimming After Tokyo Olympics

Anchored by Katie Ledecky and Caeleb Dressel and boosted by fresh faces like Lydia Jacoby and Bobby Finke, the team won 30 medals. But powerhouses like Australia are not too far behind.
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TOKYO — Bobby Finke arrived with a rush. The 21-year-old University of Florida swimmer came to these Summer Olympics as a dark horse medal contender in distance freestyle events recently dominated by Europeans. He left with two golds and a new fan following, after his furious final 50-meter charges to win both the 800- and 1,500-meter freestyles.

Lydia Jacoby came from nowhere—which, in the American swimming space, is Alaska. Prior to April, the 17-year-old was not seriously on American Olympic radar. Then she kept getting faster every time she swam, and by late July she was here shocking the world (and U.S. teammate Lilly King) to win the 100-meter breaststroke gold medal.

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This tends to be how it works in American swimming. There is always someone—a group of someones—rising to the top. Which is why, even in an Olympics without Michael Phelps and with Katie Ledecky beatable, the U.S. swim contingent could strut to the airport Monday with 30 medals. Quality depth is a good thing.

“Fantastic meet,” said King, who won three medals despite being supplanted atop the American breaststroke food chain by Jacoby.

“We outperformed what we were supposed to do coming into the meet,” said backstroker Ryan Murphy, who went from three golds in 2016 to a gold, silver and bronze here.

Casual fans have come to put basketball-level expectations on American Olympic swimmers: gold medals are expected in bunches, and there is no acceptable excuse for anything less than total domination. But Murphy is partly right, when you look at informed medal projections.

A 30-medal haul exceeds what conventional wisdom was calling for. I put the number at 27 (plus a likely 28th in an event I didn’t pick, because my daughter was competing in it); Swimming World Magazine predicted 28; SwimSwam.com went with 24.

So the U.S. outperformed in terms of quantity. Not so much in terms of quality.

The U.S. gold medal total of 11 was three less than my projection and four less than Swimming World’s. (SwimSwam was closest to the mark in terms of gold, predicting 10.) The “Star-Spangled Banner” was played less frequently at the Olympic swimming venue than at any time since 1988.

And, with three new events added to the program, America’s share of the medal haul was down a bit from previous recent Olympics. This time around the percentage was 28.6%, compared to 34.4% in 2016; 31.3% in both 2012; 32.3% in ’08; 29.2% in ’04; and 34.4% in 2000. Last time the U.S. dipped below 30% was in 1996, at 28%.

But, again, a minor dip in medal share was not unexpected. Phelps was missing from the U.S. roster for the first time since the ‘90s. The women’s team was extremely young, with 10 teenagers. This was a national team in transition. Given that, the chances of an unexpected collective meltdown seemed higher than an unexpected breakthrough.

Ultimately, this performance was exactly what virtually every swim team experiences at major competitions: a mixed bag of surprises and disappointments. These things rarely work out as well as hoped or as badly as feared. In this instance, the American body of work owes a lot to the calendar and the competition.

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The five-year window between Olympics set up the youth movement on the women’s side. Some veterans missed the team or made it in limited roles. Some youngsters who wouldn’t have been ready in 2020 were in ’21. Some who were stars before the pandemic couldn’t retain top form for a variety of reasons (Simone Manuel in freestyle, Regan Smith in backstroke, King).

But here’s the thing: the vast majority of the teenagers performed well. All told, 24 of the 26 women on the U.S. roster won a medal, and the two that missed both finished fourth in their individual events: 15-year-old Katie Grimes in the 800-meter freestyle and 18-year-old Phoebe Bacon in the 200-meter backstroke. In six different individual women’s events, there were two Americans on the podium.

“It’s exciting with such a young team to perform well here,” said U.S. women’s head coach Greg Meehan. And it bodes well for 2024, just three years away. The teens of 2021 should theoretically be even better then.

Will the relays be better? That’s the biggest downside of these Olympics for the Americans.

The women’s medley and 800-meter freestyle relays were lost by a combined .53 seconds, making this the first Summer Games since 2008 that the U.S. didn’t win at least one women’s Olympic relay. And while the men captured two of the three and set a world record in the medley, they also turned in a fourth-place clunker that made history as the first American Olympic relay, male or female, not to earn a medal. (Stats like that are what blow rational expectations out of the water. Because the domination has been endless.)

Then there was the mixed medley relay, which finished a dismal fifth. That, plus a fifth-place individual finish for Ledecky in the 200-meter freestyle, were the two most disorienting American outcomes. But that can be counterbalanced by the U.S. sweeping the distance events (Finke and Ledecky in the 800 and 1,500) and the five-gold-medal tour de force by Caeleb Dressel.

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The downside for the women—just three golds—stems from the second part of the equation referenced above. The competition was much better in 2021 than it had been in ’16 or ’12.

That primarily means you, Australia.

After consecutive underperforming Olympics in the pool, the world’s second-best swimming country got its act together in a big way. Emma McKeon won the most medals of any swimmer here, collecting seven (four gold, three bronze); Kaylee McKeown swept the backstroke events; the Aussies won two of three women’s relays; and Ariarne Titmus had two gold and two silver and became the first woman to defeat Ledecky in an Olympic event—an epic 400 freestyle duel that was the best race of the meet until the women’s 800 relay.

Great Britain was the other breakthrough nation at the pool, winning a record eight medals. Breaststroker Adam Peaty has led a new wave of talent from that country, which looms as another threat to American dominance.

To repeat a phrase that has often been attached to Olympic basketball: the rest of the world is getting better. They’re taking aim at the U.S., training to beat Americans, with the internet serving as a great way to learn from and emulate those who are most successful.

Yet even with all advances, the Australian women won five fewer medals than the Americans and the entire team won 10 fewer. And Britain’s only medal that featured any members of the women’s team came in the mixed medley relay.

The world still has some work to do to close the daylight between it and America in the pool. And while it’s doing that work, the U.S. won’t be standing still.

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