2021 was a whirlwind in the swimming world! Swim nerds and casual fans alike got a jam-packed year of racing, with the Olympic Games, the 3rd season of the International Swimming League and FINA’s short course World Championships. 

To round out what has been an epic year in the water, we’re breaking down the 10 most memorable swimming moments from 2021.

10. Sarah Sjöström’s Comeback 

Swedish swimmer Sarah Sjöström started 2021 on a shaky note – she slipped and broke her elbow in February, which put her plans to medal at the Tokyo games at risk. 

Her diligent rehab paid off – she headed off to Tokyo with a metal plate and 6 screws in her arm, and managed to snag a silver medal in the women’s 50-meter freestyle.

Sarah kept the momentum going during the ISL season, taking home $269,000 in prize money (she was the top earner this season!), and receiving the MVP award at Finals.

9. Lydia Jacoby’s 100 Breaststroke Win in Tokyo

The women’s 100-meter breaststroke final was one of the biggest upsets during the Tokyo Games. 17-year-old American Lydia Jacoby surprised everyone (and herself) when she surged ahead of Lilly King and Tatjana Schoenmaker in the final 20 meters of the race to touch first and win gold!

Lydia’s shocked expression after seeing the scoreboard will go down in history, as will her hug with teammate Lilly King.

Lydia Jacoby is the first Olympic swimmer to hail from the US state of Alaska. At just 17, she’s one to watch in the years ahead!

8. Kelsi Dahlia’s 100M Butterfly World Record at ISL Finals

Kelsi Dahlia kicked off the ISL Finals with a bang! She broke the short course meters world record in the women’s 100-meter butterfly, going a speedy 54.59. She dethroned former world record-holder Sarah Sjöström of Sweden, who had held the record at 54.61 since 2014.

Kelsi Dahlia & Hali Flickinger (photo: Mike Lewis)

This is Kelsi’s first individual world record – she holds numerous American records and an additional world record in the women’s short course 4×100-meter medley relay.

7. China Breaks the World Record in the Women’s 4×200 Free Relay in Tokyo

Australia was heavily favored to win the women’s 4×200-meter freestyle relay in Tokyo, but the Chinese team crushed it, taking gold and beating the previous world record time by over a second, in 7:40.33.

What’s really impressive about this race, though, is that all of the top 3 finishers were under the previous world record time. The Americans got back in the game and touched second thanks to Katie Ledecky’s killer anchor leg, and Australia came away with a respectable bronze medal for their efforts. 

6. Tatjana Schoenmaker’s 200 Breaststroke World Record in Tokyo

After she almost broke the world record in the prelims, all eyes were on South Africa’s Tatjana Schoenmaker during the final heat of the 200-meter breaststroke. 

Tatjana made it happen, taking gold and breaking the world record in 2:18.45. Her reaction to the win – and the world record – had all of us cheering at home, too!

For the first 150 of this race, it looked like American Lilly King had it in the bag. But at the final turn, Tatjana turned it on, managing to out-touch Lilly for the gold. 

5. Bobby Finke’s Epic Final 50s in the 800 and 1500 Free in Tokyo

Distance swimming fans will remember watching American swimmer Bobby Finke’s insane closing speed during the men’s 800-meter and 1500-meter freestyle finals in Tokyo.

Bobby clocked a 26.3 for the final 50 meters of the 800 free to take the gold. To put it in perspective, that’s faster than Michael Andrew swam in the last 50 of his 200-meter IM! Bobby is the first gold medalist in the men’s 800 free in Olympic history – 2021 was the first time the event was contested at the Games.

The men’s 1500 freestyle was more of the same for Bobby. After 1,450 meters of swimming, he still managed to bring it home in a speedy 25.78 to take another gold medal. Not too shabby for his first Olympic appearance!

4. Emma McKeon Becomes the Most Decorated Australian Athlete of All Time

Aussie swimmer Emma McKeon was a joy to watch in Tokyo. A sprinting powerhouse, she brought home 7 medals from the 2021 Games, 5 of them gold. This new hardware brings her total medal count to 11, cementing her in the history books as the most decorated Australian athlete of all time and the second most decorated female Olympic swimmer in history.

We haven’t seen the last of Emma…can she add more to her trophy case in Paris?

3. Ahmed Hafnaoui’s Epic 400 Free Win in Tokyo

The men’s 400-meter freestyle final was a major case of outside smoke. Ahmed Hafnaoui of Tunisia turned up the speed in the last 100 meters, winning gold by 0.16 all the way from lane 8!

Ahmed is the first African swimmer to win gold in this event, and is the second Tunisian swimmer to win a gold medal. Ous Mellouli won gold in the 1500 free at the 2008 Games.

​​This race, and Ahmed’s emotional finish, are what the Olympics are all about: giving it your all on the world stage, where anything can happen!

2. Ilya Shymanovich Breaking the 100 Breaststroke World Record Twice in One Week

During last year’s ISL season, both Caeleb Dressel and Adam Peaty broke world records twice in the span of one week. We can add Ilya Shymanovich to that list now, too – he broke the short course 100-meter breaststroke world record twice in 7 days.

Ilya Shymanovich (photo: Mike Lewis)

During the ISL’s third playoff match, he broke the record with a 55.32. 7 days later, during the fifth playoff match, he swam another world record, dropping down to a 55.28.

He now owns 6 of the 10 fastest short course 100-meter breaststroke times in history. Not too shabby, if you ask us!

1. Caeleb Dressel’s Emotional 100-meter Freestyle Finish (& Gold Medal) 

Coming in at #1 on our list is hands down the most emotional moment in swimming this year: Caeleb Dressel’s first individual gold medal. 

In the men’s 100-meter freestyle final, Caeleb was out to an early lead. It looked like Kliment Kolesnikov of Russia was going to overtake him, but Caeleb powered through to touch first.

After seeing the scoreboard, Caeleb broke down in tears, the weight of the moment overwhelming him. All his hard work paid off!

When he had the chance to see his family via satellite video during a post-race interview, Caeleb was so overcome with emotion that he could barely speak.

On top of the gold medal, Caeleb also set a new Olympic record in 47.02. And he went on to win 4 additional medals during the Tokyo Games! 

Bonus: Dean Boxall’s Reaction to Ariarne Titmus’ 400 Freestyle Win

This list is not complete without mentioning the absolutely incredible reaction coach Dean Boxall had to Ariarne Titmus’s 400-meter freestyle win. 

Ariarne out-touched Katie Ledecky but just under 1 second in the final, and Dean celebrated as any good coach would:

He has now been immortalized as a meme, the perfect illustration of unbridled joy on the pool deck! 

Which swimming moments made your top 10 list this year? Share them in the comments!