Looking ahead to another Olympic year and looking back at 2020, Swimming World decided to compile a list of the 25 best swimmers in the world by 2021. There was a lot of rapid swimming in the first three months of 2020 (before the pandemic), and even if the summer was out of the water for long periods of time, many of the world’s elites returned either to the ISL or to various regional meetings that had operating hours faster than expected.
In creating this list, we took into account what happened in 2019 and what each athlete showed in 2020. There wasn’t a perfect way to rate every swimmer in the world, but we’ve tried to be as objective as possible when weighing each swimmer’s performance in the 2020 pandemic year. The ISL swimming attempts were also taken into account as were the events in January and February before the pandemic turned everything off and the Olympics pushed back a full year.
Looking ahead to 2021, here are the 25 best male swimmers in the world, ranked as objectively as possible.
It’s worth noting that as of December, Winnington was a 3:43 free in the 400 and a 1:45 free in the 200. People may not know his name yet and not swimming in the ISL this year certainly hurt his existence, but Winnington is part of a very competitive freestyle field in Australia. The green and gold haven’t seen as much depth since Ian Thorpe and Grant Hackett won the 2001 World Finals in the 4 × 200 Free Relay by six seconds. The Aussies are the reigning world champions in the 4 × 200 Free, and Winnington hasn’t even been to Gwangju. If he gets out of Australia’s Olympic trials with a place in Tokyo he could be dangerous for medals.
Wang has flown slightly under the radar for the past few years since winning the Olympic bronze medal in the 200 IM in 2016. He followed with a bronze in the worlds in 2017 in the 200 IM, but missed the podium in 2019. Wang was a 1:56. 2 in October ranked second in the world this year. The 200 IM field feels wide open on the way to Tokyo, and no one really stands out as a strong favorite. So if he plays his cards right and has been a consistent player for the past five years, Wang could see himself at the top of the podium.
Many forget that Shymanovich, with his 58, takes second place in the 100 chest in the long run. 2 in March 2019. He could not follow this at the worlds 2019 and did not get past the semifinals. But in this year’s ISL, he gave Adam Peaty everything he could every time they locked horns in the water in Budapest, and a few weeks out of the league, Shymanovich broke Peaty’s world record. Although it was a short course, it’s still a world record, and Shymanovich established himself as a player for Tokyo.
Romanchuk is still on the hunt for that elusive long-distance gold medal. At the last two world championships he won 1,500 silver and both times finished the 800 podium. Romanchuk has one of the smoothest freestyle strokes you have ever seen, and it is this precision that has made him one of the top distance freestylers in the world. He was a 14:41 in 1500 before the pandemic and a 7:43 in 800 – both swims put him in second place in the world rankings in 2020.
Wellbrock showed a lot of stamina at the 2019 World Championships, won the 10 km open water title and won gold in the 1500 freestyle over a week later. Now he’s a distance swimmer so he’s no stranger to the grind, but it’s a tough achievement no matter who you are. No man has ever won the 10k and 1500 at the same Olympics, and Wellbrock is certainly capable of becoming the first to do so. In February before the pandemic, Wellbrock was 2:46 p.m. to solidify his place on the German Olympic team.
Larkin was the favorite for the gold medal in Rio in both the 100s and 200s and only took silver in the 200s. He has since switched coaches and changed his event focus, which is a bigger threat in the 200 IM than in the 200 back. He was back on the podium of the 100s at Worlds 2019 with a bronze and also led Australia’s mixed medley relay, which won gold. Larkin will again play a big role in these events and could surprise in the 200 IM – he was the only swimmer to break 1:56 in 2019.
Kolesnikov had a promising junior career for Russia, but had a break from 2019 due to illness. He had another slow start in the ISL this season but got better every time he swam and broke the world record on the 100 short meters back. The back field is stacked internationally, and if any of the favorites falter, Kolesnikov could come into play – either the 100 or the 200 back. Kolesnikov also has a strong 100 free which could put him on the podium at the Games in the 4 × 100 free season.
It’s worth noting that Detti had the fastest time in the world this year in 400 freestyle with 3:43 in August. Detti has often been overshadowed by Gregorio Paltrinieri, but Detti has two Olympic medals – with two bronzes in 400 and 1500 in Rio. Detti is in a good position to win gold in the 400 round in an event that is open until what happens to Sun Yang. He will also play a major role in the first 800 finals.
Manaudou made a great return in late 2019, with a strong first ISL season where he apparently picked up exactly where he left off after Rio in 2016. Manaudou seemed like the sure bet of winning the gold medal in one round in Rio before being outdone by Anthony Ervin with 0. 01. With a little soul searching, Manaudou is back in full swing and is again a favorite to clear his third consecutive podium in the 50s at the Games. This year Manaudou took second place in the world in the 50 free short distances and fourth in the 100.
It’s hard to believe that Kyle Chalmers was only 18 when he won the 100 Freestyle in Rio. This surprised the field that included world champion Cameron McEvoy and defending champion Nathan Adrian. Chalmers has been overshadowed by the American Caeleb Dressel in recent years, but his 47. 0 silver medal at the 2019 Worlds proved that he should not be taken lightly in this race in Tokyo. In January last year he went a quick 47. 9 and Chalmers is known as a great calm swimmer. So expect him to be ready to rip in Tokyo. And who knows . . . it might take a world record to win the 100 freestyle.
Le Clos is still one of the best butterflies in the world as the now 28-year-old is aiming for a medal in the 100 butterflies at this third consecutive Olympic Games and wants to win back his gold medal in the 200 flyers after winning it in 2012. Le Clos had the best time in the world in the 200 fly that year and was also runner-up in the 100. Le Clos won bronze in both the 100 and 200 flies at the 2019 Worlds when he struggled with a hernia, so it shouldn’t be written off until 2021.
Despite having no tangible hardware, Rapsys was the fastest man in the 2019 Worlds 200 finals, but he winced at the start and couldn’t celebrate. But since then he has had the fastest time in the world in the 200 race with 1:44. 3 at the World Championship, followed by a 1:45 at the FINA Champions Series in January. Rapsys had the world’s best time in 400 freestyle over short distances this year and will be a big gold medal favorite in both the 200 and 400 Free after failing to get past the 100 and 200 prelims in Rio. It is worth noting that Lithuania has never had a male Olympic gold medalist in swimming.
It is hard to believe that Minakov was still 18 years old when he set the junior world records in the 100 free and 50 butterflies this year. Now that his junior career is coming to an end, he will try to make his mark in the senior waters. But with a silver medal already under his name in the 100 Butterflies from the Worlds 2019, the upper limit for Minakov seems pretty high. Russia won’t be able to hoist its flag in Tokyo, but if Minakov wants to make the Games, he could be standing in line for a few medals in the 100 Fly and 100 Free medals, as well as the Medley and Freestyle relays.
Hagino was one of the best swimmers in the world in 2016 and won Olympic gold in the 400 IM and silver in the 200 as well as an appearance in the final of the 200 Free. Hagino struggled to repeat these feats in the years that followed and took a long break from the sport in 2019. But the fans were reassured that he is back in top form after the ISL season, where he had the second fastest time of the season in the 400 IM and fifth overall in the 200. Expect him to be supported by a local audience this summer in Tokyo, featured in both the IMs and Japan’s 4 × 200 free relay.
Milak made a name for himself at the Worlds 2019 when he set Michael Phelps’ legendary 200 butterfly world record and rose to legendary status at just 19 years old. A few days later he was on the podium in the 100 race, but will still be a gold medal favorite in both butterfly distances in Tokyo. He finished second in the world in the 100 race that year and fourth in the 200 race in the long-haul race, proving that he’s in good shape to pursue his 2019 world record with Olympic glory in 2021.
In Kamminga the age group has decreased year-round, improving from 59. 1/2: 08. 7 breast nurses in 2018 to a 58. 4/2: 06. 8 in 2020 and is third of all times in 100 breast and fourth of all time in 200. Kamminga found himself a medal favorite in Tokyo, although he has never swum in a World Cup final. With his rapid improvements over the past 12 months, he is one of the best breast swimmers in the world and could be the first Dutch breast sister since Wieger Mensonides in 1960 to win medals at the Olympics.
Chupkov has been the man in the 200 since he won bronze in Rio. He has won the last two world titles and also had the fastest time in 2018. Chupkov set the world record in 2019 with 2:06. 1, as he rewritten the record books in that event, holding five of the ten fastest times in history, including four under 2:07. Chupkov also brought his 100 speed as he could fight for a medal in this event too. Seven of the eight fastest performers in history are still active, and it could take a world record to win the 200 breastplate in Tokyo.
Xu is the two-time reigning world champion in the 100s and the reigning Olympic silver medalist in this event. He was able to face the opportunity, even though he swam slower in the final than in the semifinals. Xu swam on China’s mixed medley relay, which broke the only long-distance world record set in 2020, and will definitely have the goal of going to Tokyo in the 100-back and mixed medley relays. The back panels are wide open at the moment, but Xu has proven that in a close race he can get his hand on the wall first.
Murphy is the reigning Olympic champion in both the 100 and 200 back and the world record holder in the shorter distance. After disappointing worlds in 2019, he has proven that he is still one of the best backstrokers in the world. At the ISL that season, he finished second overall in both the 100 and back 200 and was an incredible racer every time he took a dip in the pool. Murphy has a lot of pressure on his shoulders – the United States hasn’t lost the Olympic crown in either the 100 or 200 since 1992, before Murphy was even born.
Rylov is the two-time reigning world champion of the 200 and had the fastest time in the world of the 100 in 2019. Rylov had the fastest time in the world with his efforts in the ISL this year, backing 200 in short distances proving that he is still the one to beat before Tokyo. And for relay purposes, Rylov anchored Russia’s 4 × 100 free relay at the 2019 Worlds with a silver medal, and the Russians look like the only team that can push the strong favorites from the US. Rylov seems to have the perfect mix of speed and endurance that makes him dangerous on both 100 and 200 backs.
Scott made a name for himself with a 46 at the end of the worlds in 2019. 1 season was split up at the end of the UK medley season giving them the gold medal. Scott also led GB’s 4 × 200 free relay in these championships at a time faster than swimming for the gold medal. We know what he’s capable of – it’s all about putting it together when it matters most to Scott. He is very versatile and has a real chance of winning the 100 and 200 Free and 200 IM in Tokyo. He will also play a pivotal role in the UK’s seasons, which have a shot for gold in the medley and free in the 4 × 200.
Paltrinieri made headlines this summer when he scorched a 14:33 at his first meeting after the pandemic in 1500. He was below Sun Yang’s world record pace at 1,450 meters, but didn’t have the speed to break the record on the final lap. With this impressive swim under his belt, many paltrinieri have classified as potentially the first man to break 2:30 pm. If he can successfully defend his Olympic title in 1500, Paltrinieri could be fighting for the coat of the greatest distance swimmer of all time – he already has an Olympic gold and two world titles. The only thing missing is the world record, and a second Olympic gold could cement its legacy. And it’s not just the 1500, Paltrinieri is a favorite to win gold in the 800 and 10K.
Seto was on fire early in 2020, with number one being number one in the 200 & 400 IM and number one in the 200 Butterfly, including an impressive 1:52 in the latter and a 4:06 in the 400 IM. Seto will draw a lot of attention if he leads to a home Olympics as the 400 IM could be one of the hottest ticket events of the games on the night. But Seto’s suspension through late 2020 for an extramarital affair could affect his stocks en route to the Summer Olympics.
Is this a controversial placement for the British? Well, if you’re almost a second and a half faster than the second fastest man in history in a 100, then no. Peaty crossed 100 chest long distances and swam faster than many people thought humanly possible when he swam a 56. 88 at the worlds 2019. Peat is the big favorite in Tokyo in the 100th. Breast in a row wins, and could be the X factor to taking Britain’s first ever Olympic relay gold medal since 1912.
The sky seems to be a limit for Dressel, who set the world record books for short distances on fire in 2020 with all-time brands in the 50 Free, 50 and 100 Fly and 100 IM. The 100 free field for men in the US is particularly low, but many are already using Dressel as number 1 to get the Americans to take gold in the 4 × 100 free relay in a row. It seems like every time he dives into the water a record is in jeopardy and even with a lot of hype around him through 2021, Dressel could be the face of the Tokyo Games. He is the favorite to win gold in the 50 and 100 Free and 100 Fly, and will play a role in three gold medal sprint relays in the US.
Roger Federer, gold medal, swimming, Summer Olympics 2020, world, Summer Olympics
World news – AU – Ranking list of the best men’s swimmers in the world from 1-25
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