The following reflects general expectation rather than official qualification. The 2021 U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials can be streamed live on NBCOlympics.com and the NBC Sports app starting June 4, as well as seen on the networks of NBCUniversal.
Katie Ledecky: The brightest women’s swimming star in Rio, five-time Olympic champion Katie Ledecky has maintained her dominance since 2016. Shortly after the Rio Games, Ledecky enrolled at Stanford University and competed for two seasons as an NCAA swimmer before going pro in 2018. Ledecky replicated her Olympic success at the 2017 World Championships in Budapest, but a badly timed illness during the 2019 Worlds in Gwangju made her appear, for the first time, vulnerable. She still managed to win the 800m freestyle gold, but shockingly finished second in the 400m free to then-18-year-old Australian Ariarne Titmus. Ledecky vs. Titmus projects to be one of the most anticipated matchups of the Tokyo Olympic swimming program. However, Ledecky, still just 24, will be favored for gold in several other events as well.
Caeleb Dressel: If you were not paying close attention, you might have missed Caeleb Dressel’s double-gold medal performance in Rio, since both came as part of relay events. In the time since, though, Dressel has ascended to superstardom. The 24-year-old Floridian won a combined 13 gold medals at the 2017 and 2019 World Championships, sweeping the freestyle and butterfly sprints at both competitions. At the 2019 Worlds, Dressel broke Michael Phelps’ 10-year-old world record in the 100m butterfly. Dressel will be the gold medal favorite in Tokyo in the 50m and 100m freestyle, the 100m butterfly, and could also compete on all four U.S. relay teams, including the new mixed medley relay.
Simone Manuel/Sarah Sjostrom/Cate Campbell: The three fastest female swimmers in history have electrified the swimming world since Rio. American Simone Manuel got the best of the three-way rivalry most recently, sweeping the 50m and 100m freestyle titles at the 2019 World Championships. One year earlier, though, Manuel dropped both events at the 2018 Pan Pacific Championships to Australia’s Cate Campbell. One year before that, Sarah Sjostrom of Sweden shined at the 2017 World Championships, setting world records in the 50m and 100m freestyle which still stand in 2021. Tokyo presents the highly anticipated opportunity to see which, if any, of these women will separate themselves as the world’s fastest woman in water.
Other notable returners: Kathleen Baker (USA), Kyle Chalmers (AUS), Yulia Efimova (RUS), Kosuke Hagino (JPN), Katinka Hosszu (HUN), Lilly King (USA), Chad le Clos (RSA), Ryan Murphy (USA), Penny Oleksiak (CAN), Adam Peaty (GBR), Evgeniy Rylov (RUS), Joseph Schooling (SGP), Ferry Weertman (NED)
Michael Phelps: Immediately after Rio, Michael Phelps retired from competition, leaving behind a legacy as the greatest swimmer of all time. It’s unknown if Phelps ever seriously considered coming out of retirement for Tokyo 2020 as he did for the Rio Games (he first called it quits after London 2012, only to return two years later to train for his fourth Olympics), but the 23-time gold medalist seems content in post-competition life as a husband and father of three boys.
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Dana Volmer/Missy Franklin: Vollmer and Franklin both won their fifth and final Olympic gold medals in Rio as part of relay teams, after captivating the world in London four years prior. Franklin announced her retirement in 2018 at age 23 due to severe shoulder tendinitis, while Vollmer followed suit a year later after extending her career into her early 30s. Both are firmly entrenched among the greatest female swimmers ever, tied for fourth all-time in Olympic gold medals and having set multiple former world records between them.
Other notable retirees: Maya DiRado (USA)
To be determined
Ryan Lochte: Inside the pool, Lochte, a 12-time Olympic medalist, has little left to prove. Yet the 35-year-old is determined to qualify for a fifth Olympic Games and a chance at personal redemption in Tokyo. Since causing an international controversy during the Rio Games, Lochte has served two suspensions, one for the gas station incident in Brazil and another for a social media post he made in 2018 that showed him receiving legal substances through an IV, which is not permitted under doping rules. The former reality TV star has also become a husband and father since 2016. In the documentary “In Deep with Ryan Lochte” streaming now on Peacock, Lochte said fatherhood has given him a new perspective on life and renewed motivation toward his goals in the pool. “If I don’t make the Olympic team [for Tokyo], they won’t see the change that I’ve made,” Lochte said. If he qualifies, Lochte will be the oldest American male swimmer to ever compete at the Olympics.
Nathan Adrian: Five-time Olympic gold medalist Nathan Adrian hopes to compete at his fourth Games in Tokyo. Although he’s now an additional year further from his prime at 32, the Olympic postponement brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic might have helped Adrian rather than hurt him. That is because Adrian was diagnosed with testicular cancer in January 2019. Luckily, the disease was caught early, but Adrian still had to undergo multiple surgeries and spend four months out of competition. Now, having had over a full year to regain his top form, Adrian has sights set on the individual freestyle and relay events in Tokyo.
Other notable TBD's: Sun Yang (CHN) [pending doping ban]
New Faces to Watch
Regan Smith: The 19-year-old Minnesota native burst onto the major international swimming scene at the 2019 World Championships in Gwangju. Smith won the 200m backstroke title, shattering the world record in her semifinal race. That performance caught the attention of the Team USA coaching staff, who inserted Smith into the lead leg of the 4x100m medley relay the following day. Smith swam her relay leg brilliantly, setting a world record in the 100m backstroke despite not participating in the individual event in Gwangju (first leg relay swimmers are eligible for world records since they start the race from normal starting position).
Kristof Milak: Like Smith, Hungary’s Milak delivered an unexpected record-setting performance at 2019 Worlds. Racing the 200m butterfly, Milak won gold with a time of 1:50.73, breaking the world record set by Michael Phelps 10 years prior.
Other notable new faces: Carson Foster (USA), Maggie MacNeil (CAN), Kaylee McKeown (AUS), Ariarne Titmus (AUS), Luca Urlando (USA)