2021 Trials Vision: Melanie Margalis Leading Slew of Contenders in 400 IM

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Photo Courtesy: Becca Wyant

Each day during the pre-scheduled days of the 2020 U.S. Olympic Trials, Swimming World will take its readers back four years to the 2016 Trials in Omaha to recap each event, and will offer some insight into what the events will look like in 2021.

The women’s 400 IM was going to be one of the more wide open races ahead of the 2020 Olympic Trials, and with an extra year to prepare, it could get even more interesting. Melanie Margalis had the fastest time in the U.S. with a 4:32.53 at the TYR Pro Swim Series in March, which was the quickest time any American has swam in that event in the last four years, since Maya DiRado won silver in Rio in 2016.

The Favorite

Margalis had once swore she was never going to do the 400 IM ever again, but has been the number one contender in this event for the Americans, winning the U.S. Open in December. In the early days of 2020, Margalis was the number one ranked swimmer in the world by three seconds, ahead of reigning Olympic champion and five-time World champ Katinka Hosszu of Hungary. On top of all those accolades, Hosszu is the world record holder at 4:26.36, and no one has gotten within four seconds of that time since.

Contenders

Margalis showed in March that she was hitting on the right cylinders ahead of Olympic Trials and the Games, as the 28-year-old was chasing her second Olympic berth after finishing fourth in Rio in the 200 IM. In the 2019-20 season, Ally McHugh (4:38.09) and Madisyn Cox (4:38.88) led the charge for the second spot behind Margalis as both will be first time Olympians if they can touch first or second in Omaha. McHugh was the 2018 national champion and had reached the final at the World Championships last year, finishing sixth.

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Ally McHugh. Photo Courtesy: Connor Trimble

McHugh has been steadily improving the last few years, breaking out in 2017 as a World University Games qualifier and making the Pan Pacs team a year later in 2018. McHugh has been training at the University of Wisconsin in the lead-up to the Olympic Trials after a successful career at Penn State, and has always managed to show up when it counts the last few years.

Cox has had a rough last few years, after testing positive for a banned substance ahead of the 2018 Nationals, missing a chance on qualifying for the 2019 World Championships and Pan American Games. Her suspension was eventually overturned and proved a “no fault” positive, but it was not enough to save her chances of swimming in an international meet last year. She was on the road to redemption this year and was planning on attending medical school after the 2020 Games no matter what happened this summer. However, with the Games moved back to 2021, Cox will have to put her med school aspirations on hold as she tries to finish her swimming career with the ultimate goal of making the Olympic team.

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Madisyn Cox. Photo Courtesy: Connor Trimble

The reigning summer national champion is Emma Weyant, who will be a freshman at the University of Virginia this coming year. Weyant, swimming for the Sarasota Sharks, was the top American in 2019 with her 4:35 last summer, and in December, she was a 4:39 at the U.S. Open. Weyant will be joining a stacked Virginia team next season that was seeded to win the national title before the meet was canceled due to COVID-19. With an extra year of preparation and a new training location, Weyant could be a sleeper pick to slip in and make her first team in this event.

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Emma Weyant after winning the women’s 400 IM at Nationals. Photo Courtesy: Connor Trimble

Ella Eastin, the lone Division I female to sweep four NCAA titles in the 400 IM, also has a shot at making the Olympic team after having a fair bit of adversity thrown her way. In 2017, she had touched second in the 400 IM at the World Championship Trials before getting disqualified for an illegal turn. The next year, she had contracted mono just before U.S. Nationals. The 400 IM looks to be Eastin’s best shot at making her first Olympic team, but she will also contend in the 200 IM and 200 fly.

Eastin’s Stanford teammate Brooke Forde was the other American representative at last year’s World Championships and was one of the favorites to take the NCAA title in 2020 before the meet was cancelled. She was a 4:40 in December and will certainly be a top contender at next year’s Trials.

Longshots

The 400 IM is one of the hardest events to train for, and with an extended amount of time out of the water, it could be difficult for any swimmer to get back to 400 IM racing shape. That being said, the contenders list 12 months from now could look extremely different, so here are some swimmers that might just be able to sneak their name into the hat by next summer.

South Carolina grad Emma Barksdale was a 4:40 in December, and has been steadily improving but hasn’t quite broken out on the national stage. She had a good showing in the ISL for the DC Trident, and could be flying under the radar in this unpredictable event.

Bethany Galat is another name that stands out. Four years ago, she was third in this event at Trials, and has been someone that steps up in the big moment. She hasn’t been known to swim great in-season and that may be exactly what she needs to sneak up and make the team.

Leah Smith, although more known as a 400 freestyler, won this event at the 2017 U.S. Nationals. If she takes it seriously (the 400 IM is the day before the 400 freestyle) then she should not be counted out.

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Janet Evans – the last American gold medalist in the 400 IM. Photo Courtesy: International Swimming Hall of Fame

Whoever comes out of US Trials in the 400 IM will be facing a tall task. Not only is Hungary’s Hosszu the heavy favorite for the gold medal in Tokyo, an American has not won an Olympic gold medal in this event since Janet Evans won in 1988. The U.S. has medaled in every Olympics except for Sydney since Evans won in Seoul, but there has not been a gold medal winner singing the Star Spangled Banner in the women’s 400 IM in over 30 years.

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