The 100 freestyle has a much more storied history at the Olympics than the 50, dating back to 1896 for men. For years, the US had the 100 and the 4×100 Freestyle Relay locked down – we had swimming legends Duke Kahanmoku, Johnny Weissmuller (AKA Tarzan from the silver screen), and other Americans peppering the list of Men’s 100m Olympic Champions. Going into the 1992 Olympics the US had never gone more than 2 Olympics without a gold; since 1992, America has only won once (Nathan Adrian 2012).
On the Women’s side, despite strong showing sweeping the podium in both 1920 and 1924, and grabbing every gold from 1920-1932, the US has only won gold TWICE since then. We’ve been competitive, but the rest of the world has kept America’s women looking almost pedestrian in the 100m freestyle. The US has grabbed bronze in 2000, 2004 and 2008, and the young Missy Franklin finished 5th in 2012.
So let’s look at who’s likely going to represent the US in 2016, and how they might do.
In 2012, Texas’s Jimmy Feigen won the 100 y freestyle at NCAAs, followed by Brazilian Marcelo Chierighini of Auburn and SoCal’s Vlad Morozov. Feigen went on to finish fifth at 2012 Olympic Trials, in an incredibly competitive heat behind Nathan Adrian with Cullen Jones, Matt Grevers, Ricky Berens, and Jason Lezak. Feigen was the only collegiate-aged swimmer in the final (and even he had already finished school). Adrian went on to win gold in London, just touching out Australian power-house James Magnussen by .01. Neither of them were particularly close to Ceasar Cielo-Fihlo’s 2009 world record.
Feigen swam in the heats of the 4x100m Free relay where the USA won a silver behind France. The USA had never lost the 4x100m Free relay from its inception in 1964 through 1996, however they’ve only had one gold since, part of Michael Phelps’ 8-Gold Medal effort in 2008 on the back of a blistering anchor leg by Jason Lezak to out-touch Alain Bernard of France.
Feigen’s NCAA time of 41.95 would have placed 6th in 2016 NCAAs. The college swimmers are poised to make a big impact on the final heat of Olympic Trials. Caeleb Dressel’s 40.46 that won him the 100y freestyle at NCAAs is projected to break the long-standing world record. Dressel’s detractors point to him losing 2 turns in the 100m free, which could take away from his hard-won advantage from underwater kicking. He has never swam the 100 LCM free in a time under 49 seconds.
Behind Dressel, Simonas Bilis of Lithuania and Kristian Gkolomeev of Greece took 2nd and 3rd at NCAAs, but the 4th-6th were taken by US swimmers with times about or better than Feigen’s 2012 time (NC State’s Ryan Held, Texas’s Brett Ringgold, and Missouri’s Michael Chadwick). Adrian’s 47.5 in London is the fastest US time since 2009, and of collegiate swimmers, Chadwick has the fastest recorded LCM time at 48.87. Expect the regular crowd led by Adrian, Jones, Josh Schneider, and perhaps Lochte, Phelps, and Berens.
And, lest we forget, there’s another young gun in the mix. Ryan Hoffer burst onto the National scene in December 2015, annihilating the previous National Age Group record for 17-18 year olds, dominating a very fast heat, and posting a time of 41.23 – a time that would have placed third at NCAAs this year, and would have won many of last 10 year’s NCAA Championships. His conversion, somewhere around 48.0 seconds, would have finaled at the 2012 Olympics, been the top qualifier at 2012 US Trials, and would be third or fourth among all-time best swims by active American swimmers. Again, though, Hoffer derives his advantage from incredible underwaters – his start is certainly formidable, but at every turn Hoffer pulled further ahead in the race, and with two less turns this could damage Hoffer’s dominance. Like never before, the 2016 US Olympic Trials will be a comparison of short-course-yards underwater-based sprinters, and long-course meters International-focused swimmers.
The 100 SCY freestyle was won at the 2012 NCAAs by the Bahamas’ Arianna Vanderpool-Wallace, who would go on to finish 10th at the Olympics. Behind her, Georgia’s Megan Romano and Arizona’s Margo Geer took 2nd and 3rd.
At Olympic Trials, there was a unique combination of swimmers in the 100LCM final: 2 high school swimmers (Missy Franklin and Lea Neal), 5 post-graduate swimmers (Champion Jess Hardy, Amanda Weir, Natalie Coughlin, Dana Vollmer and Madison Kennedy) and Allison Schmitt, who took the 2011-12 school year off to train for the Olympics, in which she would ultimately win 5 medals. (When she returned to Georgia, they won the 2013 NCAA Championships).
Franklin went on to finish 5th, and Hardy 8th, in the Olympic finals.
The absence of college swimmers in the 2012 100LCM freestyle finals lead many to think designating a year to training may be important. That’s one reason this year’s top seed, Simone Manuel, didn’t compete at the collegiate level for the 2015-2016 season. Manuel’s 53.25 would have finished 2nd in London, and the women’s 100 freestyle is full of young talent, compared to the veteran-heavy brigade on the men’s side. Also foregoing a collegiate career, Abbey Weitzeil is a top sprinter, vying for a spot in the 50 and the 100 freestyle, focusing her training on meters to be better prepared for Trials and the Olympiad.
Franklin, Schmitt, Couglin, Vollmer and Weir will all be back, as will collegiate talent Lia Neal, Kelsi Worrell, Shannon Vreeland, and Olivia Smoliga. Geer and Romano are both back in the mix, and 2015’s NCAA bronze medalist Natalie Hinds, who had an off NCAAs in 2016, is also further down the list and could pull out a big drop for Trials.
Finally, one of the most electric names in swimming right now, Katie Ledecky, who has deftly dismantled the stroke of freestyle and put it back together in a whole new way by rewriting the record boards from the 1500 down, has a blazing-fast time of 53.75 (4th fastest this cycle). No woman has ever qualified for the 800LCM freestyle and the 100LCM freestlye – in fact, Allison Schmitt’s versatility from 100-400 is considered prodigious, but Ledecky has defied expectations for years, and is in a rare position to stake her claim to being to un-contested best female freestyle swimmer in history.
China, Australia and the Netherlands have impressive squads of sprint freestyle swimmers, and in 2012 the finals was a sampling of 7 different countries, so the next Olympic Champion could be from anywhere; however, Cate and Bronte Campbell of Australia have had this even locked town, with 7 of the top 10 times ever swum between them (the other three, including the world record, all belong to Britta Steffen from 2009). The US will need to put up quite a fight to even have a chance against that 4×100 freestyle relay. The US women have always made the podium, but haven’t clinched a gold since the 2000 Sydney Olympics. Expectations are high for Manuel and Franklin, but there are a lot of names fighting to make the top 6, and this should be quite a race.