Battles for the Ages: A Look at the Most-Anticipated Showdowns at the Paris Olympics

Summer Mcintosh of Canada reacts after competing in the 400m Freestyle Women Heats during the 20th World Aquatics Championships at the Marine Messe Hall A in Fukuoka (Japan), July 23rd, 2023.
Canada's Summer McIntosh will take center stage in one of the premier races of the Paris Olympics -- Photo Courtesy: Giorgio Scala / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

Battles for the Ages: A Look at the Most-Anticipated Showdowns at the Paris Olympics

Just three years after the most recent incarnation of the Summer Olympics, the world’s top swimmers will again meet with the biggest honors in the sport on the line this summer in Paris. By the time the Olympics begin, there will have been three editions of the World Aquatics Championships held since Tokyo, but each of those meets has been missing big names for various reasons. However, every swimmer healthy and able will be all-in for Paris, and we can expect to see clashes between veteran Olympic champions and new faces who have emerged in recent years. Here are some of the most-hyped events for the Olympics:

Women’s 400 Freestyle

Ariarne Titmus of Australia celebrates after winning the gold medal with a new world record in the 400m Freestyle Women Final during the 20th World Aquatics Championships at the Marine Messe Hall A in Fukuoka (Japan), July 23rd, 2023.

Ariarne Titmus is the world-record holder in the women’s 400 freestyle — Photo Courtesy: Andrea Staccioli / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

This is one race that has drawn comparisons to the men’s 200 free in 2004, which featured Australia’s Ian Thorpe and Grant Hackett, the Netherlands’ Pieter van den Hoogenband and American Michael Phelps, all of whom were already individual Olympic gold medalists. This one will feature the three fastest women ever, with 2016 Olympic champion Katie Ledecky, 2021 Olympic champion and world record holder Ariarne Titmus and Canadian teenager Summer McIntosh.

Titmus won an electric showdown with Ledecky in Tokyo while McIntosh, 14 at the time, finished fourth in that final after swimming in bronze-medal position for much of the race. Now, the three swimmers have all taken turns as the world record holder, with Titmus claiming a dominant win at the 2023 World Championships in 3:55.38. But McIntosh is still improving, and it would be foolish to discount a total champion such as Ledecky. Also keep an eye on Erika Fairweather, a 20-year-old from New Zealand who has joined the sub-4:00 club and recently was crowned world champion in Doha.

Men’s 100 Freestyle

Kyle Chalmers was 18 when he stormed to a stunning Olympic gold at the 2016 Games. Five years later, he nearly pulled off the title defense, only for Caeleb Dressel to hold on to win by 4-hundredths. One year after that, Romanian teenager David Popovici became the world champion and then-world record holder, swimming a time of 46.86 to erase Cesar Cielo’s 13-year-old mark.

Now, Chalmers enters the Olympic year as reigning world champion after Popovici struggled in 2023 and Dressel took a hiatus from the sport. Now, Dressel is back in full training, and Popovici is seeking a rebound while China’s Pan Zhanle was the only man to crack 47 last year, topping out at 46.97 at the Asian Games, and the Chinese teenager recently set a world record of 46.80 at the World Championships in Doha. New contenders such as France’s Maxime Grousset, Great Britain’s Matt Richards, the USA’s Jack Alexy and Canada’s Josh Liendo will also have something to say in determining the medals here.

Women’s 100 Butterfly

There have been six women in history to crack 56 in the 100 fly, and the five fastest are expected to battle it out for Olympic medals this summer. Sarah Sjostrom, still the world record holder, could make a return to the 100 fly, while the next three fastest women in history are the medal favorites: Canada’s Maggie Mac Neil, China’s Zhang Yufei and the United States’ Torri Huske. Mac Neil won Olympic gold in 2021 before Huske took the world title in 2022 and Zhang in 2023. The other key contender is Tokyo bronze medalist Emma McKeon.

Huske could face a battle to qualify for the U.S. team in the event, with Gretchen Walsh, Kate Douglass and Claire Curzan her closest competitors, but whichever Americans do make the trip to Paris in this event will be bona fide medal threats. Huske probably has the most speed of anyone in the world while Mac Neil has showed off her closing burst to great effect in the past, and Zhang won Olympic gold in the 200 fly in Tokyo. The world record will definitely be under siege in this one.

Curzan recently secured silver at the World Champs in Doha, where Germany’s Angelina Kohler captured gold and tossed her hat into the contender ring.

Men’s 100 Breaststroke


Qin Haiyang established himself as the world’s best breaststroker in 2023 — Photo Courtesy: Giorgio Scala / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

Adam Peaty just made his return to the global stage with a bronze medal at the World Championships, and he will be champing at the bit to join the three-peat club, with Michael Phelps the only man to successfully win one race at three (or more) consecutive Games. Peaty is still the only man ever to break 57, with the world record standing at 56.88. However, the 57-club has become more crowded, particularly thanks to the efforts of Qin Haiyang.

Qin, a 24-year-old from China, won all three breaststroke events at the World Championships, breaking the world record in the 200 breast while moving to No. 2 all-time behind Peaty in the 50 and 100. The Chinese breakout swimmer will meet the British breaststroke dynamo in Paris with an Olympic title on the line, while other veterans such as Arno Kamminga (who has also been sub-58 in his career), Nicolo Martinenghi and Nic Fink will try to crash the party. Fink has been superb in the later years of his career, and recently claimed gold at the World Champs in Doha, a major achievement on the path to Paris.

Women’s 100 & 200 Backstroke

Kaylee McKeown will head to Paris in the pole position in both backstroke events, having won Olympic titles in both the 100 and 200 in 2021 before winning world titles and setting world records in the 50, 100 and 200 in 2023. Who could stop her on the Olympic stage? Possibly Regan Smith, the American who placed second to McKeown in all three races at the Fukuoka World Championships.

The two swimmers finished well ahead of anyone else in the world in both events last year, with Smith swimming 57-mid in the 100 and 2:03-high in the 200 back, marking her first time dipping under 2:04 in four years. McKeown will be 23 at the Olympics, Smith 22, and it’s unlikely that anyone else will be earning gold or silver medals in backstroke this time around, even with the Americans boasting impressive depth in the stroke and 2021 silver medalist Kylie Masse still competing internationally.

At the World Champs in Doha, American Claire Curzan was sensational. She secured the backstroke triple, with a 58-low clocking in the 100 back and a 2:05 effort in the 200 back, sending a statement to the absent McKeown and Smith.

Men’s 100 Butterfly

Look for another clash between veterans and newcomers here. Both Caeleb Dressel and Kristof Milak (potentially) will be returning to the global scene after not racing at last year’s World Championships, and they are the two fastest swimmers in history, with Dressel owning the world record at 49.45 and Milak swimming a best time of 49.68.

In the absence of the two heavyweights last year, Maxime Grousset became the 2023 world champion with a sizzling time of 50.14, while Josh Liendo and American Dare Rose each clocked 50-low swims to reach the podium. Meanwhile, Australia’s Matt Temple has worked his way into contention, as he clocked 50.25 at the Japan Open in December. And don’t be surprised if there are newcomers in the mix next year as well…and a sub-51-second swim could be required just to qualify for the final!

Men’s 400, 800 & 1500 Freestyle

Dominant distance swimming in Doha cemented Daniel Wiffen as an Olympic medal favorite — Photo Courtesy: Giorgio Scala / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

It is a golden age for distance swimming, and long-standing world records could go down at the Paris Olympics after spectacular races in all three races at last year’s World Championships in Fukuoka. In the 400 free, Australia’s Sam Short touched out Tunisia’s Ahmed Hafnaoui for gold by 2-hundredths, with the two men becoming the fourth- and fifth-fastest performers ever as they came within 7-tenths of Paul Biedermann’s world record of 3:40.07. The first-ever sub-3:40 swim is within reach in Paris.

Don’t expect a world record in the 800 free this year, not with Zhang Lin’s 7:32.12 still far out of range of current athletes, but it could be an exciting race as five men broke 7:40 at the 2023 Worlds, with Hafnaoui beating out Short for gold ahead of Bobby Finke, Dan Wiffen and Lukas Martens. And in the 1500 free, Sun Yang’s mark of 14:31.04 might be on borrowed time after an intense duel between Hafnaoui and Finke saw both men clock 14:31s in Fukuoka, with Hafnaoui winning by 5-hundredths. Most recently, Wiffen was the dominant force in the distance events at the Doha World Championships, clocking 7:40.94 to win the 800 and 14:34.07 to win the 1500 free, announcing himself as a serious gold-medal threat.

Hafnaoui, Finke, Short, Wiffen and Martens are likely to be joined in contention by European veterans Mykhailo Romanchuk, Florian Wellbrock and Gregorio Paltrinieri, all coming off relatively disappointing World Championships, but with the credentials to suggest a rebound is likely. Casual fans might lose interest in the longest events, but don’t miss these potentially dramatic showdowns at the Games.

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1 month ago

What about the women’s 200 IM?!

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