American swimming fans knew coming to the 2021 Tokyo Olympics that there were some swimmers they could count on for medals.
There was Katie Ledecky, the most successful female swimmer of all time. There was Caeleb Dressel, the fastest sprinter in the world. There was Ryan Murphy, who won both races on the backstroke at the 2016 Olympics. There was Simone Manuel, one of the most dominant freestyle swimmers in the world. And there was Lilly King, world record holder in the 100 meter breaststroke and reigning Olympic gold medalist in the race.
But each year, new talents cycle and help the United States in its quest to earn more medals than any other nation in swimming. This year, especially with swimmers like Michael Phelps, Ryan Lochte, Maya DiRado and Missy Franklin not on the American list, there were several new swimmers who won medals for the United States.
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Sporting News takes a look at the swimmers who made their mark at their first Olympics:
Michael Andrew missed out on reaching the Olympics when he was 17 at the 2016 Olympic Trials, but more than made up for it in the 2021 Trials. He was beaten only by Dressel in the 50-meter freestyle to earn a place in the race. , and then ranked as the best swimmer in both the 100 breaststroke and the 200 individual medley. The 22-year-old continued that successful run to the 2021 Tokyo Olympics, finishing third overall in his 100 breaststroke semifinal series to earn fifth seed in the final. He finished fourth in the final race, 1.47 seconds behind now two-time gold medalist and world record holder Adam Peaty.
Andrew later reached the final in the singles team as the fourth seeded and finally placed fifth with 1: 57.31. Andrew also reached the final in the 50s freestyle and finished fourth with 21.60, just 0.53 behind Dressel. He ultimately picked up that first medal when he swam the breaststroke in the men’s 4×100 medley relay and helped deliver a world record and gold medal to the USA in 3: 27.28.
The University of Virginia placed two women on the United States Olympic swimming team: Kate Douglass and Alex Walsh. Douglass earned second place on the team in the 200 individual medley, but from there, the two swimmers exchanged fastest times. Douglass came out of the preliminaries with the best time of 2: 09.16 and maintained his seed heading into the final with a time of 2: 09.21 in the second semi-final.
Douglass got off to a quick start in the 200 singles medley final by sitting in second place after the first 50 meters, but fell to sixth on his back. He moved up to third position at the end to win bronze, one place behind Walsh and 0.52 behind Japan’s Yui Ohashi for gold.
The men’s Olympic roster has never featured the 800 freestyle until this year. American Bobby Finke entered the race with the 12th fastest entry time of 7: 47.58 and without a major international medal to his name. That didn’t stop Florida Gator from scoring a time of 7: 41.87 to win the gold medal in the 800 freestyle, despite not even being in the top three swimmers after the last inning.
That gold wasn’t enough for Finke. He also ran the 1500 freestyle and again bided his time until he was ready to attack. Despite being in third place for most of the race, he climbed to second with 50 meters to go and posted a 25.78 50 split on his final leg to win his second gold. He finished in 14: 39.65, more than a second over Ukraine’s Mykhailo Romanchuk, who won silver. Finke is just 21 years old, and as the best male distance swimmer in the United States, he should be fit to compete in these events again in 2024.
An Alaskan swimmer had never qualified for the Olympics before until 17-year-old Lydia Jacoby entered the team in the 100 breaststroke as the second American at the event. It didn’t help Jacoby to be joined on the team by world record holder and reigning gold medalist at the event, Lilly King. That didn’t stop him from making his mark, setting the second best time in the race preliminaries and the third best time in the semi-finals. When it came time to compete in the final, Jacoby fell behind King and South African Tatjana Schoenmaker, but was late to pass both swimmers and win the gold medal with 1: 04.95.
Jacoby capped off her Olympics competing in the 4×100 mixed relay, losing her glasses in the process, before putting the United States in first place during her breaststroke division in the women’s 4×100 medley relay. That unit eventually finished with silver, just 0.13 behind Australia. She will be 20 years old when the Summer Games return, so look forward to seeing her return with the opportunity to add more medals to her name.
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Another star swimmer from the University of Florida, Kieran Smith, took the top spots on Team USA in the 200 and 400 freestyle races, making the most of his time in Tokyo. He shone on the first day of swimming when, in the 400 freestyle, he earned a place in the final. Swimming out of lane 7, he shot to third place overall with a time of 3: 43.93 to win bronze and just 0.58 to win gold.
On a difficult 200-man freestyle course, Smith placed second in the second semi-final only behind Great Britain star Duncan Scott and ultimately took second place in the event’s Olympic final. He finished sixth overall in the final, but with a time of 1: 45.12, he was just 0.90 seconds behind Britain’s Tom Dean, who won gold. Smith also opened the United States’ 4×200 freestyle relay and put the team in first place with a division of 1: 44.74, although the relay finished fourth.
The big break for Regan Smith came at the 2019 World Water Sports Championships, when she set world records in both 100 and 200 breaststroke, although the former has been eliminated. But this was the biggest stage Smith has ever been on, and the 19-year-old Minnesota producer made her mark on the games. Smith won his first Olympic medal with a silver in the butterfly 200 and added a bronze in the 100 backstroke; did not qualify in the US Olympic Trials for the 100 backstroke.
Smith also opened the women’s 4×100 medley relay and helped propel the unit to a fast start at the back. He picked up the silver medal in that race when the unit finished second with 3: 51.73. She is already an immensely accomplished teen swimmer and will give American women a dominant back and butterfly swimmer for years to come.
Ledecky is still the best 1500 freestyle swimmer in the world, but Erica Sullivan proved on the Olympic stage that she can be with Ledecky in the mile race. Sullivan made the team when the event entered the Olympics for the first time; he swam the third fastest time in the preliminaries at 15: 46.67, just over 11 seconds behind Ledecky. But Sullivan only got stronger as he swam more in the event.
Racing in the final, he was in fifth place for most of the race until the 1,150 meter mark, when he moved up to fourth place. She continued to accelerate steadily, climbing to third place and finally finishing second in the race to take the silver medal. Her time of 15: 37.34 was about four seconds behind Ledecky’s mark and a second and a half ahead of third-place swimmer Amy Kohler from Germany. Sullivan will be a name to watch as the distant events unfold.
Alex Walsh has stayed close to his UVA teammate in the 200 singles medley since the Olympic Trials. Walsh barely edged Douglass at 2: 09.30 to 2: 09.32 to earn the top spot on the team. Walsh won a swim in the semifinals after posting the third fastest time in the preliminaries with 2: 09.94. In the semi-final, he swam at 2: 09.57 to earn the best time in his series and earn third place overall in the final race. Racing in the lane above Douglass, Walsh had the lead at one point in the race before Ohashi won the freestyle stage to finish in 2: 08.52, but Walsh was only 0.13 behind the gold medal time and won the silver.
Another impressive 19-year-old for the United States, Emma Weyant surprised many at the Olympic Trials when she beat three 2016 Olympic swimmers to win first place in the 400 women’s individual medley. She backed up that performance by swimming the fastest time in the preliminaries with 4: 33.55 to win the seed heading into the Olympic final. Weyant was narrowly beaten in the final by Ohashi with 4: 32.08 to 4: 32.76, but she put more than 2 seconds between her and her teammate Hali Flickinger, who won the bronze medal on her second trip to the Olympics. She joins the wide variety of versatile American swimmers that the US can expect to compete for Olympic gold in 2024.
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.