Olympic Swimming 2016: Complete Guide to Men's Events in Rio
They were going to smash the Americans.
So claimed Alain Bernard, whose French team was going to beat Michael Phelps and the USA in the 4x100-meter freestyle relay in 2008, ruining Phelps' quest for a record haul of eight gold medals in one summer. And Bernard had a comfortable lead as he hit the water for the anchor leg.
"Even Rowdy Gaines, generally the eternal Team USA optimist, didn't see how the Americans could pull it off," wrote Olivier Poirier-Leroy for Your Swim Book.
Then this happened, in the words of NBC's Dan Hicks as it happened live...
"HERE COMES LEZAK! UNBELIEVABLE AT THE END! HE'S DONE IT! THE U.S. HAS DONE IT!"
It's that time of the quadrennium again. Fast times. Dramatic finishes. Here's what to expect in the pool in Rio...
What You Need to Know
Mark Spitz won seven gold medals in Munich in 1972. Michael Phelps won eight medals in Athens in 2004 and eight golds in Beijing in 2008. Matt Biondi won seven medals in Seoul in 1988.
A century before Phelps hit the pool in Athens, 19-year-old Charlie Daniels won five medals in the 10 swimming events in St. Louis. (He apparently didn't enter the others, including the then-popular "plunge for distance.") Sports-Reference.com sets the scene for the 1904 swimming competition: "The events were held in a man-made lake that was used each day by the Coast Guard for life-saving exhibitions at the World's Fair. The races were held on the opposite side of the lake between a pier and rafts floating on the lake."
Daniels was a 1965 inductee into the International Swimming Hall of Fame, which reports that he was also the squash and bridge champion at the New York Athletic Club. Let's see Phelps or Spitz match that.
Men's swimming has been contested in every Summer Olympics, all the way back to Athens 1896, where Sports-Reference.com says the 100-meter freestyle course "was laid out by a series of hollow pumpkins, which marked it, but which floated and moved on the water, making the course difficult to follow." Rio's pool will surely seem a bit better by comparison.
And the USA typically dominates, even as Australia has become a rather noisy rival in the last couple of decades. Men's swimmers account for 246 U.S. medals (not counting the unofficial 1906 Games). Australia is next with 84.
But it's never easy.
Don't stay out too late at the opening ceremony if you're a swimmer. The competition starts the next day and continues through the first week. The last day of pool competition is Aug. 13, with the open-water swims set for Aug. 15 and 16.
Most days, swimmers will be in the pool for heats in the early afternoon session (noon to roughly 2:30 p.m. ET each day). Generally, U.S. swimmers and anyone else of note will get through the heats with ease, though we occasionally get the amusing sight of someone who can barely get across the pool. The evening sessions (9-11:30 p.m.) will have the semifinals and finals of each event. The last day in the pool, Aug. 13, is the only day without an early session.
Always take athlete retirement announcements with a degree of skepticism. Michael Phelps said he was done after the London Olympics four years ago, but this time, he really, really means it.
And he almost certainly means it. Swimmers usually don't compete in six Olympic Games. Some do compete at age 35 (see Anthony Ervin in an upcoming slide), which Phelps would be in 2020. But he's also a new dad, and fatherhood seems to be the next outlet for his energies.
He has 22 medals, including 18 gold. He's not as dominant as he once was, and he's swimming fewer events, but he should still pass the 25 and 20 marks in Rio.
His tentative schedule of finals (all times Eastern): 4x100-meter freestyle (Aug. 7, 10:54 p.m.), 200-meter butterfly (Aug. 9, 9:28 p.m.), 200-meter individual medley (Aug. 11, 10:01 p.m.), 100-meter butterfly (Aug. 12, 9:12 p.m.), 4x100-meter medley relay (Aug. 13, 10:04 p.m.).
Extensive studies by the Associated Press have shown the Olympic rowing and sailing venues have the worst of the viruses and bacteria that can make athletes quite ill. But the venue for open-water swimming, where competitors will go 10 kilometers through the waves and water, isn't exactly pristine, either.
"AP's tests revealed that Copacabana Beach, where the marathon and triathlon swimming events are to be held and thousands of tourists are likely to take a dip, exceeded California's limit (on coliform bacteria) five times over 13 months of testing," the AP report (h/t ESPN) says.
The tourists, at least, can always opt to stay on the beach. Swimmers don't have that option.
You'd think swimmers would want to avoid the fate of France in the 2008 Olympics (see first slide). Swimming isn't basketball, where a mentally rattled player might start coming up short on his jump shot. And you're certainly not going to psych out Michael Phelps, who has faced off with every good swimmer of the last 16 years and the U.S. tabloid media.
And yet, South Africa's Chad le Clos went out of his way to shrug at Phelps' fast times last year.
"Look, I don't want to say it's easy to swim by yourself, but it's a lot harder when you know Chad le Clos is coming back at you the last 50 meters," Le Clos said, per Paul Newberry of the Associated Press.
Referring to himself in the third person? He must be serious about this.
4x100-meter freestyle: Aug. 7, 10:54 p.m.
Always one of the earliest marquee events of the Games, the relay got an extra publicity boost with the announcement that Michael Phelps would be part of the U.S. team, USA Today's Christine Brennan reports. Even with Phelps on board, this race is the most challenging of the three relays, with France and Australia boasting deeper teams than the USA.
100-meter backstroke: Aug. 8, 9:38 p.m.
The future is now for youngster Ryan Murphy, and David Plummer is finally going to the Games at age 30. Only Australia's Mitch Larkin has gone faster than the U.S. duo in the past 18 months.
100-meter freestyle: Aug. 10, 10:03 p.m.
The classic swimming event, contested at nearly every Summer Olympics. The USA's Nathan Adrian is the defending champion and among the favorites to win again, but it's a deep field.
4x100-meter medley: Aug. 13, 10:04 p.m.
Phelps, Murphy, Adrian and breaststroke specialist Kevin Cordes make the USA a strong favorite in the final race in the pool. But you never know.
Locks for Gold
Florent Manaudou, France
The 50-meter freestyle is usually one of the least predictable races in the pool. But Manaudou is the defending Olympic, world and European champion, and his best times are untouchable. Also, as SwimSwam points out, the competition is dwindling—half of the finalists from the 2012 Olympics either left the sport or failed to make their national teams. Russian contender Vladimir Morozov's name was in the McLaren Report on doping offenses in Russia, and he's currently trying to appeal his way into the Games.
Adam Peaty, Great Britain
The world champion and world-record holder is 0.57 seconds ahead of the next fastest swimmer, defending champion Cameron van den Burgh of South Africa, in the 100-meter breaststroke over the past 18 months.
Kosuke Hagino or Daiya Seto, Japan
Hagino was injured last year before the world championships, in which Seto won the 400-meter individual medley. Seto's winning time of 4:08.50 is the fastest in the world in the past 18 months, rivaled only by Hagino's best of 4:08.54. Third? The USA's Chase Kalisz, exactly one second back. Dig back a little farther, and Hagino has a time of 4:07.75 from 2014, the last year he was healthy at the peak of the season. Add it all up, and you're going to hear the Japanese national anthem.
USA 4x200-meter freestyle relay
The two fastest 200-meter swimmers since Jan. 1, 2015 are Sun Yang (China), James Guy (Great Britain). Then the USA's strength in numbers pops up. Ryan Lochte is No. 3. Conor Dwyer is No. 5. Rounding out the top 10: Townley Haas and Jack Conger. Australia is the only other country with two of the top 10, but they're slower than Lochte and Dwyer, and their third and fourth guys aren't near Haas and Conger.
FINA's database of top times is available online.
Dark Horses to Watch
Anthony Ervin, USA
He won a gold medal in the 50-meter freestyle. In 2000. That was a long time ago, and he retired in 2003—and he stayed retired for a long time. But in 2012, he made the Olympic team again and finished fifth in the 50. This year, only three guys have gone faster than the 35-year-old Californian. He'll contend in the 50, and he made the relay team for the 4x100-meter freestyle.
Tom Shields, USA
He's overshadowed by Phelps, Le Clos and Hungary's Laszlo Cseh in the butterfly races, but if they're too busy talking trash to each other, the 25-year-old might just slip past them.
Brandonn Almeida, Brazil
Film buffs will be rooting for this 19-year-old because, according to SwimSwam, he's named after Brandon Lee, the son of Bruce Lee. He also earned medals in the 400-meter individual medley and the 1,500-meter individual medley in two major events last year—the Pan Am Games and the World Junior Championships. His times, especially in the 1,500 free, lag far behind the favorites. But he's young, and how much faster will he go with the Games in his home country?
Potential Breakout Stars
Mack Horton, Australia
He has the name that brings Crocodile Dundee to mind, and he survived a harrowing Land Rover flip earlier this year. He's also ranked first in the world in the 400-meter freestyle, by nearly a full second over Sun Yang. And he's second to Gregorio Paltrinieri (see below) in the 1,500.
Ryan Murphy, USA
SwimSwam projects the youngster to break the 100-meter backstroke world record to win an epic duel with Australia's Mitch Larkin. Murphy and Larkin are also the top contenders in the 200-meter backstroke.
Gregorio Paltrinieri, Italy
He's only 21, but he's already the world champion in the 1,500-meter freestyle and the favorite to take Sun Yang's Olympic title as well.
Jordan Wilimovsky, USA
He's a long shot in the 1,500 meters, but he's also doing the unusual double of that event and the 10-kilometer open water, in which he won the 2015 world title.
Team USA Outlook
Most projections give the U.S. men at least 15 medals. One outlier, the AP projection, says 19. That's right in line with the USA's performance in the last four Olympics.
This year, it's not a one-man show like Phelps or even a two-man Phelps-Ryan Lochte juggernaut. They have legitimate contenders across the board.
But many of those contenders are far from safe bets. If Nathan Adrian falters in the sprints and Connor Jaeger can't get into the top three in the distance races, the U.S. men might be shut out in all five freestyle races. Don't use the Sharpie on the USA's breaststroke medals, either.
Still, this is going to be another strong performance for the USA. A sturdy double-digit medal haul is predictable. Each individual race, though, is a different story.
Predictions for the Biggest Swimming Stars
Gripe if you like that he's been in the spotlight too long and scoff that he's no longer the eight-event monster he used to be. Fine. But he'll still walk away from Rio with a healthy collection of new medals to toss alongside the old ones—probably five, including three golds.
Nathan Adrian, USA
He might leave Rio with four medals from one of the toughest gauntlets of competition any swimmer can run—the turbulent 50-meter freestyle, the loaded 100-meter freestyle, the pressure-packed 4x100-meter freestyle and the 4x100-meter medley. The USA should win the last of those and take a medal of some form in the freestyle relay. We'll split the difference and say he takes one more medal in his two individual events.
Kosuke Hagino, Japan
At 17, he took bronze in the 400-meter individual medley in London, edging out some guy named Phelps. This year, he's the clear favorite in the event, and he's in the mix with Phelps, Cseh and Lochte in the 200 medley. He's also entered in the 200-meter freestyle, but the competition there is much tougher. We'll say gold in the 400 medley, bronze in the 200.
Sun Yang, China
Since winning four medals (two gold) in 2012 and sweeping the three distance freestyle races at the 2013 World Championships, the 6'6" swimmer was detained and suspended for driving without a license, then suspended again for testing positive for a medication he says he was taking for a heart condition. Then he returned to the pool and was named the top male swimmer at the 2015 World Championships despite skipping the 1,500-meter freestyle.
After all that, he's still just 24 years old, and he's in the running to be the Katie Ledecky of the men's events, among the favorites in the three freestyle races from 200 meters on up. But will he be happy with silver and bronze? That's what he's likely to get.