Remembering the swimming superheroes who conquered Rio 2016

In Rio there was a 16-year-old aquatic marvel, American dominance, and surprise gold for Singapore and Kazakhstan.

13 different countries won Olympic swimming gold in Rio

Canada's Penny Oleksiak collected four medals in Rio, the most for a Canadian at a single summer Olympics. (Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)

By Callum Ng, CBC Sports

Remember the sculpted and skin-suited pool monsters who commanded eight days of swimming at Rio 2016?

There were fresh changelings who became stars, one ahead of her time, surprise champions, and the earnest departure of a classic hero, still broad backed and happy to stamp dominance on his sport one final time.

'The Child'

Let's begin with the aquatic marvel they call "The Child."

Canada's Penny Oleksiak, born in the year 2000, touched the wall to a medal result an astonishing four times.

On the first night of the meet she anchored the 4x100-metre freestyle relay to a bronze, the country's first women's swimming medal in 20 years.

Then she immortalized herself by adding silver in the 100-metre fly, 4x200 free relay bronze, and a gold in the 100 free.

Her four medals are the most won by a Canadian in a single summer Games. 

The Toronto teenager often seemed as surprised as her country's swimming officials who expected she'd break through in Tokyo, four years from now. 

Her gold in the 100 free was the most important. Without a win, four medals could be discounted as a product of swimming's larger schedule, with 16 podiums for both men and women.

In the 100 free Oleksiak gobbled up five slippery speedsters over a remarkable final length, including the world-record holder, the 2012 Olympic champion, and the reigning world champion; transforming seventh-place at the halfway mark into a share of gold with American Simone Manuel.

Their Olympic record time was 52.70 seconds. Oleksiak's first Olympic title was also Canada's first in 24 years, since backstroker Mark Tewksbury put his underwater kick to work at Barcelona 1992.

Two other bronze medals, from backstrokers Hilary Caldwell and Kylie Masse made it six podiums for the women's swim team — an ahead-of-schedule flourish for Canada in the pool.

The anointment

The American juggernaut is never without a standard bearer.

But even as 19-year-old Katie Ledecky hammered out one gold medal after another, swimming's greatest-ever champion, Michael Phelps, hardly appeared to be fading.

Phelps collected five gold and one silver medal. The five-time Olympian, 31-year-old, and new father swam like he had something to prove. 

It was a startling reminder of his rabid ambition. The final count for Phelps: 28 Olympic medals, 23 gold. He elevated the profile of his sport and deeply revised our understanding of what it means to 'dominate' an Olympic Games. 

And he leaves an American team as strong as ever. The United States won half of the possible 32 gold medals in Rio, the same dominance they displayed at the London Olympics.

The next one is Katie Ledecky. She can win a race and catch her breath before the field catches up.

She proved she's unbeatable on a bad day with her individual wins in the 200, 400, and 800 free; the latter two in world record times.

In a perfect world, Ledecky is on an ideal Olympic schedule, with Games possible at ages 23, 27, and 31. 

An explosion of contenders

There were 14 Olympic records and seven world records broken in Rio.

One stood out.

Singapore's Joseph Schooling swam ahead of everyone in the men's 100 fly to break Phelps' Olympic record, and beat his childhood idol, who was in a three-way tie for silver with South Africa's Chad Le Clos and Hungary's Laszlo Cseh.

More importantly, it was Singapore's first-ever gold at the Olympics.

Two days earlier, Kazakhstan's Dmitriy Balandin surprised from Lane 8 to win the 200 breaststroke and his country's first swimming gold.

While the Americans took a hefty share of the gold medals, 13 different countries were swimming victors in Rio, that's compared to only eight in London.

A significant increase, demonstrating that swimming remains a strong global sport.  


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