TOKYO—In an Olympic swim meet that featured a reversed schedule, no fans and few world records, Team USA will again return home with more medals than anyone else. But fewer of them are gold than in 2016.
The American swimmers won 30 medals in Tokyo, three fewer than their historic 33-medal haul in Rio despite three new events being added to the racing program for these Games. Of those 30, 11 were gold, down about 31% from 16 in Rio—a sign that the U.S.’s vice-like grip on dominance in the pool is loosening as the rest of the world catches up.
Katie Ledecky won four medals—two gold, two silver—in her audacious five-race, 6,200-meter program in Tokyo. But when Team USA flies home on Monday, no swimmer’s suitcase will be heavier than Caeleb Dressel’s. He’ll return stateside with five gold medals, becoming the third American swimmer to collect gold medals in three individual events during a single Olympics. The other two are named Mark Spitz and Michael Phelps.
“I’m not trying to beat Michael. I’m not trying to beat Mark,” he said on Sunday. “It’s not my goal to beat anyone in particular, but about achieving what I think my potential is.”
Based on his performances in Tokyo, his potential appears to be unmatched at the moment. Dressel broke world records in the 100-meter butterfly and 4×100 medley relay and set new Olympic records in the sprint freestyle races he won, the 50 and 100.
Team USA still has plenty of depth on the women’s side; there were six events in which the U.S. women got two swimmers on the podium, the most since 1984.
But it doesn’t have the stranglehold on the sport it long enjoyed. That was clear in the relay events, where the U.S. won two golds in Tokyo compared to five in Rio. Team USA also missed the podium entirely in a relay event for the first time in Olympics history—not once, but twice. The men’s 4×200 freestyle relay finished in fourth place.
And in the Olympic debut of the 4×100 mixed medley relay, which features two men and two women swimming all four strokes, the U.S. was the only team to anchor the freestyle leg with a man. The novel strategy backfired: Dressel dove in more than eight seconds behind the leaders and was only able to salvage a fifth-place finish.
The medal count shows that the gap between the U.S. and the rest of the world narrowed in the individual events as well. The number of U.S. athletes getting on the podium has remained relatively steady over the last three Olympic cycles: 16 in 2012, 17 in 2016 and 16 in 2021. The number of athletes winning gold, however, has steadily dropped from 10 in London to seven in Rio and five here.
Phelps’s success drove the standard for Team USA’s performance in the pool to an almost untenably high level. The team’s huge performance in Rio weighed on the athletes during the five-year run-up to Tokyo, said U.S. team member Regan Smith.
“It’s very easy to let our accomplishments be tainted if it’s not a gold,” she said. “But I think it’s absolutely important to remember that a year ago we didn’t even know if the Games were going to happen.”
Smith wrestled with golden expectations in real time over the course of the meet. Her Olympics began with a bronze medal in the 100 backstroke after posting the fastest time a day earlier in semifinals and continued with a silver in the 200 butterfly. She swam in the preliminary heats of the mixed medley relay that missed the podium and finished her meet with a silver medal in the women’s 4×100 medley relay.
“There is no disappointment and no shame with walking away from any event as an Olympic bronze medalist or an Olympic silver medalist,” said Dave Durden, head coach of the U.S. men’s Olympic swim team. Durden was quick to note that the U.S. also had seven individual fourth-place finishes from five different swimmers.
The list of fourth-place finishers includes swimmers with a lot of chlorinated years ahead of them.
and Bryce Mefford are the oldest at 22. Katie Grimes and Torri Huske are teenagers. Women’s Olympic team coach Greg Meehan said that bodes well for Paris 2024, as athletes will have a better sense of how to manage the pressure of competing under the Olympics microscope.
“It is exciting with such a young team,” he said. “But the one thing you’re going to know from the United States is no one is just going to let them walk to their spot in 2024. They’re going to have to earn it.
Write to Laine Higgins at firstname.lastname@example.org
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