Swimming Success: American Swimmers Conclude Competition With Dominant Performances And 30 Olympic Medals
by Peggy Shinn
Regan Smith competes in the women's 100m backstroke at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 on July 27, 2021 in Tokyo.
TOKYO — Swimming concluded yesterday at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 with Team USA winning 30 medals — 11 gold, 10 silver, and 9 bronze — in the pool.
The tally was 10 more than Australia, which had one of its best Olympic Games ever, and 22 more than Great Britain, the Brits had a breakout meet here in Tokyo (their men’s 4x200 freestyle and mixed medley relay teams both won gold, the first time the British had finished on the relay podium in 41 years).
— Team USA (@TeamUSA) July 29, 2021
Although the medal count fell short of the 33 medals and 16 golds that U.S. swimmers won at the Olympic Games Rio 2016 Rio, American athletes and coaches alike declared Tokyo a success.
“We got a really, really strong showing with a little less experienced team that we’ve had at the Olympic Games in the past,” said women’s head coach Greg Meehan. “We had two medalists in six different individual events, which is a lot.”
Notably, most of the 11 teenagers on the team won medals in Tokyo, including breakout stars Lydia Jacoby (age 17) who won gold the 100-meter breaststroke, then added a silver medal in the medley relay, and Regan Smith (age 19), who brings home three medals, two from individual events (bronze in the 100 backstroke and silver in the 200 butterfly).
— Team USA (@TeamUSA) July 27, 2021
On the men’s side, the Americans were dubbed underdogs coming to Tokyo. The team had many rookies, and a few of the veterans had not won international races since Rio.
But from the first event — the men’s 400 individual medley — the team gave an indication of what was to come. Georgia teammates Chase Kalisz and Jay Litherland went 1-2 in the 400 IM. Then on the final day, rookie Bobby Finke gave a lesson in closing speed to win the men’s 1,500 freestyle — his second gold medal and first in the 1,500 since 1984.
On the final day, the men’s 4x100 medley relay summed up the experience for the men. Swimming in lane 1 — an outside lane where the slower qualifiers swim — they only relinquished the lead once. Then Caeleb Dressel, having one of the best meets of his life, pulled the team back into the lead in the butterfly, with Zach Apple anchoring the team to gold, pulling himself out of the slump he fell into mid-week.
“Bobby Finke doing the distance double was awesome,” said men’s head coach Dave Durden. “Caeleb taking care of the sprint events, winning the butterfly and setting world records [in the butterfly and medley relay], it was a great way for us to finish the week.”
— Team USA (@TeamUSA) July 29, 2021
Katie Ledecky reacts after winning the gold medal in the 800m freestyle at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 on July 31, 2021 in Tokyo.
Both Katie Ledecky and Dressel lived up to expectations. For the first time at an Olympic Games, Ledecky faced tough competition. Australian Ariarne Titmus beat the American freestyler in the 400 freestyle, but in winning the silver medal, Ledecky swam her fastest 400 free since she set the world record in Rio five years ago.
Although Ledecky came up short in the 200 freestyle — an event that she won in Rio but finished fifth in Tokyo, with Titmus taking her second Olympic gold medal — she rebounded and swam one of her fastest 200 freestyle relay legs in the 4x200 free relay. She almost caught China and held off the favored Australians, delivering a silver medal to the U.S. women.
Ledecky did not disappoint in the 1,500 freestyle either, winning gold. In the 800, she held off a charging Titmus and won that event for the third consecutive time.
Ledecky now has 10 Olympic medals, seven of them gold. In total gold medals won, she trails only Larisa Latynina (Soviet gymnast who won 9 Olympic gold medals between 1956-1964), Marit Bjoergen (Norwegian cross-country skier with eight Olympic golds), and American swimmer Jenny Thompson, also with 8 golds. And Ledecky plans to continue at least through the 2024 Paris Games.
Although Ledecky won fewer medals than in Rio, she swam almost twice as far in Tokyo. In 2016, she competed 3,300 meters to win five Olympic medals. With the addition of the 1,500 freestyle to the women’s program in 2020, she swam 6,200 competition meters this time.
“Those prelims add up,” Ledecky quipped, of all the heats swimmers must do before the finals of each race.
It was an Olympic load that no woman has ever attempted. Even when Michael Phelps won eight Olympic gold medals at the 2008 Games, he “only” swam 3,300 meters.
“She managed an Olympic load that she's never done before, that nobody's ever done before,” said Meehan, who has coached Ledecky at Stanford for the past five years. “I'm just really proud of her to be in that place where she can give it her all for Team USA because she loves Team USA, she loves competing at the Olympics for Team USA.”
Caeleb Dressel, Michael Andrew, Ryan Murphy and Zach Apple during the medal ceremony of the ,en's 4x100m medley relay at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 on Aug. 1, 2021 in Tokyo.
Dressel also put his name in the history books in Tokyo, winning every race he entered except the mixed medley relay, and setting records almost every time he dove into the pool (two world records in the 100 butterfly and the men’s 4x100 medley relay, and two Olympic records in the 50 and 100 freestyles).
After winning seven world titles in 2017, then six in 2019, he had come to Tokyo with the heavy weight of expectations on his muscular shoulders. He had told himself that the pressure would not be any different than at world championships. But he learned that the Olympic Games is a different animal. The eyes of the world are on Olympic swimmers just once every four years.
— Team USA (@TeamUSA) August 1, 2021
“You have to be so perfect in that moment, especially when we have an extra year, a five-year build-up, I mean a 24-year build up, whatever you want to call it,” he said. “To be perfect, there's so much pressure in one moment. Your whole life boils down to a moment that could take 20 or 40 seconds. How crazy is that?”
Crazy as it was, Dressel was perfect. Better than perfect. He has never won any Olympic medal except gold. And he now trails only Phelps, Mark Spitz, and Matt Biondi in the gold-medal tally.
For all the glory, the U.S. did face disappointment. Americans finished fourth in six races, including the men’s 4x200 freestyle relay. It was the first time since the event was added to the Olympic program in 1960 that the U.S. did not make the medal stand.
— Team USA (@TeamUSA) July 31, 2021
Even more astonishing, the U.S. finished fifth in the Olympic debut of the mixed medley relay. It was, most claimed, a question of the lineup. While every team in the final put a male swimmer in the breaststroke leg — the slowest of the four strokes — the U.S. chose Jacoby, who lost her goggles when she dove into the pool. She still swam a time comparable to her gold-medal-winning performance in the women’s breaststroke. But going against the likes of Britain’s Adam Peaty, the best male breaststroker in the world, the U.S. swimmers were set back by a larger percentage than the other countries. Anchoring the relay, Dressel dove in last. But even a swimming god like Dressel couldn’t catch everyone.
“We were disappointed we didn’t walk away with a medal but certainly not for those who have given their very best,” said Coach Durden. “That's on us as coaches to get better as we move forward to the next [mixed medley relay].”
Given the circumstances — that the athletes in Tokyo are competing in the middle of a pandemic, that the five-year “quad” between Olympic Games meant more veterans missed making the team, that the swimmers faced finals in the morning rather than the evening like they are accustomed to, that the international field is getting stronger — the U.S. swimmers did, in Durden’s words, “a phenomenal job.”
— Team USA (@TeamUSA) July 29, 2021
Perhaps even more important, the team functioned as just that — a team, cheering each other from the stands in the absence of friends and family. It is this teamwork that has always helped the Americans compete so well at the Olympic Games.
The team bonded during the pre-Olympic training camp in Hawaii, sitting in the hotel hallways playing games in the evenings, chatting during meals, getting through tough practices together.
“We don't become Team USA at the end of the meet, or when we're getting medals or setting world records,” explained Dressel. “We become Team USA when we’re teaching some of the girls to play poker, or getting food someplace in Hawaii together, making a coffee run. That's when we become Team USA.
“It's not the big moments that are caught on camera,” he added. “It’s the stuff you guys don't see. And that's what makes this team so unique and that's why I think we're so dominant.”
Want to follow Team USA athletes during the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020? Visit TeamUSA.org/Tokyo2020 to view the medal table, results and competition schedule.
An award-winning freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered six Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.