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U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials: women’s event-by-event previews

Katie Ledecky, Simone Manuel

DES MOINES, IOWA - MARCH 06: Simone Manuel stretches next to Katie Ledecky before they compete in the Women’s 200m Freestyle heats on Day Three of the TYR Pro Swim Series at Des Moines on March 6, 2020 at the MidAmerican Energy Aquatic Center at the Wellmark YMCA in Des Moines, Iowa. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

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Katie Ledecky and Simone Manuel spent most of the last five years training together at Stanford, logging thousands of miles away from camera lenses and spectator eyes. Last spring, they privately shared a stranger’s two-lane, 25-yard backyard pool for three months during the pandemic.

The U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials start Sunday. Ledecky and Manuel will again swim in the same pool, but, for the most part, at different times as meet headliners.

The top two per individual event, plus likely the top six in the 100m and 200m freestyles for relays, are in line to make the U.S. team for Tokyo.

Ledecky can make the Olympic team in five events, when including relays. Manuel could do it in six. Either could set the stage for history in Tokyo. One woman in Olympic history won more than four gold medals at a single Games -- East German swimmer Kristin Otto in 1988 (six golds). No American woman has won more than four.

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The Olympic Trials always produce surprises. The one-year Olympic postponement may well accentuate it. A bevy of teens who might not have been in the picture a year ago shot up the U.S. rankings and are set to challenge, if not supplant, veteran professionals.

All that in mind, an event-by-event look at the U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials women’s events in chronological order:

400m Individual Medley (Trials final June 13)
Rio Olympians: Maya DiRado (silver), Elizabeth Beisel (6th)
2019 World Championships: Ally McHugh (sixth), Brooke Forde (ninth)
2021 U.S. Leaders: Melanie Margalis (4:35.18), Madisyn Cox (4:36.61), Leah Smith (4:37.39)

Both Rio Olympians retired. Margalis, 29, is the fastest American since the start of 2019 by nearly three seconds. She overcame pre-race mental breakdowns to become the U.S.’ best all-around swimmer. Cox is the second-fastest American this year by a significant .78 of a second, although known more for her 200m IM. Emma Weyant and Forde rank above Cox when including times since the start of 2019.

100m Butterfly (Trials final June 14)
Rio Olympians: Dana Vollmer (bronze), Kelsi Dahlia (ninth)
2019 World Championships: Dahlia (sixth), Katie McLaughlin (ninth)
2021 U.S. Leaders: Claire Curzan (56.20), Torri Huske (56.69), McLaughlin (57.39)

The women’s event with the greatest domestic shakeup during the one-year Olympic postponement. Dahlia was the fastest American in 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018 and 2019. She ranks sixth this year. Four of the women ahead of her are teens, led by the 16-year-old Curzan, who has been on fire since training tethered in a wetsuit in an unheated North Carolina backyard pool while facilities closed in spring 2020.

400m Freestyle (Trials final June 14)
Rio Olympians: Katie Ledecky (gold), Leah Smith (bronze)
2019 World Championships: Ledecky (silver), Smith (bronze)
2021 U.S. Leaders: Ledecky (3:59.25), Emma Nordin (4:04.60), Smith (4:04.83)

From 2014-19, Ledecky and Smith were Nos. 1 and 2 in the U.S. every year in this event in that order. To get a sense of how entrenched they were, the gap between Smith and the No. 3 American was usually larger than the gap between Ledecky and Smith. But it’s been at least 30 years since the same pair of women represented the U.S. in an individual event at back-to-back Olympics. And now Nordin, who swims at Arizona State for Bob Bowman (Michael Phelps’ old coach), is giving Smith a serious run.

100m Backstroke (Trials final June 15)
Rio Olympians: Kathleen Baker (silver), Olivia Smoliga (sixth)
2019 World Championships: Smoliga (bronze), Baker (sixth)
2021 U.S. Leaders: Smoliga (58.31), Rhyan White (58.43), Regan Smith (58.77)

Recall that Smith, as a 17-year-old, broke the world record at the 2019 Worlds despite not making the U.S. team in the 100m back. She did so leading off the medley relay. The U.S. is so deep here -- five of the top 10 in the world since the start of 2019 -- that Smith is by no means a lock to make the team. Baker is a former world-record holder. Smoliga has been the most consistent American over the last five years.

100m Breaststroke (Trials final June 15)
Rio Olympians: Lilly King (gold), Katie Meili (bronze)
2019 World Championships: King (gold), Micah Sumrall (16th)
2021 U.S. Leaders: King (1:05.32), Lydia Jacoby (1:06.38), Annie Lazor (1:06.86)

King has been the world No. 1 in this event five of the last six years, holds the world record and has Ledecky-like favorite status at Trials. After Meili retired, a different woman ranked second in the U.S. behind King in 2019, 2020 and so far in 2021. In 2019 it was Lazor, who had a yearlong unofficial retirement after placing seventh and 10th in the breaststrokes at the Rio Olympic Trials. Lazor remains second-fastest in the U.S. behind training partner King since the start of 2019. Jacoby, a 17-year-old bidding to become the first Olympic swimmer from Alaska, emerged this year.

200m Freestyle (Trials final June 16)
Rio Olympians: Katie Ledecky (gold), Missy Franklin (14th)
2019 World Championships: Allison Schmitt (14th), Ledecky (DNS)
2021 U.S. Leaders: Ledecky (1:54.40), Olivia Smoliga (1:57.04), Madisyn Cox (1:57.38)

Ledecky hasn’t won this, her shortest individual event, at a major international meet since Rio, but remains in her own tier domestically. Franklin retired. Schmitt, 31 and the American record holder from her 2012 Olympic title, took two years off after Rio, then returned and got right back in the Olympic mix. Smoliga is primarily a backstroker. Cox an IMer. Manuel has been on the 4x200m free relay but hasn’t raced an individual 200m free at a major international meet in seven years.

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200m Individual Medley (Trials final June 16)
Rio Olympians: Maya DiRado (bronze), Melanie Margalis (fourth)
2019 World Championships: Margalis (fourth), Ella Eastin (ninth)
2021 U.S. Leaders: Madisyn Cox (2:08.51), Kathleen Baker (2:10.16), Alex Walsh (2:10.67)

Cox, the 2017 World bronze medalist, missed the 2019 Worlds after failing a 2018 drug test over what she said was a contaminated multivitamin. This may be Baker’s best shot at the Olympics, even though she’s the former 100m back world-record holder. She’s coming back from a rough 2019 -- pneumonia, broken rib, herniated disk and concussion -- followed by fracturing a bone in her right foot in a freak walking accident in early May (though she was still in the water daily). Since the start of 2019, the top four Americans are separated by a half-second (Cox, Baker, Walsh and Margalis). After that, it’s another 1.73 seconds to the fifth swimmer.

1500m Freestyle (Trials final June 16)
Rio Olympians: None (Olympic debut in Tokyo!)
2019 World Championships: Ashley Twichell (fourth), Katie Ledecky (ninth)
2021 U.S. Leaders: Ledecky (15:40.55), Ally McHugh (15:59.54), Emma Nordin (16:01.37)

Ledecky, who withdrew before the 2019 Worlds final due to illness, might get an hour between the 200m and 1500m free finals at Trials. She’s used to the 200m-1500m double and, domestically, has nothing to worry about in the longer distance. She owns the 10 fastest times in history. Twichell, 31, already made her first Olympic team -- in the open-water 10km, which is a week after the 1500m final in Tokyo.

200m Butterfly (Trials final June 17)
Rio Olympians: Cammile Adams (fourth), Hali Flickinger (seventh)
2019 World Championships: Flickinger (silver), Katie Drabot (bronze)
2021 U.S. Leaders: Flickinger (2:06.68), Regan Smith (2:07.59), Charlotte Hook (2:07.99)

In Tokyo, the U.S. looks to end its longest medal drought in any swimming event here -- none since Misty Hyman‘s shock gold in 2000. First, Trials should produce two medal contenders at the Games. Flickinger, Smith and Drabot are Nos. 2, 3 and 5 in the world since the start of 2019, though Drabot ranks sixth among Americans since the start of 2020. Smith owns both backstroke world records, but she can do both backstrokes and both butterflies at Trials without having to swim more than twice in any single session.

200m Breaststroke (Trials final June 18)
Rio Olympians: Lilly King (12th), Molly Hannis (16th)
2019 World Championships: Micah Sumrall (11th), King (DSQ)
2021 U.S. Leaders: King (2:21.82), Annie Lazor (2:22.23), Emily Escobedo (2:22.81)

The U.S. failed to put either swimmer into the Rio Olympic final here, the first time that happened in any individual swimming event for either gender since 2008. King improved since, lowering her personal best from 2:24.03 to 2:21.39. She was top five in the world every year of this Olympic cycle. Lazor, her 26-year-old training partner at Indiana, took 3.65 seconds off her personal best in 2019. She ranked No. 2 in the world in 2019 -- despite not qualifying for the world championships the previous year -- and No. 1 in 2020. Escobedo is the only American who has been within three seconds of King or Lazor this year.

100m Freestyle (Trials final June 18)
Rio Olympians: Simone Manuel (gold), Abbey Weitzeil (seventh)
2019 World Championships: Manuel (gold), Mallory Comerford (seventh)
2021 U.S. Leaders: Torri Huske (53.46), Claire Curzan (53.55), Weitzeil (53.66)

Manuel broke the American record when she won the 2016 Olympics, the 2017 Worlds and the 2019 Worlds. She ranks seventh among Americans this year, but she’s also raced in just two full meets since the Olympic postponement (reportedly missing time due to a non-COVID illness). And her 2019 World Championships winning time is nearly a second faster than any other American since the start of 2019. Huske, who spent three hours a day during the pandemic rowing and cycling in a basement, and Curzan emerged in the last year to crowd the field, which also includes veterans Weitzeil and Comerford.

200m Backstroke (Trials final June 19)
Rio Olympians: Maya DiRado (gold), Missy Franklin (14th)
2019 World Championships: Regan Smith (gold), Kathleen Baker (ninth)
2021 U.S. Leaders: Phoebe Bacon (2:06.84), Smith (2:06.90), Rhyan White (2:07.07)

Smith broke the world record at the 2019 World Championships. Though she isn’t the fastest American this year, she should be fine with a strong taper. No other woman in the Omaha field has been within 2.75 seconds of her world record in their lives. The race for the second spot crowded this spring. Bacon, a rising Wisconsin sophomore and formerly Ledecky’s little buddy at Little Flower School, took 1.98 seconds off her personal best. White, the NCAA runner-up to Bacon in March, took 3.88 seconds off her personal best. But Baker remains the second-fastest American since the start of 2019.

800m Freestyle (Trials final June 19)
Rio Olympians: Katie Ledecky (gold), Leah Smith (sixth)
2019 World Championships: Ledecky (gold), Smith (fifth)
2021 U.S. Leaders: Ledecky (8:13.64), Smith (8:24.46), Ally McHugh (8:26.24)

Ledecky owns the 23 fastest times in history and every Olympic and world title dating to her Olympic debut in 2012 at age 15. So who comes in second? Smith has been the second-fastest American every year since 2016, though the margin to third place tightened in 2020 and so far this year. Watch out for 16-year-old Bella Sims.

50m Freestyle (Trials final June 20)
Rio Olympians: Simone Manuel (silver), Abbey Weitzeil (12th)
2019 World Championships: Manuel (gold), Weitzeil (10th)
2021 U.S. Leaders: Claire Curzan (24.17), Torri Huske (24.44), Kate Douglass (24.54)

Manuel ranks fifth this year, but she was the fastest American the previous eight years. And she’s raced in just two full meets in the last 15 months, so keep her 2019 World title very much in mind. The splash-and-dash can produce surprises, but Curzan separated from the rest of the pack this year. Her margin over Huske is greater than the margin separating Huske from fifth-ranked Manuel.

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