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By guest writer Julia Wilkinson-Minks (2008 & 2012 Canadian Olympian)
BARCELONA, Spain, August 1. WITH the American’s win tonight in the women’s 800 freestyle relay, the United States has now taken this gold medal at five of the last six World Championships. Although Australia managed to keep the race fairly close through the first three legs, Missy Franklin quickly quieted any hope the Aussies had to get on top of the podium tonight. Franklin out-split Alicia Coutts by more than three seconds, and Coutts split of 1:57.33 was nothing to scoff at by any means.
When a swimmer steps on the blocks with the Stars and Stripes donned on his or her cap, we automatically assume that the swimmer will be a medal favorite. A trip to the finals that fails to earn a medal is often deemed “disappointing” by American standards. The 800 freestyle relay, especially, is historically one of the most successful events for the Americans, at least during the last decade.
Tonight’s win in the 800 freestyle relay painted a picture of why the Americans are so unbeatable in this race.
Back in 2007, the Americans nearly missed the final of this relay, and ended up winning from an outside lane thanks to an incredible American-record lead off by Natalie Coughlin. Tonight, the Americans were neck-and-neck with the Australians until their not-so-secret weapon Missy Franklin hit the pool. She caught and passed Alicia Coutts by the first turn, splitting an impressive 54.65 on the first 100, and even more impressively, did not look like a piano fell on her back on the final 50. Although Missy Franklin alone did not win this relay, no country really had a chance, because no one else has a swimmer of this caliber. Whether it’s Franklin, Coughlin, Katie Hoff, or any another American superstar that is bound to grace the international pool decks of the future, that is a huge advantage.
In prelims, the Americans had the luxury of resting three of their four swimmers that were selected for the final. Only Karlee Bispo swam in prelims, giving Missy Franklin, Katie Ledecky and Shannon Vreeland a much-deserved morning off. Although these women were in no ways “rested” because of this, thanks to the busy individual schedules of Franklin and Ledecky particularly, not having to add an extra 200 freestyle to their calendar could potentially slice off the necessary tenths of second that may make the difference between gold and silver. Granted, the United States is not the only country whose depth can afford them this luxury: this is an advantage, but not an advantage unique to Americans.
The NCAA Advantage
A relay advantage that is unique to the United States, however, is the NCAA advantage. Although there are NCAA swimmers representing other countries in Barcelona, the American squad consistently features athletes who swam in the NCAA, which gives them huge relay experience. Shannon Vreeland has been on several NCAA Championship winning relays with Georgia and Bispo carried the University of Texas team during her collegiate career.
Missy Franklin has no NCAA experience yet, but plenty of international relay experience at this point. Leading Katie Ledecky off the relay was the best decision, not just because she is swimming great and was looking to post a fast time in the 200 freestyle. Ledecky, as successful as she is, likely has the least amount of experience on a high-pressure 800 freestyle relay.
Unlike the 4×100, a swimmer has to be much more tactical on her individual leg of the relay, and has to avoid letting the excitement take them out too fast and risk falling off at the end. Franklin has this experience because of her young yet illustrious career on the US National team, Bispo and Vreeland have been on enough 800 freestyle relays in college alone to know what to do when they hit the water. All Katie Ledecky had to do was swim a great 200 freestyle, and she did.
Not any of these factors alone guarantee a successful relay from the Americans, but the combination of the three is nearly unstoppable. On the men’s side, the United States has won this relay every World Championships since 2005, and tomorrow, we will see if they can continue their streak… without their secret weapon.
Julia Wilkinson-Minks is a two-time Olympian for Canada and was a finalist in the 200-meter IM at the 2008 Beijing Games. In 2010, she became Texas A&M’s first ever NCAA champion in swimming when she won the 100-yard freestyle. She graduated from Texas A&M with a degree in Speech Communication. Julia retired from competitive swimming following the London Olympic Games and now lives in Texas with her husband Shane.
Follow her on twitter @juliah2o