When Sarah Sjostrom’s swimming career comes to a close, she will be remembered as one of the greatest swimmers of all time. The winner of four Olympic medals and 20 FINA World Championship medals in the 50m pool is showing no signs of slowing down at age 29. Although she has shifted her focus to the shorter events, she is still just as dominant as she was in the prime of her career, winning gold medals in the 50 free and 50 fly at both the World and European Championships this year.
Sarah Sjostrom has been a mainstay on the international swimming scene since she broke out as a 14-year-old at the 2008 Europeans, winning the continental crown in the 100 butterfly. In 2009, she set her first world record in the 100 butterfly at the Rome FINA World Championships, erasing Inge de Bruijn’s record from nine years prior that had gone untouched for nearly an entire decade.
Sjostrom had struggled a bit after 2009, however. Fourth place finishes seemed to follow her wherever she went - achieving such results in both the 50 and 100 fly and 200 free at the 2011 Worlds as well as the 100 fly at the 2012 Olympics. Although she was still making finals at the international level, she wasn’t recapturing the prowess she showed in 2009.
The Golden Girl
But in 2013, Sjostrom’s career trajectory changed. She was again the 100 butterfly FINA World Champ in Barcelona after four years of coming home empty-handed. After the race she let out numerous screams, perhaps relieving any sort of frustration she had felt in the last few years when the 100m butterfly didn’t go the way she wanted. It was also in Barcelona where she won silver in the 100m freestyle, and thus began Sjostrom’s dominance.
From 2014 - 2019, it was very rare to see Sjostrom get beat. In that timespan, she was only beat twice at a major meet in the 100 fly. The 2014 Europeans to Denmark’s Jeanette Ottesen and the 2019 Worlds to Canada’s Maggie MacNeil. But in that timespan as well, Sjostrom set world records in the 50 and 100 freestyle, and the 50 and 100 butterfly - all four of which still stand in 2022.
After Barcelona, she won four World titles in the 50 fly, two in the 100 fly, and two in the 50 free, along with 100 butterfly gold at the 2016 Rio Olympics, as well as silver in the 200 free and bronze in the 100 free.
She was the model of consistency - it seemed like every year she was in the conversation for the best swimmer in the world. Every time she stepped up behind the blocks, she was expected to place in the top three; if you saw Sarah Sjostrom on the heat sheet, you knew she was going to be hard to beat.
All of that success from 2013 to the end of 2019 led to what could be a culmination of riches at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo - it was quite possible she could come home with three gold medals, where she was a medal favourite in the 50 and 100m freestyle, and the 100m butterfly. But a freak accident in February 2021 on slippery ice that caused her to break her elbow put much of that in doubt. Would she be able to recover in time to even swim at the Tokyo Olympics? Let alone win any medals?
Success in the Face of Adversity
Slowly but surely she rehabilitated her strength, staying patient on her recovery path, and sure enough, in Tokyo on her first swim, she was the third seed after the heats of the 100 butterfly. Even after a “worst case scenario” year, Sjostrom still found herself in the final of the 100m butterfly, with a shot at a medal that seemed impossible just a few months prior. In the final, she finished seventh, over a second away from the podium, but reaching the final felt like a win, and it seemingly gave her confidence in the events she felt the most prepared for - the 50 and 100 freestyle.
In the 100 free final, she was fifth, less than two tenths off the podium. While in the 50 free final, she won the silver medal, and raised and pointed at her injured left arm, as if showing that she could handle any adversity that was thrown at her, and come out as a champion.
The fact that Sjostrom was still able to win an Olympic medal while still on the mend from a broken elbow, is a testament to her greatness.
Continuing the Legacy
In 2022, at the age of 28, Sjostrom dropped the 100 butterfly from her program, instead focusing on the 50 fly, the sprint free events, and relays. She arrived in Budapest for the World Championships in the middle of the meet, swimming her first race on day five, where she again won silver in the 100 freestyle. It was Sjostrom’s fourth silver medal in the event at Worlds, and her fifth straight time on the podium in the event.
In the 50 fly, she won by over three tenths, and remains the only swimmer in history to have broken 25 seconds, a feat she has done 14 times in her career. All in all, she has 43 of the 50 fastest times in the event; two more than Katie Ledecky (41) has in the top 50 of the 800 freestyle.
It was Sjostrom’s fourth straight World title in the 50 fly; a feat only eight swimmers in history have done at the World Championships.
In the 50 free, it was Sjostrom again by two tenths at 23.98. 42 times has a woman crossed the pool in under 24 seconds - 19 of those from Sjostrom with the next closest being Cate Campbell with 8. It was her second World title and the fourth time she was on the podium for the 50 free.
The greatness of Sjostrom cannot be understated. She has won Olympic medals across four individual events and is still, at age 29, one of the best swimmers in the world. At this year’s European Championships in Rome, Sjostrom went two-for-two in her two individual events - gold medals in the 50 free and fly, along with anchoring Sweden to gold in the 4x100 medley relay and leading off the silver medal-winning 4x100 freestyle team. Sjostrom also was on Sweden’s mixed free relay team that won silver.
Since age 15, she has been in the spotlight, and with some bumps in the road, she has continued to deliver over and over again. There have been few swimmers in history whose resumes have been able to match Sjostrom’s longevity and versatility, and few have been able to really challenge her dominance.
As a teenager, she was a World champion and world record holder. In her 20s, she became an Olympic champion and set multiple world records. Now in her late 20s, she is downsizing her event lineup, but still winning World titles.
Even when faced with a challenge, she rises up and delivers. When she missed two straight podiums in 2011 and 2012, she worked to become an Olympic champion and world record holder. When she broke her elbow, she rebounded to win an Olympic silver medal. Many of the great champions of the past and present have been faced with plenty of obstacles, and those that find a way to overcome them go down in the history books with such praise.
When her career is all said and done, she will be remembered as one of the all-time greats, having achieved an Olympic gold medal, a World title, and a world record in her illustrious career. When her career is over is yet to be determined, and we as a sport should appreciate all the years we have left to watch Sarah Sjostrom.