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Analysis by Jeff Commings
PHOENIX, Arizona, August 10. DESPITE the large medal haul collected by the top four swimming teams at the Olympics — United States, Japan, China and Australia — only the American squad can also celebrate the achievement of improving more than half of their swims from the Olympic Trials to the Olympics.
A staggering 62 percent of swims done by the American women in individual events in London, and 58 percent of swims done by the men in individual events, were faster than the times posted at the Olympic Trials in Omaha, Neb., just three weeks earlier. The other three teams could not achieve a percentage higher than 42 percent, which belongs to the Chinese women.
This analysis follows up on an identical one published in the July issue of Swimming World Magazine, where I looked at the percentage of improvement for the top three medal-winning teams at the Games from 1996 to 2008. (Click here to purchase this issue._ This year, I looked at four teams at the Olympics, since two of them tied with the third-highest medal count. With a total team improvement percentage rate of 60 percent, the United States continues their streak of showing the most improvement, a streak that goes back to the 2000 Olympics. China was a distant second with a total team improvement rate of 37 percent, with Japan not far behind with 30 percent and Australia well back with 25 percent.
As with the analysis done for the magazine, this look at time improvement does not take into account relay swims not done as leadoffs, nor does it take into account known illnesses or injuries. The times used for this analysis come from the athlete's final swim in the event at the Olympic Trials and Olympics. If a swimmer swam faster than their Trials time in the Olympic semifinal but slower in the Olympic final, he or she was counted as swimming slower at the Olympics.
The United States collected 30 medals in the pool. Almost all medals were won with times that were faster than Trials, with Matt Grevers and Nick Thoman (100 back) and Michael Phelps (100 fly) the only exceptions. All the American women who won medals in individual events did so with times that were faster than they did in Omaha.
Japan won 11 medals — three silver, eight bronze — but had trouble translating a very fast Olympic Trials into faster swims at the Olympics. Many of the team's medalists, such as Ryosuke Irie and Natsumi Hoshi, were not far off their Trials times, but in the interest of fairness, were counted as swimming slower in for this analysis. Of the 13 swims on the men's side, only four of them were faster than Trials for a 31 percent improvement. Kosuke Hagino was responsible for two of those improved swims, winning bronze in the 400 IM and fifth in the 200 IM. Takeshi Matsuda's bronze in the 200 fly and Irie's silver in the 200 back marked the other faster swims. For the women, three of 11 swims (28 percent) were faster: Suzuki's breaststroke medal swims and Terakawa's bronze in the 100 back. It should be noted that Hoshi's time from the Japanese Trials would have bumped her up from bronze to silver.
China sent a large team to the Olympics, and aside from world record setters Ye Shiwen and Sun Yang, the team performed well below expectations. If you take the five swims from Ye and Sun out of the equation, the Chinese only had 11 out of 39 swims (three men, eight women) that saw improvement from either their Olympic Trials or the meet that was used to pick them for the Olympic team. Li Xuanxu, the 18-year-old who has been closely followed since breaking out internationally as a 15-year-old distance swimmer, did well in London, swimming lifetime bests in the 400 IM and 800 free. The Chinese men had fewer expectations than their female teammates, and it likely showed. Only three non-Sun Yang swims were improvements.
The Australians picked up 10 medals in London, but were noticeably slower than the times put up at their Olympic Trials. Chief among them were James Magnussen and James Roberts, whose 100 free times from the Trials in Adelaide would have won gold and bronze. As it turned out, the Aussies only won silver by Magnussen in that race. the men had a very tough time in London, posting only four swims out of 24 faster than Trials (two by Brenton Rickard, one by Christian Sprenger, one by Hayden Stoeckel). The women were only slightly better, posting eight faster swims out of 24. Many Aussies had tough journeys from Australia to Great Britain, but that wasn't true for Alicia Coutts and Brenton Rickard, the only Aussies with multiple individual swims to go faster in each of them in London. Coutts was rewarded with medals in the 100 fly and 200 IM. Rickard's times, however, weren't fast enough to get him on the medal podium in the breaststrokes.
We must look at the scheduling of the Olympic Trials for each country.. Australia, Japan and China all held their Trials in the spring, between late March and early April. The United States was the only major swimming nation to hold their Trials in the month before the Olympics, and had a marked improvement on performance over Beijing, where the team had a 52 percent improvement rate. London's performances were the best by an American team since at least 1996, if you look at number of medals won and percentage of faster times from Trials.
What did the United States do right? What did China, Japan and Australia do wrong? Australia has publicly announced a formal review into the matter, and it's likely China and Japan will do the same in order to make bigger statements in Rio in four years.