Michael Phelps competing in his final Olympics is, for many, the swimming story of the 2016 Rio Games. But there are 46 other exceptional athletes competing for Team USA in this pool this year (more if you count water polo and synchro, but let’s keep our heads on straight) that deserve our recognition. Here’s a look at just a few.
1. Nathan Adrian
One of Team USA’s 2016 swimming captains, Adrian is also one of its greatest hopes in the pool this time around, seeded high in the sprint freestyle events and ready to fend off the rival Australian team alongside Phelps in the 4x100m free relay.
The Bremerton, Washington, native was a surprise individual gold medalist in 2012, touching out James Magnussen in the 100m free, and Adrian, 27, will be looking to defend that title in Rio as well as contend in the high-speed free-for-all that is the 50m. He’s favored for a medal once again, but the three-time Olympian knows that, especially in the sprint events, times don’t mean much.
“What I focus on is trying to nail certain aspects of my race,” Adrian told reporters at a press conference after arriving in Rio this week, citing energy management as a crucial factor in the 100m. “The more I can do that, the more I can hone in on that, the time takes care of itself in the end.”
2. Katie Ledecky
Ledecky, like her teammate Missy Franklin, broke onto the international stage at the 2012 London Games. She was the youngest member of Team USA and the gold medal champ in the 800m freestyle -- where Ledecky shocked the world by winning in dominating fashion, finishing over four seconds ahead of the silver medalist -- but unlike Franklin, she remained just on the edge of the spotlight.
This might be due to the fact that most of Ledecky’s specialties are distance events, the marathons of indoor water sports. All guts and less glory, distance freestyle races are events that nonswimmers struggle to comprehend, long grinds that require lap counters and are sometimes interrupted by unglamorous commercial breaks.
But Ledecky, a 19-year-old Washington D.C., native who will start her freshman year at Stanford in the fall, pays no mind. She’s the new-and-improved Janet Evans, and she’s back to defend her title in 800m free -- an event in which she now owns the top 11 fastest times in history -- as well as the speedier 200m and 400m. You’ll also likely spot her in some relay events. And this time around, no one will be surprised when she stands atop the podium.
3. Conor Dwyer
If Adrian is America’s greatest hope in the sprint freestyle events, then Dwyer is the answer in the middle-distance. The Winnetka, Illinois, native made his Olympic debut in London, placing fifth in the 400m free and winning a gold medal with the 4x200m relay, and he’s back this year for more.
Dwyer will have stiff competition, particularly in China’s dominant distance freestyler Sun Yang, but the 27-year-old University of Florida grad is used to adversity. He won his first state title swimming through a goggle malfunction at 11 years old, and finished his college career with 12 All-American honors and three NCAA titles despite not being recruited out of high school. He’s ready to roll.
4. Missy Franklin
The golden girl of Team USA’s 2012 swimming faction, Franklin’s bubbly personality and dominance in the pool -- taking home four golds and a bronze -- made her one of the feel-good storylines of the London Games.
After her stellar Olympic showing, Franklin continued to dominate on the national stage, winning a record-breaking six gold medals at the 2013 World Championships and collecting two more in 2015, going back and forth with Ledecky as the queens of the 200m freestyle.
This time around, Franklin’s role will be slightly pared down, competing in just two individual events compared to four in London. The 21-year-old Pasadena, California, native will swim against Ledecky in the 200m free and alongside her in the 4x200m relay. She’ll also be striving to defend her gold medal in the 200m backstroke.
“Being on an Olympic podium, winning an Olympic medal, there’s no words to describe it. It’s just the most incredible feeling in the world,” Franklin marveled in a Sports Illustrated preview of the Rio Games. “I can’t imagine how anyone, having been able to do that before, would not want to do that again. So I’m very hungry for it.”
5. Anthony Ervin
Swimming fans likely remember Ervin best from the 2000 Sydney Games, where he tied teammate Gary Hall Jr. for gold in the 50m freestyle, becoming the first swimmer of African-American heritage to stand atop the Olympic podium.
After burning out and leaving the sport in 2003 (and selling his gold medal on eBay, donating the proceeds to tsunami relief), the Valencia, California, native returned in 2012, qualifying for his second Olympic team just in time to head to London, where Ervin finished fifth in the 50m, less than .2 seconds out of medal contention.
This time around, at the ripe old age of 35, Ervin -- another one of the swim team’s Rio captains -- will likely be competing in his last Olympic Games as well. While his swan song will be overshadowed by Phelps, it’s worth noting the final performances of one of Team USA’s reigning sprint kings. Look for Ervin in the 50m free and maybe the 4x100m relay, as well. Don’t blink though, or you might miss him.
6. Dana Vollmer
Vollmer is the defending Olympic gold medalist in the 100m butterfly -- after becoming the first woman in history to swim the race under 56 seconds at the 2012 London Games -- and she’s back for more in Rio.
A seasoned Olympic champion -- the Granbury, Texas, native won relay gold in the 4x200m at the 2004 Games in Athens, Greece when she was just 17 -- Vollmer, now 28, battled through retirement speculation to make her third Olympic team after welcoming her first child with husband Andy Grant last year.
“I hated when I saw the rumors that I actually did retire; I never did retire. I always wanted to leave it open for myself and I want to get back into shape,” she told Universal Sports Network last year. “It’s one of those things that if I can get back into shape, maybe I’ll see what I can go in the pool.”
Clearly, she’s ready to go, looking to defend her 100m fly title and fend off the favored Aussies in the 4x100m freestyle relay.
7. Chase Kalisz
One of Team USA’s standout Olympic rookies, Kalisz grew up looking across the lanes at Phelps, his fellow individual medley competitor and teammate at the North Baltimore Aquatic Club.
“We had a game where we would see how many autographs we could get from Michael,” Kalisz said of coming up as an age group swimmer at NBAC while Phelps rose to stardom after his eight gold medal performance at the 2008 Olympics. “He had spinners on [his Escalade] and all the kids would spin them. If Michael would catch us, he would set the car alarm off on us.”
These days, Kalisz, who also swims for the University of Georgia, is ready to make his own Olympic name in Rio’s tough 400m IM field, which includes Japan’s Kosuke Hagino and Daiyo Seto. For the 22-year-old Bel Air, Maryland, native, it’s a dream that’s been years in the making.
“I remember watching people like Michael and Natalie [Coughlin, a 12-time Olympic medalist] as early as I can remember watching the Olympics,” he recalled. “I always wanted to be like those guys… Every single day I think about it, and I work every single day to get to that goal.”
8. Maya DiRado
After finishing fourth in both individual medley events at the 2012 Olympic Trials and just missing the team, DiRado came into the 2016 Trials with an agenda, qualifying in both the 200m and 400m IM, as well as the 200m backstroke, which she touched out Franklin to win.
“SO MUCH GRATITUDE RIGHT NOW,” the Stanford grad tweeted after her Trials win in the 400m. “Wildly thankful for everyone who got me to this moment that's been 17 years in the making.”
The 23-year-old San Francisco native is likely the U.S.’s best hope for a medal in the IM events, but it’s that rematch with Franklin in the 200m back that we’re really waiting to watch.
9. Ryan Lochte
And of course, we can’t forget about Lochte. Another one of 2012’s breakouts stars and perhaps the only Olympian in history to walk away with a trademarked catchphrase and his own reality show in addition to a handful of gold medals, the 32-year-old individual medley specialist will be back at it in Rio with the frat boy persona that somehow keeps him perpetually underestimated.
And while Lochte, now one of the team’s elder statesmen -- yes, even with that new ice-blue hair -- will only be competing in one individual event at the 2016 Games after sustaining an injury at Olympic trials back in June, the 200m IM won’t be the real spot to watch him. The real draw of a swimmer like Lochte is watching him in the relays, teaming up with his fellow Americans against those Aussies, who are looking to make a comeback after a disappointing London showing.
So, jeah, you could say we’re ready for some swimming.