In the history of the summer Olympic Games, there have only been three occasions where the American men did not win an individual Olympic gold medal in swimming: 1896, 1900, and 1980.
In 1896 and 1900, the US sent only one athlete in swimming. In 1896, Gardner Williams swam two races and won no medals. In 1900, Fred Hendschel swam the 200 free and 200 metre obstacle event, and didn’t advance to the final in either.
In 1980, the US didn’t send a team.
And that’s it. That’s the totality of years in which the US didn’t win a gold medal in men’s swimming at the Olympic Games.
Now, just-over a year away from the Paris 2024 Olympic Games, there is a very real possibility that we see this again.
At the 2022 World Aquatics Championships, the American men won five individual gold medals. Three of those were in the stroke 50s (50 breast, 50 back, 50 fly) which are not events at the Olympic Games.
The other two were Bobby Finke, who swam 7:39.36 in the 800 free to win by less than three tenths of a second; and Ryan Murphy, who swam 1:54.52 in the 200 back to win by about half-a-second. Those two are probably the best chances, based on what we know right now, to win individual Olympic golds in Paris.
Murphy was the Olympic silver medalist in the 200 back, finishing almost a second behind the winner. The winner was Russian Evgeny Rylov, who is a focal point of the conflict over whether to allow Russian athletes to compete in the Paris 2024 Olympics after he made an appearance on stage at a rally in Moscow in support of the Russian government’s war in Ukraine.
While Murphy has seen a resurgence in his career coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic, Rylov is a year younger than Murphy. If Russia is allowed into the Olympics, and if Rylov maintains his motivation during that time, he probably reattains his status as favorite.
If that doesn’t happen, however, there’s not an obvious challenger to Murphy – if he can continue his form through Paris. Among the swimmers who have been faster than Murphy’s 1:54.52 from the World Championships last year, most are retired. A few others are on the tail-end of their careers, or focusing on other events, and haven’t been those times in years (Radoslaw Kawecki, Ryosuke Irie, Mitch Larkin, and Xu Jiayu, for example).
Great Britain’s Luke Greenbank seems like the biggest international threat on paper right now, outside of the Russians. He took silver at last year’s World Championships, has been consistently in the 1:54 range since coming out of the pandemic, and is two years younger than Murphy (meaning he’ll be sort of at a prime age of 26 as the Paris Olympics come around).
Murphy’s other biggest challengers might be domestic: Shaine Casas, the Worlds bronze medalist, was 1:55.35, seems to have a deep pool of talent, and will hit Paris a few years into his earnest pro-level training; and the young teenager Daniel Diehl, who ranks 3rd in the world this season at just 17-years-old, .03 seconds faster than Murphy.
But overall, there might be some clean water there for Murphy. That’s probably the Americans’ best bet based on what we know right now.
As for Finke, the other World Champion, he faces a very good field in both of the distance freestyles from the likes of Florian Wellbrock, Mykhailo Romanchuk, Gregorio Paltrinieri, Guilherme Costa, and Daniel Wiffen, among many others.
Given his age (23), Finke still has as good of a chance as any of those swimmers at gold in Paris, but with so much talent in the events — arguably the most talent we’ve had in men’s distance freestyles in decades — there’s very little margin of error there for the double Tokyo Olympic Champion.
When looking across the board otherwise, though, it’s hard to see where the Americans might have great medal chances otherwise.
If it’s still not clear to anyone why American swimming fans are so interested in the return of Caeleb Dressel, this is why. Before he left the 2022 World Championships early, Dressel felt like the American mens’ surest bet to keep the gold medal well from running dry in Paris. With rumors that he’s back in training and will join an American training camp in Colorado Springs in a few weeks flying, an athlete of his caliber isn’t going to just disappear after a 6 month break, but we also don’t know where, exactly, he’ll be when he returns, if he’ll be that same ‘overwhelming favorite’ that he’s been.
David Popovici is way ahead of the world in the 100 and 200 freestyles; Kristof Milak has the 200 fly locked down; Leon Marchand, after his performances at the NCAA Championships, doesn’t look likely to give up any titles in the IM races; and there are active World Record holders in both breaststrokes (Adam Peaty and Zac Stubblety-Cook) without Americans as the most likely to pick up those wins even if either guy stumbles.
This is not to say that the Americans don’t have good young talent. Daniel Diehl and Maximus Williamson and Thomas Heilman and Rex Maurer and Will Modglin and a pile of other current high school swimmers will all be in their primes for LA 2028 and Brisbane 2032.
But 2024 looks like it could be a lull in the wave of American swimming.
There are chances, and the American men have gold medal opportunities (as laid out above) that aren’t too far-fetched. But 2024 also feels like the closest the American men have ever been to that edge. At a minimum, we can say that among the world’s peak male superstars, none are American right now – and that’s unusual.
But this lull brings about a pathway for young swimmers to stake their claims, to wrest spots away from established members of Team USA, and to see a clear pathway to podiums of their own – maybe now, and maybe in the future. That comes with a lot of excitement for the future and the possibility of the next great generation rising to the challenge, just in time to impress in front of a lucrative home Olympics.