2011 has come to a close, and 2012 has begun, but I still have to reveal my top-ten swimmers of 2011. Inspired by Speed Endurance’s top-51 rankings, I will do the same, but I am only going to take a look at the top-ten swimmers I saw this year. In general, my list is similar to Tom Willdridge, with nine of the same ten swimmers, but some changes in order reflect my different criteria for picking my swimmers. My list is almost entirely dependent on performances at the World Championships in Shanghai, while other international competitions will hold some weight, and times posted elsewhere will have minimal significance.
Check out the Speed Endurance top-51 lists, and compare that top-ten to mine!
No. 51 – No. 42
No. 41 – No. 32
No. 31 – No. 22
No. 21 – No. 11
No. 10 – No. 1
10. Cesar Cielo, Brazil
Cielo had a nice bounce-back year after losing both the 50 and 100 free at Pan Pacs to Nathan Adrian. Although he did not know if he’d even be able to swim at Worlds until the week before, he came to Shanghai ready to get down the pool fast. While his times in the 50 fly and 50 free were not his best, he still obliterated everyone else. Cielo has put himself into ideal position to chase his second-consecutive Olympic title in the 50 free, having not lost an important race since 2008. He finished fourth in the 100 free before posting a 47.84 at the Pan Ams. Holding on for the full 100 has been a challenge since the tech suits were banned, but Cielo made big progress towards that mark in 2011.
9. Dana Vollmer, USA
Dana Vollmer fits in at number nine on both my list and that of Speed Endurance. Vollmer started things off right for the U.S. team at Worlds. She swam under 57 and almost beat her own American record in prelims before putting up a stellar 56.47 in semi-finals and edging Alicia Coutts for the gold in the final. Less than two hours after that 56.47, Vollmer swam the anchor leg for the silver medal-winning U.S. 400 free relay, and later in the week, she sealed the deal for the medley relay and setting up a new American record. She leads Team USA again into 2012.
8. Federica Pellegrini, Italy
Again, I agree with Tom on the number eight pick. Pellegrini raced tough in Shanghai, obliterating Rebecca Adlington and Camille Muffat for the win in the 400 free and the first textile swim under 4:02. Despite holding the world record and reigning as the World and Olympic champion, she went into the final of the 200 free as a clear underdog behind Femke Heemskerk. Swimming from the back of the pack, Pellegrini overtook a fading Heemskerk for the win. She will face tough challenges at the Olympics, especially in the 200 free, but she proved in 2011 that she is clutch.
7. Alexander Dale Oen, Norway
Dale Oen led qualifiers going into the final of the 100 breast in Shanghai, but many still considered him an underdog to Kosuke Kitajima. The two-time Olympic champion, Kitajima had edged Dale Oen for the top time in the world in 2010. In the final, Dale Oen jumped out to a huge lead and won in 58.71, falling just short of Brenton Rickard’s world record of 58.71. The media lauded Dale Oen for winning at a time when Norway had been devastated with attacks of terrorism. Dale Oen’s swim was so impressive that he swam slower in the 50 breast then his opening split in the 100 breast. Illness derailed chances at another gold in the 50 breast and forced him to withdraw from the 200 breast.
6. James Magnussen, Australia
This young sprinter from down under started off the year with some fireworks, posting a 48.29 in the 100 free at his National championships, shocking the entire swimming community. Still, he was an outside shot for a medal, at best, in Shanghai, until he came down with pneumonia in the weeks before the meet. By that point, no one expected much from him, and I had even heard rumors that he would withdraw from the meet. The last thing anyone expected was a 47.49 lead-off leg in the 400 free relay. After leading Australia to gold there, Magnussen carved up the individual 100 free field to secure another gold and almost ran down Nathan Adrian in the medley relay, earning Aussie silver. Magnussen enters 2012 as the clear favorite for the Olympic gold in the 100 free, but questions still remain as to his Olympic ambitions in the 50 free and on Australia’s 800 free relay. Despite talking up his 200 potential, he has done nothing to prove that he is a legitimate threat to help Australia earn a medal in that relay. So far, his only true successes have been in the 100.
5. Rebecca Soni, USA
Soni has been the model of consistency over the past two years, dominating her stroke unlike anyone else in the world has over that span. She has not lost a 200 breast since the 2009 Worlds, and has only lost one 100 breast long course during that time period. This year, she was almost than a second in front of Jessica Hardy in the world rankings in the 100 breast and had even more of a cushion in the 200 breast. She has consistently thrown down lights-out times in-season and backed it up in the big meets. She also provided a key leg for the dominating U.S. women’s medley relay in Shanghai. Over the past few years, though, Soni has had one goal in mind: win Olympic gold and break world records. This is the year when she can pull it off.
4. Michael Phelps, USA
People criticized the greatest of all time. I said that Phelps wouldn’t be ready for Shanghai. But at that meet, Michael Phelps showed some clutch in winning four golds, two silvers, and a bronze. Many predicted that Phelps wouldn’t medal in the 200 free, but he jumped out fast and held off the likes of Paul Biedermann and Park Tae Hwan for the silver medal. They said he would lose the 200 fly, an event which he hadn’t lost for nearly a decade, but he blasted past Takeshi Matsuda on the final lap for the win. They said he couldn’t challenge Ryan Lochte in the 200 IM, but he went all the way to the finish and beat his best time from the 2008 Olympics. The American relays leaned on the efforts of Michael Phelps. Quite a performance for someone not at peak form. Phelps has swam great since those Worlds, and he is building up to a grand finale this summer.
3. Missy Franklin, USA
Missy was the biggest surprise of 2011. Earning a spot on the U.S. 400 free relay in prelims, she blasted a 52.99 split in the final to give the Americans a chance against the Netherlands. On day five, however, she moved into the world’s limelight. After a stunning bronze medal in the 50 back, Franklin led off the 800 free relay in 1:55.06, by far the top time of the year, on the way to a relay gold. Entering the meet as a medal contender in the 200 back, Franklin entered the event as the clear favorite for gold. She twice lowered the American record and swam the third-fastest time ever to win gold. That same day, she anchored Natalie Coughlin, Soni, and Vollmer to a dominating medley relay win. Just days later, Franklin flew to Palo Alto for U.S. Nationals, where she posted the fifth-fastest time in the world in the 100 back and a time that would have won bronze in the 100 free. Perhaps Franklin would be even higher on this list if she had the opportunity to swim more events at Worlds. Look out London.
2. Sun Yang, China
This young Chinese superstar made history in 2011, lowering Grant Hackett’s longstanding world record in the 1500 free with an epic final two laps to come back from two seconds behind world record-pace. I name this swim the undisputed top swim of 2011. Sun also took the gold in the 800 and silver in the 400. Sun went into the 400 free final as the top qualifier but finished well behind Park Tae Hwan for the silver. Despite this, Sun still holds the top two times of the year in the 400 free. His 3:40.29 came up just shy of Biedermann’s 3:40.07 world record. Still, he put that swim up at the wrong time, at Chinese Nationals two months after Worlds. Speed Endurance claims that this swim puts him over the top for number one on this list. I disagree; the best swimmer in the world doesn’t come up short in a World Championships final. Sun Yang has to settle for number two.
1. Ryan Lochte, USA
Ryan Lochte is the top swimmer in the world again this year. Lochte ran down Michael Phelps for a win over the fastest field ever in the 200 free, before edging Phelps two days later in the 200 IM. More importantly, Lochte broke the first world record in the long course pool in 18 months, his 1:54.00 edging the 1:54.10 he swam in 2009 in Rome. He took almost a full second off his personal best in the 200 back to destroy the likes of Ryosuke Irie and Tyler Clary before anchoring the U.S. in a comeback win in the 800 free relay. He finished his week off with a four-second victory in the 400 IM with promise of going much faster next year on the event on the first day instead of the last. Lochte holds a huge edge on the rest of the world in 2012, and while he faces major challenges, particularly in Phelps, expect him to step up and swim better than ever.