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Meet the Men On the U.S. Olympic Swim Team

by Peggy Shinn

When the U.S. men’s Olympic swimming team heads to Tokyo, it will be the first Olympic Games of the 21st century without Michael Phelps. But Team USA still has plenty of medal contenders.

After eight days of competition at the 2021 U.S. Olympic Team Trials — Swimming in Omaha’s CHI Health Center, established stars like Caeleb Dressel and Ryan Murphy made the team in at least two events. So did a flotilla of college swimmers and first-time Olympians who will likely make names for themselves in Tokyo. 

USA Swimming qualified 24 men for the pool and one open water swimmer for Tokyo. Here’s a look at who they are.

Olympic Medalists Returning for More

Gunnar Bentz: 200 butterfly

On his second Olympic team, 25-year-old Gunnar Bentz will have his first individual race to swim at an Olympic Games: the 200-meter butterfly. At the 2016 Rio Games, Bentz swam in the prelims of the 4x200 freestyle relay, winning a gold medal when Michael Phelps, Ryan Lochte, Townley Haas, and Conor Dwyer beat Britain in the finals.

He has not made an international team (long course) since Rio, but the University of Georgia graduate will be one of a handful of Olympic veterans on the U.S. team in Tokyo.

Caeleb Dressel: 50 and 100 freestyles, 100 butterfly, 4x100 freestyle relay

Since Michael Phelps retired from swimming after the 2016 Rio Games, Caeleb Dressel, 24, has been dubbed swimming’s next great. Having qualified in three individual events, Dressel is a favorite to win six Olympic medals in Tokyo — adding to the one gold medal he won in Rio as part of Team USA’s 4x100 freestyle team.

He won seven medals at the 2017 world championships, then an astonishing eight medals — a record-breaker — at 2019 worlds while setting a world record in the 100 butterfly. He concluded 2021 trials by winning the 50 freestyle and tying his American record in the event. Dressel is also the American record holder in the 100 freestyle, the world record holder in the 100 fly, and a reluctant, shy star.

Chase Kalisz: 200 and 400 IM

Coming to Olympic trials, Olympic silver medalist Chase Kalisz, 27, was listed as an outside favorite in the 400 IM. Although he was 400 IM world champion in 2017 — swimming the third fastest 400 IM time ever in that race — he struggled at 2019 world championships, not making the final.

Only those closest to Kalisz knew what was wrong. He had a shoulder injury and struggled to cope with it. The extra year caused by the Olympic postponement gave him the time he needed to recover physically and mentally. The former University of Georgia swimmer, who was mentored by Michael Phelps, now hopes to stand on the Olympic podium again in both the 200 and 400 IM.

Townley Haas: 200 freestyle and 4x200 freestyle relay

Townley Haas, 24, goes to Tokyo as an Olympic veteran, having competed in Rio in both the 200 and 4x200 free relays and winning two Olympic gold medals. A graduate of the University of Texas, where he was a 10-time NCAA champion, including six individual titles in the 200- and 500-yard freestyles,

Haas has been a fixture on the men’s freestyle relays since the 2016 Rio Games, where he swam the second leg in the fastest split of the entire field and helped the U.S. win a gold medal. From Richmond, Virginia, the talented freestyler will be looking for redemption in the 200 free in Tokyo after finishing fifth in the event in Rio — just 0.35 seconds from a medal. He won a silver medal in the event at the 2017 world championships but fell to 14th at 2019 worlds.

Ryan Murphy: 100 and 200 backstroke

After winning both backstroke races at Olympic trials, Ryan Murphy, now 25, will get a chance to defend his Olympic gold medals in the 100 and 200 backstrokes. A product of the University of California-Berkeley’s formidable backstroke squad, Murphy has become the face of men’s backstroke in the U.S. But his road since Rio has not been straight. After winning four gold medals in Rio, he returned to the University of California-Berkeley to finish his degree, with the goal of achieving a 3.5 GPA. Swimming fell down his priority list.

But then a disappointing swim at 2017 worlds rekindled his fire. But the twists in his career were not over. Coaching changes and experimentation with training led to another disappointing season in 2019. Now, Murphy is back on track and looking to keep the U.S. men’s backstroke streak alive in Tokyo; U.S. men have owned the 100 backstroke race at the Olympic Games since 1996.

Blake Pieroni: 4x100 freestyle relay

A stalwart of U.S. relay teams for the past five years, Blake Pieroni qualified for his second Olympic Games by finishing third in the 100-meter freestyle, sealing a spot on the free relay squad. The 25-year-old from Indiana — and graduate of Indiana University — won a gold medal in Rio after swimming the prelims of the men’s 4x100 freestyle relay.

At 2016 world championships, he swam the second leg of the 4x100 relay final, and the team went on to win the event. He also has five other world championship medals, all from relays. In Tokyo, the sprint freestyler will get a chance to shine in the 4x100 free relay final.

Tom Shields: 100 butterfly

Making his second Olympic team is a big victory for Tom Shields, 29, who went public last year about a suicide attempt. Since then, he has become outspoken about mental health and the effects of performance pressure on athletes.

Even after he qualified for his second Olympic team at 2021 trials, Shields spoke about the pressure of trials — both the elation and heartbreak. In Rio, Shields finished seventh in the 100 fly and 20th in the 200 fly, then won an Olympic gold medal in the men’s medley relay after swimming the prelims.

A standout Cal Bear from 2010-2013, Shields won multiple individual NCAA titles, including in the 100-yard butterfly, 100-yard backstroke, and 200-yard butterfly, and was heralded as a burgeoning star, even beating Michael Phelps on occasion in the 100 fly. Shields also won two gold medals at the 2019 Pan Am Games (100 fly and medley relay). His time in the 100 fly at 2021 trials was 51.19 — a hundredth of a second faster than his time at 2016 trials, when he finished second to Phelps. In 2021, Shields finished second to world record holder Caeleb Dressel.

Olympians Looking for Medals:

Jay Litherland: 400 IM

After finishing fifth in the 400-meter individual medley at the 2016 Rio Games, Jay Litherland, 25, will get another chance to win a medal in his signature event. Since the 2017 world championships, where Litherland — one of triplet brothers who all swam for the University of Georgia — finished fifth again in the 400 IM, he has had a taste of the podium.

At 2019 worlds, Litherland swam down favorite Daiya Seto from Japan. The American finished just 0.27 of a second behind Seto for the silver medal. Litherland’s closing freestyle in the 400 IM is formidable, and he hopes to stand on the podium again in Tokyo.

Jordan Wilimovsky: Open water swimming

Jordan Wilimovsky started swimming at age 9 after because he was declined admission to a summer camp due to his inability to swim a 1:50 in the 100-yard freestyle. The 27-year-old Californian has come a long way since then.

After finishing fifth in the 10-kilometer swim at the 2019 open water world championships, Wilimovsky was nominated to his second Olympic team. At the Rio Games, he finished fifth in the open water (or marathon) swim. A 2016 graduate of Northwestern University, Wilimovsky also tried to qualify for Tokyo in the pool but came up short, finishing third in the 1,500 freestyle and fourth in the 800.

First-Time Olympians

Michael Andrew: 50 freestyle, 100 breaststroke, and 200 IM

Known for his unique training method called Ultra Short Race Pace Training (USRPT) and coached by his parents, Michael Andrew has long been favored to make an Olympic team.

After all, he turned pro in 2013 at age 14. But he missed making the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team (finishing fourth in the 100-meter breaststroke), and he still remembers walking out of the arena after that disappointment.

The 22-year-old made a statement in his first race at the 2021 U.S. Olympic Team Trials, breaking the American record twice in the 100 breaststroke — first in prelims, then in the semifinals — then overcoming nerves to win the final by 0.01 of a second. Then he qualified in the 200 IM — a surprise for the swimmer once known as “the 50 guy” for his sprinting. Then he was the “50 guy” in the 50-meter freestyle, finishing second to Caeleb Dressel and adding a third even to his Olympic program in Tokyo.

Zach Apple: 100 freestyle, 4x100 freestyle and 4x200 freestyle relays

From Trenton, Ohio, Zach Apple, 24, did not start swimming year-round until he was 16 — playing other sports throughout the year (like soccer and basketball). But when he did focus on swimming, he quickly shot to the top.

At 2017 U.S. nationals, he won the 100-meter freestyle prelims against top dogs like Nathan Adrian and Caeleb Dressel. Apple ended up finishing fourth, booking himself a trip to his first world championships and winning his first international gold medal after swimming the prelims of the 4x100 free relay. Apple competed for Auburn University for three years, then transferred to Indiana University for his senior year, graduating in 2019.

At the 2019 world championships, he helped Team USA win two golds and a bronze in the freestyle relays. He’s also a five-time gold medalist from the 2019 World University Games, where he swam two individual events (100 and 200 freestyles) along with three relays. In his first Olympic Games in Tokyo, Apple will compete in the 100 free and both freestyle relays (he finished fifth in the 200 freestyle, which gives him a spot in the prelims of the longer free relay), likely adding more medals to his collection.

Nic Fink: 200 breaststroke

Nic Fink has been trying to make it to the Olympic Games for almost a decade. This time around, the 27-year-old from the Athens Bulldog Swim Club barely missed qualifying for Tokyo in the 100 breaststroke, so was relieved to win the 200 breaststroke by almost a half-body length over Bulldog teammate Andrew Wilson.

Fink’s girlfriend, 2016 Olympian Melanie Margalis, has helped him learn to go with the flow and realize that medals and results don’t define him. She finished fourth in the 200 IM at the 2016 Olympic Games, as well as in the 2017 and 2019 world championships. At 2021 U.S. Olympic Trials, Margalis missed making the team in the 400 IM by 0.12 seconds, and in the 200 IM by over two seconds.

“We've seen the highs of the sport, we've seen the lows of the sport,” said Fink. “Having all that experience really helps us get through the speed bumps.”

Zach Harting: 200 butterfly

Zach Harting made his first Olympic Team in 2021. But the 23-year-old brings plenty of international experience to the U.S. men’s team in Tokyo. He won the 200-meter butterfly at the 2018 Pan Pacs, swam the same event at the 2019 world championships (finishing sixth), and he’s a World University Games gold medalist (4x100 medley relay in 2017).

Harting also competed at 2016 U.S. Olympic Team Trials, making the 200 fly final and finishing seventh. From Huntsville, Alabama, Harting swam for the University of Louisville from 2015-2019 and is known for wearing a Batman costume on deck. Harting will bring levity to the team in Tokyo. As he said after the 200 fly: “I like to have fun. I like to make other people have fun, and I like to make other people laugh.”

Andrew Seliskar: 4x200 freestyle relay

A talented freestyler, Andrew Seliskar, 24, is one of the most decorated American swimmers who had yet to make a U.S. Olympic Team. Until 2021. From McLean, Virginia, he lit up the swimming world as a junior, winning a junior world championship gold medal in the 200 butterfly and setting a junior world record. Recruited by the University of California-Berkeley, he finished third in the NCAA 200 fly as a freshman.

Then at 2016 U.S. Olympic Team Trials, he made two finals — 200 IM and 200 fly — but finished seventh and eighth, respectively. The 200 free seems to be his sweet spot though. He won a silver medal in the event at 2018 Pan Pacs and helped the U.S. take bronze in the 4x200 free relay at 2019 world championships. In Tokyo, he will be looking for his first Olympic medal in an event the U.S. has won four consecutive times, from 2004-2016. A talented musician, Seliskar plays guitar and has been part of at least two bands with other swimmers.

Andrew Wilson: 100 and 200 breaststroke

Andrew Wilson, 27, has taken the lane less traveled to his first Olympic team. A late bloomer, he swam for NCAA Division III Emory University rather than go the usual D1 route. After breaking several D3 records his junior year, he took another turn, training with the University of Texas, home to many an Olympic breaststroker. But Wilson missed making the 2016 Olympic team and returned to Emory for his senior year, graduating with a degree in physics and applied mathematics.

After college, his swimming career took off. He helped the U.S. win a gold medal in the men’s medley relay at 2018 Pan Pacs, then was instrumental in again helping the U.S. medley relay squads win gold at the 2019 world championships. Now training with the University of Georgia, Wilson is the first swimmer to have made an Olympic team after competing for a NCAA D3 swim team.

A Wave of Collegiate Swimmers: 

Hunter Armstrong: 100 backstroke

A long shot coming to trials, Hunter Armstrong, 20, lived up to his name. Strong of arm, he used his closing speed in the backstroke to make his first Olympic team, going from seventh at the 50 to second place in the 100 backstroke at trials.

A self-described late bloomer, the 6’6” athlete began dedicating himself to swimming his senior year of high school (just two years ago) after giving up football. He spent his freshman year at West Virginia before transferring to Ohio State this year and has been rapidly dropping time — so much time that Ryan Murphy quipped, “If this guy keeps on the same improvement curve, he’s going to go 49 in Tokyo.” (Murphy holds the 100 backstroke world record at 51.85.)

Armstrong’s backstroke time at trials was the fifth fastest 100 back of all time for American men. The four men in front of him are all Olympic medalists.

 Michael Brinegar: 800 and 1,500 freestyles

Michael Brinegar is genetically tied to Olympic swimming. His mom, Jennifer (Hooker) Brinegar, competed in the Olympic Games Montreal 1976, finishing sixth in the 200 freestyle (behind Shirley Babashoff’s silver medal-winning performance), and she swam the prelims of the famed 4x100 freestyle relay, where the U.S. beat East Germany in the final. Wanting to create his own Olympic story,

Brinegar left home in Indiana as a teenager to train at Mission Viejo in California (Babashoff’s former team). Then he redshirted his sophomore year at Indiana University to make the 2020 U.S. Olympic Team. But then the Covid-19 pandemic hit, and he went back to school. A two-time NCAA All-American in the mile, and a silver medalist from 2019, Brinegar, 21, will be one of the first men to represent Team USA in the inaugural men’s 800 freestyle in Tokyo. He will also compete in the 1,500 freestyle.

Brooks Curry: 4x100 freestyle relay

Brooks Curry’s Olympic story is the stuff of legend. Until the 100-meter freestyle prelims at trials, his Olympic qualifying time of 49.06 did not even meet the “A” standard required to compete in Tokyo; coming to trials, he was seeded fifteenth in the 100 freestyle. Then in prelims, he qualified for semis by dropping his time to 48.23 (qualifying fourth ahead of Caeleb Dressel and Nathan Adrian), then to 48.19 in the final, finishing fourth.

From Dunwoody, Georgia, north of Atlanta, and Louisiana State University, Curry finished seventh in the 100 free at 2021 NCAAs. By finishing fourth in the 100 free at trials and qualifying for the men’s 4x100 freestyle relay in Tokyo, Curry became the first LSU swimmer to qualify for an Olympic Games.

Bobby Finke: 800 and 1,500 freestyles

When he won the 800-meter freestyle at U.S. Olympic Team Trials, Bobby Finke became the third University of Florida freestyler to qualify for Tokyo, making some wonder if there was a plan by the Gators to sweep all the freestyle races (Calaeb Dressel won the 50 and 100 free and Kieran Smith won the 200 and 400 frees).

Finke, a 21-year-old from Clearwater, Florida, set the American record in the mile (yards) at the SEC Championships in February, then won the mile at 2021 NCAAs. Finke — whom breaststroker Nic Fink jokes is his “cousin Bobby” (no relation, different spelling) — will be one of the first men to represent Team USA in the men’s 800 freestyle Olympic debut in Tokyo. The two men will also compete in the 1,500.

Drew Kibler: 4x200 freestyle relay

A senior at the University of Texas, Drew Kibler, 21, helped the Longhorns win their 15th NCAA title as a team in March 2021. Individually, he claimed a silver in the 200-yard freestyle at NCAAs behind Kieran Smith.

The 2018 national high school swimmer of the year, Kibler claimed a bronze medal in the 200 free at the 2019 Pan Ams, his first international medal. From Carmel, Indiana, Kibler has distinctive tattoos. Although he would not go into detail, he said the tattoos empower him. “They’re definitely a source of some mental strength,” he said.

Bryce Mefford: 200 backstroke

Bryce Mefford, 22, is another Cal-Berkeley backstroker to qualify for the U.S. Olympic Team. In the 200 back final at trials, the 22-year-old who just finished his senior year at Cal, dropped his personal best by almost two seconds and beat two other Cal “brothers” to the wall.

Mefford finished his college career with a third place in the 200-yard backstroke at 2021 NCAAs (he defeated reigning NCAA 200 back champ Shaine Casas from Texas A&M and Cal’s Destin Lasco in the finals at trials). Then he came to the 2021 U.S. Olympic Team Trials and used the experience from 2016 to help set him up for where he is today. About the Cal backstroke group, Mefford said, “It’s a race every day. … It’s a brutal way to practice, but it pays off.”

Jake Mitchell: 400 freestyle

Jake Mitchell’s path to the 2020 U.S. Olympic Team included a extra race. Why? The University of Michigan sophomore finished second in the 400-meter freestyle on the first night of trials.

Typically, second place finishers are named to the team. But Mitchell had not met the  400 freestyle “A” standard required to qualify for the Games. His second-place time of 3:48.17 was well over the Olympic cut of 3:46.78. He would need to drop 1.39 seconds from his personal best, and he was given until June 17 to make or break the standard (at a FINA-sanctioned meet like trials). \

So two nights later, Mitchell dove into the pool by himself … and crushed it, clocking 3:45.86. From Carmel, Indiana, Mitchell was the Big Ten champion in the 500 and 800-yard freestyles this past season. 

Kieran Smith: 200 and 400 freestyle, 4x200 freestyle relay

Kieran Smith came to the 2020 U.S. Olympic Team Trials as an outside favorite to qualify for Tokyo in the men’s 400 freestyle. But he made a statement in the final, winning by open water and dropping his personal best by almost three seconds.

A senior at the University of Florida, Smith, 21, is the American record holder in the 500-yard freestyle short course, and in March 2021, he won an NCAA title in the 200-yard freestyle. From Ridgefield, Connecticut, Smith won a silver medal in the 200 IM at 2017 world junior championships. Smith will make his international career debut at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020.

Relay Prelim Swimmers

Bowe Becker finished fifth in the 100-meter freestyle and was invited to compete in Tokyo as part of the men’s 4x100 freestyle relay. A graduate of the University of Minnesota, Becker’s best individual finish at the NCAA championships was second in the 100-yard freestyle in 2019.

He was also part of Minnesota’s record breaking 4x100-yard freestyle relay at 2017 NCAAs. Now swimming for the Sandpipers of Nevada, Becker, 23, makes his Olympic debut in Tokyo.

Patrick Callan: 4x200 freestyle relay

University of Michigan freestyler Patrick Callan made his first Olympic team by finishing sixth in the 200-meter freestyle at 2021 U.S. Olympic Team Trials. From Oklahoma, Callan helped Michigan become a two-time Big Ten champion in the 4x200-yard relay his sophomore and junior years. The 21-year-old represented the U.S. at the world junior championships in 2017. 

An award-winning freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered five Olympic Games. She has contributed to since its inception in 2008.
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