Six gold medals? Seven gold medals? U.S. swim stars may be busy at Tokyo Olympics in 2021

Katie Ledecky, Simone Manuel
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A little over a month ago, NBC Olympics swimming analyst Rowdy Gaines left a Tyr Pro Series meet in Des Moines, Iowa, flabbergasted at what he just witnessed.

Regan Smith swam the sixth-fastest 100m backstroke in history. Katie Ledecky recorded her fourth-fastest 200m freestyle. National team veterans Michael Andrew, Madisyn Cox and Melanie Margalis took chunks off personal bests.

“I couldn’t believe that three, four months out of the potential Olympic Trials that swimmers were going that fast,” Gaines said.

Swimmers are often in heavy training in the winter and spring, aiming to taper and peak for major summer meets.

“Everybody was locked and loaded, and I think this had the potential to be a great U.S. team,” Gaines said. “Now, one year is not going to make that big of a difference, but there was certainly a lot of focus going into trials.”

The Olympics and the trials were postponed a year. The major swimming storylines set for this June and July — Ledecky bidding to sweep the 200m through 1500m freestyles, Simone Manuel going for a potential six gold medals, Caeleb Dressel looking at up to seven golds and Ryan Lochte trying to make a fifth Olympics — must stew.

For Ledecky, a question about her sprint speed was answered with that 200m free in Des Moines. The greatest distance swimmer in history was beaten in the 200m free at the biggest meets of 2017 and 2018 and withdrew at 2019 Worlds due to a stomach virus.

With the addition of the 1500m free to the Olympic program — with the final in the same session as the 200m free — Gaines said there had been whispers that Ledecky might not race the shorter distance at trials.

“Talk from a lot of people, except for Katie and [her coach] Greg [Meehan],” Gaines said. “There was no way she was going to [not race the 200m], and there’s no way she’s going to not do that next summer. She’s not that kind of swimmer. And the 200m free [in Des Moines] was sort of the stamp on any of those rumors.”

Ledecky’s time in Des Moines — 1:54.59, again, at a meet where she wasn’t in peak form — would have placed second at last summer’s worlds. Ledecky’s winning time from the Rio Olympics — 1:53.73 — is faster than any swimmer has recorded in this Olympic cycle.

Ledecky’s training partner and former Stanford teammate Manuel could next summer become the second woman to win six gold medals at a single Games. Manuel earned golds in Rio in the 100m freestyle and medley relay.

She’s only sped up since. Manuel won five events at the 2017 Worlds and seven medals at the 2019 Worlds. Her biggest threats in Tokyo: Australians, who swept the women’s freestyle relays at worlds, and Swede Sarah Sjöström, the world-record holder in the 50m and 100m free.

Dressel’s potential Olympic slate nearly mirrors that of Manuel — the same six events, plus the 100m butterfly to potentially match Mark Spitz‘s gold haul from 1972 and one shy of Michael Phelps‘ record from 2008. The 23-year-old Floridian took seven golds at the 2017 Worlds and six golds at the 2019 Worlds while swimming eight events, including two that aren’t on the Olympic program.

Like with Manuel, Gaines sees Dressel’s biggest challenge coming from Down Under. Specifically Olympic champion Kyle Chalmers in the 100m free and a foursome in the 4x200m free relay, which Dressel didn’t swim at worlds.

Lochte would be satisfied with one medal in Tokyo. That would mean he defied the odds, returning from two suspensions to make a fifth Olympics (at age 36). And that he broke his tie with Natalie CoughlinJenny Thompson and Dara Torres for the second-most Olympic swimming medals (currently 12) behind Phelps’ 28. (Phelps, by the way, becomes eligible for the Olympics again with the one-year postponement, giving him until December to re-enter a drug-testing pool if he changes his mind, though he has been adamant in sticking to retirement this time.)

Lochte’s best chance to make the team is in the 200m IM, although it will be harder in 2021 than in 2020, Gaines said.

“I wouldn’t say it’s his one and only shot, but it’s his best shot for sure,” Gaines said. Lochte ranks fifth among Americans in the event since the start of 2019 and must finish in the top two at trials.

He could also try to finish top six in the 200m free to make the 4x200m free relay, but Gaines sees a crop of young swimmers ready to throw down in 2021.

“They’re all going to go 1:45, 1:46,” he said. “I just don’t know if Ryan has that in him.”

If the Olympic postponement makes it tougher for Lochte, it should benefit younger swimmers whose peaks may be years away.

Such as Luca Urlando, who last year broke Phelps’ national age group record in the 200m butterfly for 17- and 18-year-olds. Urlando dislocated his left shoulder swimming in January.

Gaines also listed medley swimmer Carson Foster, freestyler Kieran Smith and Shaine Casas, a breakout performer in several events in the abbreviated NCAA season. For the women: teens Alex and Gretchen Walsh (freestyle), Phoebe Bacon (backstroke), Torri Huske (butterfly) and Emma Weyant (medleys).

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