U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials: men’s event-by-event previews

TYR Pro Swim Series at Des Moines
Getty Images
1 Comment

For the first time since 1996, Michael Phelps will not swim at the U.S. Olympic Trials that start Sunday. New stars emerged since his 2016 retirement — none bigger on the men’s side than Caeleb Dressel — while a few of his old teammates look for one more trip to the Games.

Start with Dressel. He swam in one individual event in Rio (finishing sixth), plus earned two relay golds, after his sophomore year at the University of Florida. Then in 2017, he won a Phelps record-tying seven gold medals at the world championships (two in mixed-gender relays that weren’t on the program in Phelps’ heyday).

The Phelps comparisons came fast and furious, but Dressel swims mostly different individual events and has made it clear that he is not chasing the Baltimore Bullet’s records. If all goes well at Trials, Dressel could swim seven events at the Tokyo Games, one shy of the Phelpsian eight from the 2008 Beijing Games.

The spotlight at Trials will also be on one of Dressel’s training partners in Gainesville — 36-year-old Ryan Lochte, bidding to become the oldest U.S. Olympic male swimmer in history. Lochte, a 12-time Olympic medalist, was suspended after Rio for his gas-station incident in Brazil. Then banned again in 2018 for a social media blunder.

SWIMMING TRIALS: Women’s Preview | TV Schedule

Since Rio, Lochte also got married, became a father of two, gained at least 30 pounds and shed them. He moved from Charlotte to California, then back to his old college town in Florida, entered a six-week alcohol addiction rehab stint and won the 2019 U.S. title in the 200m individual medley (at a meet that lacked top Olympic hopefuls).

Lochte, the world’s best swimmer a decade ago, is a contender to make the team in one event — the 200m individual medley — but still an underdog.

Elsewhere, Ryan Murphy, who swept the backstrokes in Rio, will look this summer to regain the title of world’s best after being beaten at world championships. And to extend the U.S. streak of winning every Olympic men’s backstroke title dating to 1996. But first he must finish in the top two in each event in Omaha, just like everybody else who has eyes on Tokyo.

The U.S. program is looking for new talent to emerge, given Dressel was the lone American man to win an individual world title in 2019 (granted he bagged four of them). Potential first-time Olympians include Michael AndrewShaine Casas, Carson Foster and Kieran Smith, who all may become very familiar names next week.

All that in mind, an event-by-event look at the U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials men’s events in chronological order:

400m Individual Medley (Trials final June 13)
Rio Olympians: Chase Kalisz (silver), Jay Litherland (fifth)
2019 World Championships: Litherland (silver), Kalisz (10th)
2021 U.S. Leaders: Carson Foster (4:11.13), Kalisz (4:13.64), Litherland (4:14.94)

The Waffle House-loving Kalisz and Litherland made up the U.S. team in Rio and at worlds in 2017 and 2019. Foster, a 19-year-old, rising University of Texas sophomore, took 2.26 seconds off his personal best in May to shoot up to No. 1 in the nation this year. Kalisz hasn’t been that fast since 2018, nor Litherland since 2019. But Litherland’s time from 2019 Worlds is fastest among Americans since the start of 2019 by 1.91 seconds.

400m Freestyle (Trials final June 13)
Rio Olympians: Conor Dwyer (fourth), Connor Jaeger (fifth)
2019 World Championships: Zane Grothe (eighth), Grant Shoults (25th)
2021 U.S. Leaders: Kieran Smith (3:47.71), Jake Magahey (3:48.56), Chris Wieser (3:50.26)

The lone men’s swimming event where the U.S. struck out of the medals at all of the 2016 Olympics, 2017 Worlds and 2019 Worlds. Dwyer and Jaeger retired. New vigor is sorely needed. Enter Smith, 21, and Magahey and Jake Mitchell, both 19. They’ll challenge Grothe, the fastest American in 2017, 2018, 2019 and 2020. Note that only Grothe so far has the Olympic international qualifying standard of 3:46.78.

100m Breaststroke (Trials final June 14)
Rio Olympians: Cody Miller (bronze), Kevin Cordes (fourth)
2019 World Championships: Andrew Wilson (sixth), Michael Andrew (19th)
2021 U.S. Leaders: Andrew (58.67), Nic Fink (59.52), Wilson (1:00.06)

Cordes, Andrew, Miller and Wilson are the four fastest Americans in history. Cordes set the American record in 2017 and ranks seventh in the nation this year. Andrew, who eight years ago turned pro at age 14, swam the second-fastest time in American history last month. Miller, who has 159,000 YouTube subscribers, struggled in the middle of the Olympic cycle with knee injuries. Wilson, set to retire after this summer to study mathematical modeling and scientific computing at Oxford, was the fastest American in 2018 and 2019.

200m Freestyle (Trials final June 15)
Rio Olympians: Conor Dwyer (bronze), Townley Haas (fifth)
2019 World Championships: Haas (14th), Andrew Seliskar (15th)
2021 U.S. Leaders: Kieran Smith (1:46.30), Seliskar (1:47.01), Jake Magahey (1:47.30)

The U.S. hasn’t had a world top 10 swimmer in this event since 2018 and will be an underdog in the 4x200m free relay come Tokyo after taking gold at the last four Olympics with Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte. Caeleb Dressel ranks fourth in the U.S. this year and 12th since the start of 2019 in the 200m free, which is not one of his primary events. He is already expected to make the Olympic team and swim in the 50m and 100m frees, 100m butterfly and three other relays in Tokyo. Dressel could post a strong 200m free time in a preliminary heat at Trials, or at the pre-Olympic training camp, to be in the mix for the 4x200m, a potential seventh event.

100m Backstroke (Trials final June 15)
Rio Olympians: Ryan Murphy (gold), David Plummer (bronze)
2019 World Championships: Murphy (fourth), Matt Grevers (fifth)
2021 U.S. Leaders: Murphy (52.95), Justin Ress (53.00), Shaine Casas (53.26)

Murphy, the world-record holder, has been the fastest American six of the last seven years. Grevers, the 2012 Olympic gold medalist, is bidding to make it at age 36, but is an underdog ranked seventh in the nation this year. Casas, a rising Texas A&M senior, is the second-ranked American if you take times from the start of 2019.

200m Butterfly (Trials final June 16)
Rio Olympians: Michael Phelps (gold), Tom Shields (20th)
2019 World Championships: Zach Harting (sixth), Justin Wright (18th)
2021 U.S. Leaders: Trenton Julian (1:55.77), Brooks Fail (1:56.18), Chase Kalisz (1:56.90)

The first Olympic Trials without Phelps swimming the 200m fly since 1996. Luca Urlando, 19 and the grandson of an Italian Olympic hammer thrower, is the fastest American since the start of 2019 by a whopping 1.42 seconds. He ranks fourth in the nation this year after being sidelined in early 2020 after a shoulder dislocation. Julian’s mom, Kristine Quance, won 4x100m medley relay gold at the 1996 Atlanta Games and returned from giving birth to Julian to compete at the 2000 Olympic Trials.

PODCAST: Nathan Adrian talks cancer battle on ‘My New Favorite Olympian’

800m Freestyle (Trials final June 17)
Rio Olympians: None (Olympic debut in Tokyo!)
2019 World Championships: Zane Grothe (11th), Jordan Wilimovsky (16th)
2021 U.S. Leaders: Wilimovsky (7:54.44), Bobby Finke (7:55.05), Will Gallant (7:57.55)

Wilimovsky eyes the same feat he pulled off in 2016 — make the U.S. Olympic team in the open-water 10km and the pool. He already checked off the former for Tokyo. When going back to the start of 2019, Finke is the fastest American by 2.18 seconds over Wilimovsky. While Katie Ledecky has won every Olympic and world title in this event since 2012, a U.S. man last made the podium at worlds in 2013. Kieran Smith may be a factor here, though the Florida Gator’s best distances are the 200m and 400m.

200m Breaststroke (Trials final June 17)
Rio Olympians: Josh Prenot (silver), Kevin Cordes (eighth)
2019 World Championships: Andrew Wilson (sixth), Josh Prenot (13th)
2021 U.S. Leaders: Daniel Roy (2:09.48), Nic Fink (2:09.73), Will Licon (2:09.78)

Roy, a Japan-born Stanford swimmer, was the fastest American in 2020 and on May 21 swam the 200m breast for the first time this year, posting another nation-leading time. Stanford has at times dominated women’s swimming over the last decade, but no Stanford male swimmer to made a U.S. Olympic team since Ben Wildman-Tobriner in 2008. Prenot ranks fourth in the nation since the start of 2019 and ninth this year.

100m Freestyle (Trials final June 17)
Rio Olympians: Nathan Adrian (bronze), Caeleb Dressel (sixth)
2019 World Championships: Dressel (gold), Blake Pieroni (fourth)
2021 U.S. Leaders: Dressel (48.00), Ryan Held (48.68), Adrian (48.74)

Dressel, the second-fastest 100m freestyler in history, starts the first of his primary events on the fourth day of Trials. The battle appears to be for second place. Adrian, the 2012 Olympic champion by .01, bids for a fourth Olympics and his first since announcing a testicular cancer diagnosis in January 2019. Though Adrian is ranked high this year, he is eighth among Americans since the start of 2019. Remember, it’s likely that the top six make the team for the relay. Adrian has been on the 4x100m free, and usually anchored, at every major international meet since the 2008 Beijing Games. He swam prelims in China and received his gold medal in a vacuum-sealed packet at a team meeting after Jason Lezak overtook Alain Bernard.

200m Backstroke (Trials final June 18)
Rio Olympians: Ryan Murphy (gold), Jacob Pebley (fifth)
2019 World Championships: Murphy (silver), Pebley (sixth)
2021 U.S. Leaders: Murphy (1:56.06), Shaine Casas (1:56.81), Bryce Mefford (1:58.16)

Murphy is the world-record holder at 100m, but he’s been more dominant domestically at 200m, posting the nation’s fastest time seven years running. Last week, Pebley announced he will not swim at Trials, citing mental health in detail. That means that Casas and Austin Katz are the only men in the field who have been within two seconds of Murphy since the start of 2019. No Americans have been within 1.3 seconds of Casas and Katz in that time.

200m Individual Medley (Trials final June 18)
Rio Olympians: Michael Phelps (gold), Ryan Lochte (fifth)
2019 World Championships: Chase Kalisz (bronze), Abrahm DeVine (eighth)
2021 U.S. Leaders: Michael Andrew (1:56.84), Kalisz (1:57.52), Andrew Seliskar (1:58.06)

Phelps and Lochte made up the U.S. Olympic team in this event in 2004, 2008, 2012 and 2016. Lochte, the world-record holder, hopes for a fifth trip, but he ranks ninth in the U.S. this year and fifth since the start of 2019. His focus at Trials may be solely on this event, while contenders Kalisz, Andrew and Carson Foster may have already made the Olympic team in other events by the time the 200m IM rolls around.

100m Butterfly (Trials final June 19)
Rio Olympians: Michael Phelps (silver), Tom Shields (seventh)
2019 World Championships: Caeleb Dressel (gold), Jack Conger (11th)
2021 U.S. Leaders: Michael Andrew (50.80), Dressel (51.15), Shields (51.55)

Dressel broke Phelps’ world record at the 2019 Worlds and has been 1.18 seconds faster than any other American since the start of 2019. Andrew could swim this, but it’s not one of his primary events (100m breast, 200m IM and 50m free). The 100m fly semifinals are in the same session as the 200m IM final. The 100m fly final is in the same session as the 50m free semis. If Andrew passes, then things could really open up. Maxime Rooney, Dressel’s former Florida teammate, ranks second since the start of 2019 but eighth this year.

50m Freestyle (Trials final June 20)
Rio Olympians: Anthony Ervin (gold), Nathan Adrian (bronze)
2019 World Championships: Caeleb Dressel (gold), Michael Andrew (sixth)
2021 U.S. Leaders: Ryan Held (21.62), Dressel (21.82), David Curtiss (21.87)

Dressel won the 2019 World title in the third-fastest time in history (21.04). The 50m free can be fickle, but he’s a strong favorite here as in the 100m free and 100m fly. Ervin, who won the 2000 Olympic title at 19 and the 2016 Olympic title at 35 (oldest Olympic swimming champion ever), is the oldest swimmer entered at Trials at 40. Ervin said in 2018 that his goal was to make the Tokyo Olympic Trials final to shake the hands of the men who qualify for the Olympic team. He’s ranked outside the top 20 in the nation this year.

1500m Freestyle (Trials final June 20)
Rio Olympians: Connor Jaeger (silver), Jordan Wilimovsky (fourth)
2019 World Championships: Wilimovsky (11th), Zane Grothe (26th)
2021 U.S. Leaders: Bobby Finke (15:09.91), Grothe (15:10.29), Wilimovsky (15:10.44)

After Jaeger retired, the U.S. put no men into the world championships finals in 2017 and 2019. Finke, yet another University of Florida swimmer contending to make the Olympic team, was the fastest American in 2019, 2020 and so far in 2021.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!