American Men in Trouble for Men’s 800 Freestyle Relay at Olympics?

200-free-medals, kieran smith, townley haas, andrew seliskar, drew kibler, men's 800 free relay
Kieran Smith, Townley Haas, Drew Kibler and Andrew Seliskar receive their awards after qualifying for the Olympic team in the 200 free -- Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

American Men in Trouble for Men’s 800 Free Relay at Olympics

Outside of the boycotted 1980 Olympics, the American men have won a medal in every single swimming relay ever contested at the Olympics. Every single one. The vast majority of those teams have been gold medalists, but third place has been the basement. The longest-running Olympic relay is the men’s 800 freestyle relay, and the Americans have 24 medals in 24 appearances in that relay.

The streak is in significant jeopardy. The American prospects in the 200 free have been questionable for several years since Michael Phelps retired, and after the Americans settled for silver at the 2017 Worlds, they fell to bronze in 2019—getting onto the podium by just 0.03 over Italy and 0.06 over Great Britain.

But surely, some swimmers would emerge prior to the Olympic year to help lead the Americans back to respectability, maybe not an absolute gold-medal favorite but at least a strong squad. But instead, as swimmers around the world kept posting rocket-quick times, no Americans stood out in the leadup to Trials. Kieran Smith was the only man to have broken 1:47 in 2021 prior to coming to Omaha.

Prior to Tuesday evening’s 200 free final, the Americans’ composite 800 free relay based on in-season best times was almost three seconds behind in the composite time based on the 2021 season-best times, but the U.S. 200 freestyle situation finally took a step forward Tuesday evening as Smith won the event in 1:45.29—almost a second quicker than his lifetime best prior to the meet—while Townley Haas swam his fastest 200 free in three years in finishing second, and Drew Kibler dropped more than a second from his pre-meet best time to finish third in 1:45.92.

Andrew Seliskar also qualified to the team with his fourth-place time of 1:46.34, while Zach Apple (1:46.45) and Patrick Callan (1:46.49) will almost certainly be selected for Tokyo as relay alternates.

Now, compare that to what Great Britain, Russia and Australia have in this event: at least four men who have swum under 1:46 in 2021. Duncan Scott and Tom Dean have each been in the 1:44-mid range, and they are the top two swimmers in the world this year. Russia has Martin Malyutin under 1:45. Australia doesn’t have a standout at this point, but Kyle Chalmers certainly has 1:44 potential.

Take the composite of the four countries’ best times compared, and Great Britain is first, followed by Russia and then Australia. The Americans? Considerably behind.

Great Britain: Duncan Scott 1:44.47 + Tom Dean 1:44.58 + Matt Richards 1:45.77 + James Guy 1:45.95 = 7:00.77
Russia: Martin Malyutin 1:44.79 + Ivan Girev 1:45.49 + AleksandrDovgalyuk 1:45.56 + Aleksandr Shchegolev 1:45.82 = 7:01.66
Australia: Alexander Graham 1:45.22 + Kyle Chalmers 1:45.48 + Elijah Winnington 1:45.55 + Thomas Neill 1:45.70 = 7:01.95
United States: Kieran Smith 1:45.29 + Townley Haas 1:45.66 + Drew Kibler 1:45.92 + Andrew Seliskar 1:46.34 = 7:03.21

It’s worth noting that Seliskar has been as fast as 1:45.71, so he could be significantly faster come Tokyo. But there remains a significant gap to make up. However, when the four men who topped the race spoke to the press, they expressed optimism about their potential for improvement and ability to excel at the Olympics.

“Well, I thought tonight was a pretty good showing,” Haas said. “In 2016, I think sixth place was 1:47-mid, and Carson was eighth this year with a 1:46-mid. I just think that kind of shows what we had.

Kibler added, “I also think Olympic Trials is a pretty challenging meet to put up some fast times, and I think it definitely gives us some experience and some direction on how we can handle those pressures moving forward and only get better in the next coming weeks.”

One more card exists for the Americans to play, assuming all goes according to plan over the next several days. Caeleb Dressel swam a 1:46.63 in prelims before scratching out of the semifinals. The final was so tight for places four through eight—separated by just over three tenths of a second—that Dressel’s time only surpassed one swimmer in the final. Still, assuming the superstar 24-year-old qualifies for Tokyo (and it would be a stunner if he did not), he will be strongly considered for a spot on this relay. Given what he has accomplished in the 100 free and other sprint events, a 1:44 relay split is undoubtedly within his potential.

But the numbers still suggest a significant challenge for the Americans’ ability to get on the podium. It’s tough to blame that on the individual men. They stepped up and delivered quick swims in an Olympic Trials final, and performances like that have not been a given this week. At this point, the Americans’ underdog status really reflects the improvement and depth the three other countries have shown over the past year.

Looking back on the 2016 Trials, the top four swimmers (Haas, Conor Dwyer, Jack Conger and Ryan Lochte) created an added-up time of 7:03.72, a half-second slower than the composite from Tuesday night’s races. Lochte’s fourth-place time of 1:46.62 would have beaten just one man in the 2021 final. Sure, the Americans were always going to add Michael Phelps to the squad at the Olympics, but they won gold in Rio by almost 2.5 seconds with Phelps contributing a 1:45.26 anchor split, which was nothing special.

The American men are underdogs for Tokyo, at risk of missing the medal podium in an Olympic relay for the first time ever, because especially Great Britain but also Russia and Australia have made such massive strides in the 200 free. Smith, Haas, Kibler and Seliskar swam well in Omaha, but they will need a lot more to avoid the 2021 800 free relay team becoming the group with the ignominious title of the one that broke the remarkable relay medal streak.

4 comments

  1. Marcie Dressman

    Dressel will be on that relay and probably split 1:44. Which will help they step up. To think that those 4 will be on that relay at finals is crazy talk!

  2. Julie Tellier

    Maybe now USA Swimming will show some concern and be solution oriented as these D1 colleges and universities dissolve their swim team programs. USA swimming needs to be proactive

  3. avatar
    Leander

    It sounds like the chances of the American men winning this relay are as hopeless as they were at the 1984 or 2004 Olympic games.

  4. avatar
    Samuel Hayhurst

    I was gonna say maybe USA swimming and the NCAA should discuss switching to long course. The college swimmers are continuously improving in yards and putting up otherworldly times, yet the long course improvement is limited.