Ahead of U.S. Trials, the Top-15 Female Swimmers in the Country

Ahead of U.S. Trials, the Top-15 Female Swimmers in the Country

With the U.S. Trials for this summer’s World Championships coming up in less than a week, it is time to assess the best American female swimmers. We previously discussed the top-15 men, and now we will rank the top-15 American female swimmers based on their abilities in the long course pool and their chances to win medals at the World Championships.

The American women are coming off a very strong 15-medal performance at the Tokyo Olympics. Only three of those medals were gold, none of them in relays, but the team managed to win medals in nine out of 14 individual events and place top-five in three of the five non-medal events. Ten of the 26 swimmers who represented the U.S. in the pool were teenagers, and the shortened Olympic cycle leading up to the 2024 Paris Olympics should put members of that group in a position to thrive over the next few years.

Of course, comparing swimmers across events is a very imperfect science, and we must weigh previous years’ accomplishments against the results of the NCAA Championships held last month as well as the ISL and Short Course World Championships in December, which means projecting long course results based on short course.

Note that former Penn swimmer Lia Thomas, who became the first transgender female to capture an NCAA title in swimming, was not considered for this list because Thomas has no officially recorded swims as a USA Swimming member that would qualify her for the Trials.

A lot of the decisions involving swimmers’ placement on this list heading into the five-day qualifying meet came down to tough calls, and what unfolds in Greensboro will surely prompt a rearrangement of the pecking order, but based on performances throughout her career and over the last year, No. 1 was an easy choice.

1. Katie Ledecky

Simply, Katie Ledecky is one of the greatest swimmers of this generation. While her 2021 Olympics did not match the incredible heights she reached in 2016, she still won her third-straight gold medal in the 800 freestyle and captured the inaugural Olympic gold in the 1500 free. She swam the second-quickest time of her career in a race for the ages against Ariarne Titmus in the Tokyo 400 free before ending up with a silver, and Ledecky also finished fifth in the 200 free before posting the fastest split in the field on the U.S. women’s silver-medal-winning 800 free relay team. Now training in Gainesville, Fla., Ledecky has shown no signs of an off-year as she has been in her usual stellar form at various tune-up meets. Assuming she qualifies in the events expected in Greensboro, she will head to Budapest as the title-favorite in the 800 and 1500 free and a medal contender in the 200 and 400 free. In the 800 free, she will attempt to win her fifth consecutive world title, which no swimmer female or male has ever accomplished.

2. Lilly King

Aside from Ledecky, the one other U.S. women’s gold medal in the pool in Tokyo came in the 100 breaststroke, but in a major upset, it was not Lilly King achieving that honor. Instead, it was then-17-year-old Lydia Jacoby who pulled off the win while King settled for bronze. But King gets the nod ahead of Jacoby because of her longevity and her overall body of work in the breaststroke events. In addition to her 100-meter bronze, she took a silver medal in the 200 breast in Tokyo, becoming just the seventh woman in history to break 2:20 on her way to her first World Championships or Olympic medal in the race. King then dominated the stroke on the ISL circuit, and she currently ranks second in the world in the 100 breast (1:05.32) and third globally in the 200 breast (2:23.69).

3. Regan Smith

This is where things got really tight on the list. Should we prioritize Olympic success nine months ago or recent record-breaking results in short course yards? The nod goes to Olympic success, barely. There were two other multi-time individual Olympic medalists for the U.S. in Tokyo, and one of those swimmers was Regan Smith. Now 20, Smith took bronze in the 100 backstroke and silver in the 200 butterfly before leading off the American 400 medley relay that eventually won silver. Smith is also the world-record holder in the 200 back, although she did not qualify to swim that event in Tokyo. Her first NCAA Championships for Stanford started off a little rocky, particularly when she finished a distant third in the 100-yard back (after entering with the American record), but she earned a come-from-behind national title in the 200 back before finishing second in the 200 fly less than an hour later. Smith heads to Greensboro as a slight favorite in both backstroke events and a co-favorite in the 200 fly with the next swimmer on the list.

4. Hali Flickinger

The final multi-time Olympic medalist from Tokyo was Hali Flickinger, now one of the veterans of the U.S. women’s squad at age 27. In her second Olympics, Flickinger took home bronze medals in both the 400 IM and 200 fly, finishing just behind Smith in her signature butterfly race and behind fellow American Emma Weyant in the longer medley race, which Flickinger actively avoided until relocating to train under coach Bob Bowman at Arizona State University. You know what you will get from Flickinger each time she races, and heading into Trials, she ranks second in the world for 2021 in both her best events.

5. Lydia Jacoby

Now we arrive at the 100 breaststroke Olympic champion, the native of Seward, Alaska, and on her way to the University of Texas next season. Lydia Jacoby stunned the world when the beat Lilly King and Tatjana Schoenmaker for gold in her first Olympic final, and later on in the meet, she swam breaststroke on two medley relays (mixed and women’s) for the U.S. She memorably lost her goggles on the mixed relay but still posted a fine split, and she helped the U.S. women earn a silver medal. However, Jacoby has not done much since Tokyo. She swam at the Short Course World Championships, where she was eliminated in the 50 breaststroke semifinals before COVID-19 protocols took her out of the remainder of the meet. Her season-best time in the 100 breast this year is 1:06.87 (third in the country), but she improved massively throughout the season last year. She will need to recapture that magical form to be in contention again at the World Championships.

6. Kate Douglass

Kate Douglass did not look like the sixth-best swimmer in the country at the NCAA Championships last month. She was the Olympic bronze medalist in the 200 IM in Tokyo, and at NCAAs, she won three individual titles, all in American-record time, while leading her Virginia Cavaliers to four relay wins and the national team title. Douglass became the fastest short-course-yards swimmer in history in the 50 free and 200 breast, a combination of records no swimmer had ever achieved before, while beating marks set by Abbey Weitzeil in the 50 free and by King in the 200 breast. She now ranks second all-time in the 100 fly, with only Olympic gold medalist Maggie Mac Neil ahead of her. At Trials, we will see how Douglass stacks up long course in those new events. The schedule sets up for Douglass to likely race the 100 free on day one, 200 breast and/or 50 fly on day two, 100 fly on day three and then possibly the 100 breast on day four. However, the meet’s final day does include the 50 free and 200 IM, arguably Douglass’ two best events, so she will either attempt the double or make a tough decision.

7. Alex Walsh

Just like Douglass, Alex Walsh was a dominant swimmer at the NCAA Championships, the second three-event winner on the Cavaliers’ championship squad. Walsh swam the fastest time in history in the 200-yard IM by more than a half-second, and she also won NCAA titles in the 400 IM and 200 fly. Walsh was the Olympic silver medalist in the 200-meter IM in Tokyo, and she actually led for much of the race before Japan’s Yui Ohashi snuck past her at the finish. She will certainly be the 200 IM favorite at Trials as she tries to set herself up to challenge for the world title in the event later in the summer. Walsh was not in contention in any additional events at last year’s Olympic Trials, but she is skilled across basically all strokes. Her performances this college season left her ranked fourth all-time in the 200 breast and 400 IM and sixth in the 200 fly (all short course yards), and she is the reigning Pan American Games champion in the 200 backstroke. So the door is open for her to excel in a variety of races at Trials.

8. Claire Curzan

Claire Curzan is another swimmer who has been on a hot streak in recent months. She was a semifinalist in the 100 fly at her first Olympics last year, but in the months since, the 17-year-old has captured six medals at the Short Course World Championships, including individual bronzes in the 50 fly and 100 fly, and she lowered the American record in the 100-yard fly (since broken by Douglass) in February. And through the year’s two stops on the TYR Pro Swim Series, she has been phenomenal, picking up four wins at each, and she heads to Trials (just a one-hour drive west on I-40 from her home in Cary) ranked first in the U.S. for 2022 in the 100 fly, 50 free, 100 free, 100 back and 200 back. Curzan did not swim her best at the biggest competitions in 2021, so she will be aiming for deliver on all those strong swims if she wants to qualify for the U.S. team for Budapest in multiple events.

9. Torri Huske

Torri Huske was the breakout star of the U.S. Olympic Trials in 2021 as she broke Dana Vollmer’s nine-year-old American record in 100 butterfly to qualify for her first Olympic team. In Tokyo, Huske swam just off her best time in the 100 fly final, but she finished a heartbreaking fourth place, just one hundredth behind bronze medalist Emma McKeon. She ended up earning a silver medal as part of the U.S. women’s 400 medley relay, and after concluding the Olympics, she began her college career at Stanford. Huske had an up-and-down first NCAAs as she placed second to Alex Walsh in the 200 IM and then second to Kate Douglass in a tight 100 fly final (where a long finish may have cost Huske the title). Huske enters Trials with the advantage of having already performed in the bright spotlight of Olympic Trials and then coming close to winning an Olympic medal, but her 100 fly figures to be one of the most competitive events of the meet. She will also have a chance to make the World Championships team in the sprint freestyles (particularly as a relay swimmer) and possibly the 200 IM.

10. Emma Weyant

Another swimmer who began her college career following the Olympics, Emma Weyant had a quiet NCAAs compared to some of her Virginia teammates. She placed second in the 500-yard free and fourth in the 400 IM and also anchored UVA’s second-place 800 free relay. But we cannot forget what Weyant accomplished in long course less than nine months ago. She made a run at Olympic gold in the 400-meter IM and finished behind only Yui Ohashi. She flew under the radar heading into Olympic Trials before pulling off an upset win and then taking care of business in the Tokyo final. She will not be a contender to qualify for Worlds in any other event, but Weyant’s long course 400 IM is special.

11. Erica Sullivan

A steady climb to the top of U.S. distance swimming culminated in Tokyo as Erica Sullivan captured the silver medal in the women’s 1500 freestyle. Sullivan sat in fifth and sixth place for most of the race before running down her opponents and finally moving into second to complete a 1-2 U.S. finish. Sullivan had delayed the start of her college career by three years to prepare for the Olympics, and she switched her commitment from USC to Texas, but she finally enrolled in the fall of 2021 at age 21. Her first collegiate season saw her place second at the NCAA Championships in the 1650-yard free (despite swimming in an early heat) and third in the 500 free as she played a big part in the Longhorns finishing second in the team competition.

12. Annie Lazor

A late-career surge allowed Annie Lazor to qualify for her first Olympic team at age 26. Lazor, who trains with Lilly King at Indiana University, was incredibly emotional upon qualifying for the Games, particularly after her father passed away just months before, and in the Tokyo final, she moved into medal position on the third 50 and then held off surging Russian teenager Evgeniia Chikunova to grab an Olympic bronze medal. Lazor has looked good in the early going of 2022 with her season-best mark of 2:22.59 in the 200 breast ranking first in the world, and Lazor is also a talented 100 breaststroker. She finished third in the event at Olympic Trials, and she would likely be a medal contender at World Championships if she could get by one of King or Lydia Jacoby at Trials.

13. Katharine Berkoff

The first non-Olympian on this list is Katharine Berkoff, who placed fourth in the 100 backstroke at Olympic Trials. However, a long course jump looks imminent after Berkoff delivered a magnificent performance to win the NCAA title in the 100-yard back last month. She posted a time of 48.74, exactly one second faster than she swam on the way to the 2021 national crown in the event, and she demolished the previous American record by four tenths. Admittedly, Berkoff will not benefit from swimming more than half the race underwater when she transitions to long course racing, but she has a solid track record in the 50-meter pool as well. The stunning nature of that short course swim indicates that Berkoff should have a big performance in store for long course as well.

14. Katie Grimes

It’s safe to say that Katie Grimes would not have been on this list one year ago. Grimes was just 15 when broke out at the 2021 Olympic Trials. She followed up an unexpected third-place finish in the 1500 freestyle by finishing second in the 800 free and claiming a spot in Tokyo alongside Katie Ledecky. In Tokyo, Grimes was the second-fastest swimmer in prelims before placing fourth in the final. She posted a series of incredible swims at Winter Junior Nationals in December: 4:32.97 in the 500-yard free, 4:00.66 in the 400 IM and 15:34.72 in the 1650 free. Those times in both freestyle races were faster than the winning marks at the recent NCAA Championships. More recently, Grimes won the U.S. national 10k open water title to secure herself a spot at the World Championships, and in Greensboro, she will be gunning to qualify for the pool team as well. She will be a contender in distance freestyle and maybe the 400 IM.

15. Abbey Weitzeil

The top U.S. sprinter over the past year has been Abbey Weitzeil, a 25-year-old and a veteran of two Olympic teams. Weitzeil was the only American to qualify for the finals in the 50 and 100 freestyle in Tokyo, and she swam a gallant anchor leg on the U.S. women’s 400 medley relay to secure a silver medal after leading the 400 free relay squad to bronze earlier in the meet. After a strong fall representing the LA Current in the ISL, Weitzeil won six medals at the Short Course World Championships in Abu Dhabi, a haul which included the first individual medal of her career at a major international meet, a bronze in the 100 free. She has been the most consistent U.S. sprint freestyler in recent years, which makes her a slight favorite in both events for the Greensboro Trials.

Others Considered

Just missing this list was the swimmer who finished fourth in both backstroke events in Tokyo, Alabama’s Rhyan White. She was a contender but not a favorite to qualify for the Olympic team last year, but she ended up beating out a strong field to finish second behind Regan Smith in the 100 back at Olympic Trials and then upsetting Smith and Phoebe Bacon in the 200 back.

Gretchen Walsh, Alex’s younger sister, came very close to earning a spot on this list after she swam faster than the previous American records in finishing second in the 50-yard free and 100 back at NCAAs and also winning the national title in the 100 free. At the very least, the younger Walsh is a contender to qualify for World Championships in a relay.

Speaking of sprinters, reigning 50 and 100 free world champion Simone Manuel has not competed since the Tokyo Olympics, so her status for Trials is unclear. Manuel did not qualify for the 100 free final at Olympic Trials last year, and afterward, she revealed she had been diagnosed with Overtraining Syndrome. Manuel did bounce back to win the 50 free at that meet, and she was used on the U.S. women’s 400 free relay in Tokyo.

The most recent U.S. swimmer to set an individual world record was Kelsi Dahlia, who broke the short course meters mark in the 100 butterfly during the 2021 ISL final. Dahlia missed last year’s Olympic team after finishing fourth in the 100 fly at Olympic Trials, and she faces a tough battle this year with the three swimmers who placed ahead of her (Torri HuskeClaire Curzan and Kate Douglass) all returning.

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