This article is part of our Tokyo Olympics series.
Lilly King is nothing if not candid. In the lead-up to the U.S. Olympic Swim Trials, the two-time Olympic gold medalist boldly asserted that American women have the talent required to win every individual gold medal in Tokyo — a feat last accomplished in 1920, when there were only two individual swimming events for women.
It seems unlikely that King’s prognostication will hold water; the Australian team figures to pose a serious challenge, and there is no recent precedent for a one-country gold rush. But if it even comes close, these Summer Games stand to be a coronation for the U.S. women’s swimming team.
If the 2012 Olympic Games in London was a watershed moment for American female athletes across all sports, what happened four years later in Rio confirmed it wasn’t an anomaly. At each Games, women claimed more hardware than their male teammates.1
For as long as there has been an Olympics, men have had more events to participate in and in turn more opportunities to medal. Because of those consistently unequal practices, London and Rio represent the only instances of American women outearning men on the medal stand.2
In what the International Olympic Committee is billing as the first ever gender-balanced Olympic Games, four new sports will debut and a world record-breaking 300-plus female athletes will feature on the U.S. team. This will also be the first Olympics in which women can compete in the 1,500-meter freestyle -- a 30-lap endurance test. “It’s about time,” said American swimmer Katie Ledecky, who holds the 10 fastest times ever recorded in the women’s event. Should Ledecky hit the wall at her typical time, a gold medal in the 1,500 is as close to a lock as can be found during these Olympics.
As a whole, swimming has been a fruitful sport for Team USA. If U.S. Swimming were a country, its 553 Olympic medals would rank 10th among all countries. Since 1960, the U.S. has set the pace in the sport in both the gold and overall medal tables at all but two Olympics.3 And at every Summer Olympics since 1996, swimming has provided the most medals of any discipline.
Success has been the standard for the U.S. women’s swim team since it first competed at the Olympics in 1920. At those Games in Belgium, swimming in what a competitor referred to as a “mud and not water,” American women won all three possible gold medals and nabbed seven of nine medals overall.4 Since tying for the most medals with Australia in 1956, U.S. women have outearned their swimming competition at every Olympics they entered save for two.5
However, even for a team accustomed to ransacking the medal stand, the previous two Olympics have been exceptional. In London, U.S. women set five Olympic records in the pool en route to eight gold medals, the most since 1984. Then in Rio, American women set five Olympic records and matched the previous Olympic’s gold medal total. Combined, the team won at least twice as many medals as the second-ranked countries, nabbed nearly half (16 of 33) of available gold medals and nearly a third (30 of 97) of available medals overall. In Rio and London, the U.S. collected 16 total gold medals in the water, which came after the U.S. women won a combined five gold medals in Beijing in 2008 and Athens in 2004.
From 1984 through 2008, U.S. women earned a medal share of 28.5 percent and a gold medal share of 35.5 percent. Those shares rose to 30.1 percent and 48.5 percent, respectively, over the last two Olympics.
The U.S. women will field a young team in Japan, including 20 first-timers and 11 teenagers, four under the age of 18. In 2016, Ledecky was the lone teen representative. But even given the inexperience, there’s reason to believe the U.S. team is bringing the depth and talent to contend in Japan.
Ledecky evolved from a virtual unknown in 2012 to the most dominant female swimmer in the world in 2016 and is now arguably the greatest female distance swimmer of all time. Simone Manuel, who won gold in 2016 in the 100-meter freestyle, overcame overtraining syndrome to qualify in the 50-meter free. King brings a swagger to the team, while Hali Flickinger looks for redemption from her disappointing 2016. With newcomers like Regan Smith and Torri Huske joining the veterans, the American contingent heading to Tokyo will not lack star power. The U.S. team has women ranked first or second in the current world rankings for 10 different events,6 with a few notable favorites: King in the 100-meter breaststroke and 400-meter individual medley, and Ledecky in the 800- and 1,500-meter freestyle.
American women have won 103 gold medals in the pool, more than triple the amount of the next best team, East Germany. With a showdown with Australia looming, Tokyo represents a fantastic opportunity for the U.S. women’s team to once again showcase its power.