Swimming Awards: SI picks the best from the pools at the Rio Olympics

RIO DE JANEIRO — If there were Olympic swimming awards to hand out based on the eight days and nights of racing at the Aquatic Stadium, the U.S. would clearly take home Outstanding Team of the Games. No other country earned more than 10 medals. But who would win the other honors? Here is a look at the performers, performances and personalities that will linger in the memory long after Michael Phelps has settled into retirement:

Male Swimmer of the Games: Phelps, of course. His six medals (five gold) will end up as the most by any athlete in any sport at the Rio Olympics. Phelps would have won this honor at each of the last four Games. 

Female Swimmer of the Games: Katie Ledecky, U.S. Her five medals (four of them gold) and dominance were unmatched, though Katinka Hosszu of Hungary, winner of three individual golds and an individual silver, wasn’t far behind.

Male Rookie of the Games: Ryan Murphy, U.S. The 21 year old from Cal swept both backstrokes and broke the 100-back world record to establish himself as the latest in a line of American back greats that includes John Naber, Rick Carey, Lenny Krayzelburg and Aaron Peirsol.

Game Changer: Simone Manuel, U.S. Her tie for first with Canada’s Penny Oleksiak in the 100 freestyle earned her the first gold ever won by an African-American woman in an individual swimming event. Though just 20, Manuel, a quadruple medalist in Rio, sees herself as a role model to attract more blacks into the sport. She has been aware of her potential to make a difference since age 11, when after talking about the lack of diversity swimming with her parents she researched the history of African-Americans in the sport. 

Female Rookie of the Games: Penny Oleksiak, Canada, and Simone Manuel, U.S. (tie). Oleksiak, 16, a quadruple medalist in butterfly and freestyle, broke her country’s record for medals at a single Summer Olympics. She has dual Canadian-U.S. citizenship (her father grew up in Buffalo) but she has spent her life in Toronto and has no plans to switch sides. 

Swim of the Games:  Phelps’s 200 butterfly. It’s not about the time—by that measure the argument would be among a trio of world-record-smashing races in Rio: Hosszu’s 400 individual medley, Ledecky’s 800 free and the 100-breaststroke swum by Adam Peaty of Great Britain. Phelps’s win over a loaded field in the 200 fly, his signature event, four years after losing the Olympic final, was one of the most dramatic and emotion-laden of his career. 

Most Improved: Katinka Hosszu. Hungary’s 27-year-old Iron Lady had never won an Olympic medal in three previous Games but nearly swept four individual events, which would have tied her with Kristin Otto of East Germany for the most gold medals won by a female swimmer at one Olympics. 

Overachiever: Maya DiRado. In her first—and what she says will be her last—Olympics, the late-blooming 23-year-old won four medals, including the 200 backstroke gold, which she claimed by overtaking the heavily favored Hosszu in the final meters. Watching DiRado’s race on a TV monitor psyched up Ledecky right before she went out and broke the 800-free world record. 

• Katie Ledecky building toward an even brighter future

Underachiever: Australia. The Aussies were projected to win as many as 20 medals and 11 golds with a rejuvenated team and a program that was retooled after a disappointing one-gold, 10-medal showing in London. Instead they won eight total and three gold—good for a second-place finish in the medal standings but far short of the 18 medals and six golds they won in Beijing (or the 15 and six they took home from in Athens).

Top College: Cal and Stanford (tie). The Golden Bears had the most swimmers on Team USA (11), including double-backstroke winner Murphy, 50-free gold medalist Anthony Ervin, 200-breaststroke silver medalist Josh Prenot and women’s 100-back silver medalist Baker.  The Cardinal had a smaller contingent, but it featured Manuel, DiRado and—not least— incoming freshman Ledecky.

Sportsmanship: Missy Franklin, U.S.. Rarely has a young Olympic swimmer achieved the success that Franklin did in London, where at age 17 she won five medals, four of them gold, and set a world record in the 200 backstroke that still stands. In Rio, Franklin didn’t qualify for an individual event final. She went home with only a gold earned by swimming a semifinal of a relay. Yet even in her deep disappointment she offered no excuses and exuded as much of her trademark ebullience as was humanly possible under the circumstances. 

First-Timers Award: Joseph Schooling of Singapore and Dmitriy Balandin of Kazakhstan (tie). Both won gold for countries that had never earned any medals in swimming. Schooling, who swims for the University of Texas, won gold ahead of Phelps in the 100 butterfly, for which his country will reportedly reward him with $1 million. Balandin won the 200 breaststroke ahead of the U.S.’s Prenot; jackpot yet to be determined.

History Prize: U.S. assistant women’s coach Greg Meehan of Stanford. To inspire the American women’s swimmers and build team spirit, he told them in a pre-Games meeting about the Homestead Act of 1862. “[Meehan] talked about how [settlers] claimed their land,” said Ledecky. “We each had an American flag and they had printed out each of the events. The people who were competing in those events came forward, had a little moment together and took the flag and stuck it through the paper and into the grass in the Olympic Village. We were just kind of staking our claim in Rio and I think we kind of showed that we did that in the pool as well.”

Free-Speech Prize: Lilly King, U.S. 100-breaststoke gold medalist, and Mack Horton, Australian 400-free gold medalist. Both were openly critical of rivals in their events that had tested positive for drugs in the past. King went after Russia’s Yulia Efimova (and later U.S. track sprinter Justin Gatlin) while Horton blasted China’s Sun Yang. U.S teammate DiRado praised King for “having an opinion and backing it up.”

Perspective Award: Anthony Ervin. The 35-year-old won his second 50-free gold 16 years after earning his first. Having gone through difficult years in between, he showed a heartfelt appreciation for being at the Games and spoke of competing for pure joy of it. When asked about Team USA’s powerhouse performance, he made the observation that the playing field is not entirely level: “We’re from the United States. We come here with an enormous presence and a lot of advantage and privilege. Our staff is unbelievable. The amount of people that help us from the time the Olympic trials ended to now, just every day, taking care of our minds, our bodies—I don’t think the other teams are necessarily getting that.” 

And so the swimming world, however tilted by the weight of U.S. medals, looks toward the next Games. As Ledecky was leaving a press conference in the main sports complex in Rio on Saturday afternoon, she was handed two Japanese paper fans. She posed with them while five Olympic medals hung from her neck. The road to Tokyo 2020 had begun.



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