World’s Best Female Swimmer? Making a Case for Seven Standouts

Kaylee Mckeown of Australia reacts after winning the gold medal in the 100m Backstroke Women Final during the 20th World Aquatics Championships at the Marine Messe Hall A in Fukuoka (Japan), July 25th, 2023.
Kaylee McKeown -- Photo Courtesy: Andrea Masini / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

World’s Best Female Swimmer? Making a Case for Seven Standouts

Each year, the truly elite swimmers are judged based on their results at the major long course championship meet, usually the World Championships or Olympics. Sometimes, the question of best swimmer in the world is clear-cut. For instance, even though Qin Haiyang won three world titles in the men’s breaststroke events this year and lowered a world record, few would argue that the No. 1 men’s spot belongs to Leon Marchand, the world’s premier medley swimmer and the man who broke Michael Phelps’ world record in the 400 IM. If Marchand had been able to fit the 200 breast into his schedule, he surely would have reached the podium there, too, maybe even challenging Qin for supremacy.

The women’s side, though? Only Kaylee McKeown was a three-time individual winner in Fukuoka, and while she makes a compelling case for the top spot, plenty of rivals — including two of her Australian countrywomen — can make that same argument. Let’s dive into the candidates, listed here in alphabetical order by last name.

Katie Ledecky

Considering the full picture of career accomplishments, Ledecky likely tops this list with her decade-plus of domination in the distance events. The 26-year-old from the United States is no longer among the best in the world in the 200 free and lags behind a pair of rivals over 400 meters, but in the distance events, she remains untouchable. Her 800 free times this year were faster than any outside of Ledecky’s own 2016 peak, and the result was an unprecedented sixth consecutive world title. Ledecky also swam the third-quickest 1500 free performance ever on the way to a fifth world title in that race, and her veteran presence remains key to the U.S. women’s 800 free relay.

Summer McIntosh

Summer Mcintosh of Canada reacts after winning the gold medal in the 200m Butterfly Women Final with a New World Junior Record during the 20th World Aquatics Championships at the Marine Messe Hall A in Fukuoka (Japan), July 27th, 2023.

Summer McIntosh — Photo Courtesy: Andrea Masini / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

McIntosh, now 17, got off to a rough start at Worlds, missing the podium in the 400 free after entering as world-record holder. From there, though, the star Canadian teen was back to the form we’ve come to expect during her quick ascension on the world stage. She won bronze in the loaded 200 free despite swimming a sizzling personal-best time of 1:53.65 before she defended her world titles in the 200 butterfly and 400 IM, both in dominant fashion. While McIntosh was well off her 400 IM world record of 4:25.87 in that golden effort, her 4:27.11 was the third-best mark in history.

Kaylee McKeown

Matched up with American Regan Smith in the finals of all three backstroke events, McKeown came out on top each time, winning a pair of close titles in the 100 and 50-meter finals before pulling away down the stretch for a second consecutive world title (and third consecutive international gold) in the 200. Those results made her the first woman ever to sweep all three events in one stroke at a World Championships, with Qin’s breaststroke making him the first man to achieve the trble. McKeown also broke the world record in the 200 back for the first time this year. McKeown was disappointed on the first day of Worlds when she was disqualified in the 200 IM semifinals, costing her of a chance at four gold medals or at least a fourth individual medal, but she was dominant in her remaining events.

Ruta Meilutyte

Meilutyte returned to swimming last year following a multi-year retirement and quickly returned to prominence with a world title in the 50 breaststroke. In 2023, she was even better. Americans Lilly King (the world-record holder) and Lydia Jacoby (the Olympic gold medalist) were the favorites for the 100 breast world title, but Meilutyte led through the rounds and then crushed the field in the final, returning to 1:04 territory for the first time since 2013. Then, she equaled the 50 breast world record in the semifinals before lowering the record to win gold the next night.

Mollie O’Callaghan

Mollie O'callaghan of Australia stands with the gold medal after competing in the 100m Freestyle Women Final during the 20th World Aquatics Championships at the Marine Messe Hall A in Fukuoka (Japan), July 28th, 2023.

Mollie O’Callaghan — Photo Courtesy: Andrea Masini / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

Counting relays, O’Callaghan was the most prolific swimmer of the World Championships, female or male, as she captured three relay golds and a silver as part of an Australian medal rush in addition to her sterling individual efforts. The 19-year-old O’Callaghan became the sixth-fastest swimmer ever in the 100 free leading off Australia’s world-record-crushing 400 free relay, and she swam only slightly off that time in defending her world title over two laps a few days later. But in between, O’Callaghan knocked off a 14-year-old world record in the 200 free, with a monster final length securing a come-from-behind victory and a time of 1:52.85 that finally beat Federica Pellegrini’s 1:52.98 from the polyurethane suit era.

Sarah Sjostrom

In 2023, this Swedish star became a world-title winner 14 years after her first such golden effort. Sjostrom did not race individually until day six of the World Championships, but when she did race, she became the second-ever swimmer to five-peat in one event, the 50 fly, and minutes later, she took down her own world record in the 50 free semifinals. Sjostrom ended up crushing the field in the splash-and-dash one day later to secure a second gold. Sjostrom, who turned 30 in August, hinted after the meet that she may return to the 100-meter events for next year’s Olympics, and she could make noise there, too. Her 400 free relay leadoff split of 52.24 would have earned silver behind O’Callaghan.

Ariarne Titmus

Titmus is the only swimmer on this list to not have captured multiple world titles in Fukuoka, but by a measurement of times, this was her best meet ever. She was not the favorite heading into the 400 free final, but she ended up retaking the world record from McIntosh with a dominant performance and a time of 3:55.38. Titmus also swam her best time in the 200 free at 1:53.01, coming up hundredths short of the world record, but she found herself on the wrong end of a great finish as O’Callaghan stormed ahead to claim gold and the new global standard. One day later, Titmus provided the fastest relay split ever anchoring Australia to gold and a world record in the 800 free relay, and Titmus also captured bronze in the 800 free.

The Verdict

Make a case for any of these accomplished performers, and you’d be justified. Each one achieved magical results at Worlds to declare themselves worthy of the “world’s best” title. If the award was for most versatile, McIntosh would be the obvious choice given her status as a world champion in butterfly and individual medley plus her freestyle results, and even judging only medals won at Worlds, she makes a very compelling case for the top spot. But for right now, two of the Australians land just ahead.

There’s McKeown, untouchable in the backstroke events, and O’Callaghan, so dominant in the 100 and 200 free and her success proving so pivotal in Australia’s move to the top of the medal standings in Fukuoka thanks to relays. For right now, let’s call it a virtual tie between those two. Regardless of the choice for the top spot, the Australian women will be the team defending the position of No. 1 swimming nation at next summer’s Paris Olympics.

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Claire Weinstein*the revelation*
Claire Weinstein*the revelation*
8 months ago

Who will be chosen as the best in the world this year, O Callaghan or Mckeown. TIE

8 months ago

I think a tie between Kaylee and Mollie is pretty correct. I give Mollie the slight edge tbh, considering her world records and relay prowess.

If the schedule was better, Mollie arguably would be a medal chance in the 50/100 backstroke, but backstrokes and freestyles conflict badly at major events.

However, if not for the DQ controversy, Kaylee arguably has a shot at 4 golds, and if she won the 2IM then that would clearly push her ahead.

I just hope they are both able to perform at their best in Paris.

John McHugh
John McHugh
8 months ago
Reply to  Sweep

It’s Ariarne Titmus for me. You seem to forget the fact that the 400m free is the toughest event in the programme. Whilst Ledecky has the range of distance events, you can argue the right conditioning can see anyone swim 800m or 1500m. The 400m is a gruelling, killer category and anyone who has excelled like Titmus in that event gets my vote.

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