4 of the Greatest Olympic Relays of All Time

400 free relay 2000 Olympics
Photo Courtesy: Australian Swimming

By Andy Ross, Swimming World College Intern

The Rio Olympics are quickly approaching and the swimming community is buzzing with excitement. Swimmers under the age of 10 will be viewing their first Olympics and people around the world of sports will be paying attention to the sport.

Ask any swimmer over the age of 17 what their favorite swimming race was and the majority will probably say the men’s 4x100m freestyle relay from Beijing when Jason Lezak came back and out-touched the trash-talking and heavily-favorited French team. I specifically remember watching that race with my brother and dad and we were in shock during the last 15 meters and we all high-fived each other when the US won. Lezak captivated a nation and that race has every right to be in the top five of best Olympic relays. But there are a lot of other relays from the annals of Olympic history that deserve to be mentioned but a lot of people forget about.

ONE: Women’s 4x100m Freestyle-1976

Perhaps one of the greatest upsets ever, the United States quartet of Kim Peyton, Wendy Boglioli, Jill Sterkel and Shirley Babashoff were sick and tired of watching the steroid-aided East Germans stand atop the podium. The German women won 11 of the 12 events in the meet up to that point and were the heavy favorites for the last relay. The United States team swam angry, left it all in the pool and beat the East Germans by a second, smashing their world record by four seconds.

How big was this relay? I wasn’t alive in 1976, but judging based off the video, the East Germans were the villains and the Americans were the heroes. It was almost as if the entire Montreal natatorium was cheering for their friends south of the border. I don’t mean to quote the movie Miracle, but if they swam that relay ten times, the Germans probably would have won nine times. But the United States just wanted it more.

After the race, the Dutch women came up and hugged and kissed the Americans as if they had just won the gold medal also. It seemed that the world knew and/or suspected of the East Germans were on something and the US victory was a victory for the world, not just themselves. I find it hard to believe that the world would react to a team winning a gold medal now the way they did when the US women won the 400 free relay in 1976.

TWO: Men’s 4x200m Freestyle-1984

This was the Lezak relay before the Lezak relay was THE relay. Mike Heath, David Larson, Jeff Float gave Bruce Hayes a comfortable two second lead over 200 free Olympic champ Michael Gross of West Germany. But Gross caught up with Hayes after only 100 meters and the two were swimming side by side. I’m sure everyone watching the race thought the race was over at that point. As Gross turned with a 50 to go, he was about a second ahead of the Americans. But Hayes had turned into another gear and was being pulled along by the local Los Angeles crowd. He took advantage of Gross taking it out too fast and swam over “The Albatross” to claim victory for the Americans 7:15.69-7:15.73.

When I was nine watching the Athens Olympics, my dad first told me of this relay and told me exactly where he was when he watched it. I then remember watching a video with Rowdy Gaines and I don’t remember what the context was, but the topic was that 800 free relay from Los Angeles and he talked about his memories from the meet and where he was sitting watching that relay. This race easily had to be the best one from the 1980s because of how much it mattered. But I wonder if swimmers back then called it a “Hayes” when they ran someone down at the end of a relay, same as swimmers now calling it a “Lezak.”

THREE: Men’s 4x100m Freestyle-2000

Let’s be honest, Lezak’s anchor leg in Beijing would not have happened if it weren’t for what Australia did to the United States in 2000 in the 400 free relay. At that point, the United States had never lost a 400 free relay race in Olympic history. The year prior at the Pan Pacs, Australia beat the United States for their first loss ever in the race in Sydney. To add to the drama, Gary Hall, Jr. stated in an interview that the Americans were going to smash the Australians like guitars.

The race lived up to the hype. Aussie Michael Klim broke the 100 free world record leading off. Americans Neil Walker and Jason Lezak tried to make up that distance too fast and paid the price the last 15 meters leading to an Ian Thorpe-Gary Hall, Jr. showdown. Hall blasted the first 50, but Thorpe ran him down and was pulled along by the home Sydney crowd. Thorpe overcame Hall and the Australians gave the Americans their first Olympic loss in the race and swiped the world record from them as well. The Australian crowd went into a frenzy and Klim, Chris Fydler, Ashley Callus and Thorpe brought out the air guitars to take a jab at Hall.

The next time the Americans won that relay was at the 2008 Olympics when Lezak was “tired of losing” and ran down Alain Bernard.

Race Video from Documentary Perspective

FOUR: Men’s 4x200m Freestyle-2004

If you want to talk about one of the gutsiest races in history, let’s talk about what Klete Keller did in Athens against Ian Thorpe. To this point, Australia hadn’t lost the relay in seven years and entered Athens vulnerable. Even though they had Thorpe, who had the world record in the 200 free and already won the 200 and the 400 in the meet, the Americans were expected to challenge led by a young Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte. Australia had Grant Hackett (24) and Michael Klim (27) leading off against Phelps (19) and Lochte (20) and it was youth that triumphed experience this time.

Phelps and Lochte swam very smart races as did a 20-year-old Peter Vanderkaay to give Keller a lead over Thorpe going into the final exchange. Thorpe drew even with Keller at the 100, but Keller did not panic. It was similar to the Hayes-Gross duel that happened twenty years prior. Keller kept his composure throughout the race and held off “The Thorpedo” to give the Americans their first win in the event since 1996. Last summer at World Championships in Kazan, James Guy overcame Michael Weiss to give the Brits the win in the event– it was the Americans’ first loss in that race since before the Athens Olympics.

26 comments

  1. avatar
    Bob O'Connell

    Jill Sterkel took out her 50 like she was possessed!

  2. Zelic Aleksandar

    The South African squad of Roland Schoeman, Lyndon Ferns, Darian Townsend and Ryk Neethling clocked 3 minutes and 13.17 seconds to triumph over the Netherlands (2nd) and the US team (3rd). 2004

    • Matt Lobban

      Well said! Should have been on here.

  3. David Thimeur

    Trash talking is very exagerated. Lezak was outstanding but to talking about who would deserve what is pretty dull. And bringing each time that relay is à bit surprising. Disappointed by the nature of article.

  4. Dave Nicholson

    The “smash like guitars” was not in an interview, it was in a published editorial written by Hall. More importantly, the comment was taken out of context: Hall actually said that he ‘hoped’ they would smash the Aussie team but felt uncertain. The Aussies took the comment out of context, portrayed it as an arrogant American talking smack and the rest is history. Hall’s brash public persona didn’t help in this regard. Hall has since repeatedly tried to correct the story in the press to no avail. Now the incorrect story just gets repeated as fact.

    • avatar
      Gary Hall, Jr.

      Thank you, Dave.

    • David O

      True but stop ruining the fun ..:)

    • avatar
      Andy Ross

      Hall was a great sport, but everyone wanted to look at him like a villain. Thus the comment he had was taken out of context.

  5. avatar
    Leander

    I think this should be entitled either “Four of the Greatest Relay Upsets in Olympic History” or “Four of the Greatest Relay Races in Olympic History”.

    If you wanted to name the greatest relays in Olympic History, I would nominate two America relays from the 1976 Olympics: the 4 x 100 medley relay (John Nabor, John Hencken and Jim Montgomery all set world records winning their respective individual events and Matt Vogel missed the world record by .08 winning his) and the 4 x 200 (consisting of Bruce Furniss, John Nabor and Jim Montgomery who went 1-2-3 in the 200 and Mike Brunner who won the 200 fly).

  6. Matt Lobban

    The South African squad of Roland Schoeman, Lyndon Ferns, Darian Townsend and Ryk Neethling clocked 3 minutes and 13.17 seconds to triumph over the Netherlands (2nd) and the US team (3rd). 2004

    Definitely should have been on this list.

  7. David O

    USA v East German women…in hindsight WOWWWWWWWWW

  8. David O

    Unfortunately for the USA they came up against Thorpe at his absolute peak in performance..but Klim set a world record and Thorpes change over was perfect. Fydler had been an amazing anchor for years prior.Hall was right to be concerned.

  9. avatar
    Alex Carpenter

    Aside from the “smash like guitars” inaccuracy, which Dave addressed in his comment, I enjoyed this article and especially enjoy watching the videos. I had not previously watched these videos and it’s very interesting to see how swimming has evolved over time. Unfortunately, most people – not all – who leave comments online, only do so to complain or argue about the ranking of whatever it is that’s being ranked. Perhaps they are either oblivious to the subjective nature of such articles? It happens every time. Anyway, keep up the good work, Andy – great article.

    • avatar

      Thank you, sir!

  10. avatar
    Diane Pavelin

    So glad to see the women’s ’76 4×100 and the men’s ’84 4×200 relays ranked first and second. People tend to forget about swimming history if it’s not from the last 3-4 Olympics.

    The documentary about the women’s relay is scheduled to be released this year. Hopefully, it will open the eyes of non-swimming fans everywhere to the amazing accomplishment these women achieved.

    The “Miracle On Ice” was great, but this was just as great. It’s the “greatest upset never told” in sports.

  11. Diane Pavelin

    What the women accomplished is by far the most significant race and upset in swimming history. It might also be the biggest upset in sports history. What they did shouldn’t have happened, but it did because of their grit, desire, and determination.

  12. Fann Gao

    Ian Thorpe is there ?