Is US Swimming Still as Dominant Without Michael Phelps?

Lela MooreFeatured Columnist IAugust 1, 2021

USA's Ryan Murphy (L) and USA's Caeleb Dressel celebrate winning the final of the men's 4x100m medley relay swimming event during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at the Tokyo Aquatics Centre in Tokyo on August 1, 2021. (Photo by Odd ANDERSEN / AFP) (Photo by ODD ANDERSEN/AFP via Getty Images)

U.S. swimmers won more medals at the Tokyo Olympics than those from any other country by far: Thirty. (For reference, there are 111 swimming medals given out in 37 events.) However, some had been wondering if American swimmers were losing their dominance in the sport.

Hold my beer, said Caeleb Dressel, who won gold and set a new Olympic record of 21:07 in the 50-meter freestyle and set a world record in the 100-meter butterfly (49.45) and an Olympic record in the 100-meter freestyle in his second Olympics. He was also part of the gold-medal-winning 4x100 freestyle and 4x100 medley relay teams (the latter also set a world record). His emotional responses to his wins and records were a touching sight given the stress so many athletes have been under for the last, uncertain year.

And we saw Katie Ledecky win a remarkable third straight gold medal in the 800-meter freestyle and promise us she would vie for more in 2024 and maybe in 2028. She toiled quietly in the shadow of other American stars in her two previous Olympics but cemented her status as legend in Tokyo, where she also won gold in the debut of the women's 1,500-meter freestyle. 

Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

Still, just 11 of the Americans' 30 medals were gold. Australia has won 20 medals; nine were gold. Great Britain has won eight total medals, four of which were gold. Half of China's six medals and two of Japan's three have been gold. 

But the issue the U.S. faces in the water going forward is less one of power than of star power, Ledecky and Dressel notwithstanding. 

Team USA headed to Tokyo without its biggest name, Michael Phelps, who competed in five Olympics and retired after the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro. Phelps is the most decorated Olympian of all time, with 28 total medals, 23 of which are gold. His impact and influence on American swimming are perhaps unparalleled.

Also missing was Ryan Lochte, a veteran of four Games and the second-most decorated male American swimmer with 12 medals. Phelps and Lochte were rivals in several events, elevating both of their profiles. Lochte's filing of a false police report in Rio overshadowed his skill in the water, and he failed to make the Tokyo team.  

Matt Slocum/Associated Press

In 2016, the U.S. won 33 swimming medals, 16 of which were gold. Five golds belonged to Phelps alone. He dominated in the IMs, of course, but also in butterfly and in the freestyle and medley relays. There was not much room atop medal podiums for other countries or other stars. The next-closest team, Australia, had only 10 medals.

The 2012 London (31 American medals, 16 gold) and 2008 Beijing (31 American medals, 12 golds, eight of them famously belonging to Phelps) Games had played out similarly. The American fields were big but shallow at the top. The absence of America's swimming stars in Tokyo left doors open for new talent both domestically and internationally and for emerging nations on the pool scene, notably China and host country Japan, to take some big wins. 

China's Wang Shun crashed through one of those doors to win gold in one of Phelps' and Lochte's signature events, one in which the two stars memorably battled in 2016: The 200-meter individual medley. That podium was free of Americans entirely, with Great Britain's Duncan Scott taking silver and bronze going to Jeremy Desplanches of Switzerland.

China's women won the 4x200-meter freestyle relay and set a new world record of 7:40.33, just four hundredths of a second ahead of the U.S. team. Zhang Yufei set an Olympic record of 2:03.86 in winning the women's 200-meter butterfly. China's swimming delegation was smaller than it had been in recent years but showed immense talent. 

After years of teams with Phelps and Lochte winning the 4x200-meter freestyle relay, the British men snagged gold in that event, aided by Tom Dean, who had also won gold in the 200-meter free. The American men finished off the podium in the event for the first time in Olympic history, controversially without Dressel, whose time in the prelims would have netted a silver medal for the U.S. 

The women's 200-meter and 400-meter IMs belonged to Japanese swimmer Ohashi Yui, a great triumph for the Games’ host country. She won both of Japan's two gold medals. 

Eight of Australia's nine golds were won by women, a triumph after the team floundered at the Rio Games in 2016. Ariarne Titmus won two golds, in the 400-meter and 200-meter freestyle, chipping into Ledecky's storied legacy, and Kaylee McKeown swept the women's backstroke events. Emma McKeon won both the 50-meter (23.81) and 100-meter free (51.96) with Olympic records.  

Swimming is always a place to see smaller programs or those with smaller delegations make big splashes, and Tokyo was no exception. On the first day of competition in the pool, Tunisia's Ahmed Hafnaoui made a spectacular, steady gain from lane eight on his American and Australian rivals to win the men's 400-meter freestyle. South Africa's Tatjana Schoenmaker set a world record of 2:18.95 in the 200-meter breaststroke, upsetting American favorite Lilly King. 

Matthias Schrader/Associated Press

Team USA has many other swimmers coming up the ranks who showed huge promise in Tokyo. Chase Kalisz won gold and Jay Litherland silver in the 400-meter individual medley. The event was formerly a specialty of both Phelps and Lochte, and Phelps still holds the world record.

Lydia Jacoby, a 17-year-old from Seward, Alaska, won gold in the 100-meter breaststroke, surprising both Schoenmaker and King, who won silver and bronze, respectively. Bobby Finke, 21, won gold in the 800-meter and 1,500-meter freestyle; he was the first American man to win a gold medal in the latter in decades.

Distance freestyler Katie Grimes, the youngest American swimmer in Tokyo at just 15, and 100-meter butterfly specialist Torri Huske, 18, narrowly missed medaling in their events, but it is likely that we’ll see them come back even stronger in three years in Paris. 

Without the spotlight on Phelps and Lochte, American swimming at the Tokyo Games may have seemed a bit dimmer than usual. But their absence allowed new stars to flourish from countries either discovering or rediscovering their abilities in the pool, and it exposed the depth of the American talent we will see over the next decade.