2021 Olympics Fan Guide: Everything you need to know about swimming

Photo by Adam Pretty/Getty Images
Photo by Adam Pretty/Getty Images /

Swimming will get underway on Day 1 of the 2021 Olympics in Tokyo, with more than 900 athletes from all around the world ready to race.

Here are the key details you need to know about the swimming competition ahead of the Tokyo 2021 Olympic Games.

2021 Olympics: Swimmers to know

With 37 medal events including relays, it’s likely we’ll see dozens of swimmers who win multiple Olympic medals in Tokyo. The United States typically finishes with more medals in the pool than any other country, so there should be no shortage of Americans stepping up onto the podium in Tokyo. However, two members of Team USA are projected to stand out from all the rest: Katie Ledecky and Caeleb Dressel.

Katie Ledecky

Katie Ledecky heads into her third Olympics having already won five Olympic gold medals along with a silver in Rio. She’s swimming four individual events – the 200, 400, 800 and 1500 m freestyle – and will presumably also be involved in both women’s freestyle relays for Team USA.

Already a ‘veteran’ swimmer at 24 years old, Ledecky will be the defending champion in three individual events, including the 800 m freestyle which she won by more than 10 seconds. Her fourth event, the 1500 m freestyle, has finally been added to the women’s Olympic swimming program. Ledecky owns the 10 fastest swims in history in that event, so you can guess who the favorite is. With a potential six more medals to add to her collection, Ledecky could surpass Jenny Thompson as the female American Olympian with the most gold medals (8) of all time.

Caeleb Dressel

It’s not easy to be the heir apparent to Michael Phelps in men’s Olympic swimming. Caeleb Dressel may be the most reluctant of swimming stars — he told the Associated Press he’d “rather just shut up and swim.”  But with 13 World Championship titles to his name and six or seven events on the docket for Tokyo 2021, the comparisons to the Baltimore Bullet were almost inevitable.

Dressel won two relay gold medals alongside Phelps at Rio 2016. This time, with Phelps enjoying retirement, the spotlight awaits for the 24-year-old Floridian. He is the reigning World Champion in all three of his individual events (50 and 100 m freestyle, 100 m butterfly) and will also be a medal contender in any of the three or four Team USA relays he’s added to. Dressel is ready to put everything on the line in Tokyo – he even swam the morning of his wedding in February so he wouldn’t miss a day in the water.

2021 Olympics: Swimming records in jeopardy

At any given Olympics, multiple swimming world records tend to get broken. It’s the pinnacle of the sport, after all. There are few world records that we’d list as truly “untouchable” heading into Tokyo 2021. However, we’ll be most curious to see how many of the 12 world records set in 2009 or earlier will finally fall this summer. 2009 was the last year the sports governing body, FINA, allowed full-body polyurethane swimsuits that made swimmers exceptionally hydrodynamic and, well, crazy fast.

Ten of those remaining pre-2010 records are on the men’s side, including the 50, 100, 200, 400, and 800 m freestyle and all three men’s relays. There’s also the 200 m backstroke, held by American Aaron Piersol, and Michael Phelps 2008 Olympic winning time in the 400 m individual medley.

On the women’s side, the oldest two world records in the books are in the 200 m freestyle and 200 m butterfly. Those were set by Italy’s Federica Pellegrini and China’s Lie Zige, respectively. Ariarne Titmus came oh-so-close to taking down Pellegrini’s record at the Australian Olympic Trials in June, so there’s a good chance at least one of these world records gets broken.

2021 Olympics: The peak swimming experience

In any sport that involves a race, there’s nothing more exciting than a photo finish. Olympic swimming is full of them. Even casual observers can probably recall Michael Phelps edging out Milorad Cavic for a 0.01-second victory in the 100 m butterfly at Beijing 2008. A thrilling moment in and of itself, Phelps getting his fingertips on the wall ahead of the Serb kept the dream of eight gold medals in one Games alive. We all know how that ended.

In Rio, two women tied for Olympic gold in the 100 m freestyle for the first time in history. Canada’s Penny Oleksiak and USA’s Simone Manuel shared the top of the podium with a finishing time of 52.70, an Olympic record. Sweden’s Sarah Sjostrom took the bronze in 52.99.

Truthfully, though, Olympic swimming is at its peak during relay events. There’s something about a team event that gets individual swimmers going even faster. There’s national pride on the line, and frequent lead changes make relays extra exciting to watch. Plus, there will be an extra layer of strategy involved with the mixed relay events added to the swimming schedule for Tokyo 2021. There are always two men and two women on each mixed relay team, but who goes when is entirely up to each country. Queue the drama!

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