Brazil’s 400 Free Relay Looking to Shock the World

By David Rieder

DURHAM − For how long has the men’s 400 free relay been one of the glamour races of swimming? Each final at a major international meet has all of the big swimming powers, each complete with their tandem of superstars in contention for gold. But what better event for a darkhorse to emerge from and shock the world? For this year (and next), Brazil’s 400 free relay could be in a position to do just that.

Let’s go back 11 years. The men’s 400 free relay is one of the most anticipated races of the Athens Olympics. The Australians hope to defend their crown after achieving a massive upset over the Americans four years earlier on home soil in Sydney, the first loss ever for the Stars and Stripes in the event. The Americans, meanwhile, have controversy brewing as a young Michael Phelps is included on their squad over Gary Hall Jr.

The Russians had won the world title a year before, and they were led by the resurgent Alexander Popov, the greatest sprinter of all-time swimming in his final major meet in Athens. The Netherlands had a squad featuring defending 100 free Olympic champion Pieter van den Hoogenband. And then there was a team that earned the top qualifying spot by two seconds. That team was from South Africa.

Photo Courtesy: Joao Marc Bosch

Photo Courtesy: Joao Marc Bosch

Not exactly a swimming powerhouse to begin with, the South Africans had finished eighth at the World Championships the year before, but three swimmers had swum under 49 seconds in the year since. On paper, they looked like a contender, but few gave them a chance in a star-studded field. But with Roland Schoeman having the meet of his life, Ryk Neethling having reinvented himself as a sprinter, the emergence of Lyndon Ferns as a worthy third man, and a young Darian Townsend, South Africa shocked the world and won in a blowout.

Fast forwarding to this summer’s World Championships, five countries have big-name rosters. The World and Olympic champion French team features Fabien Gilot and 50 free Olympic champion Florent Manaudou, while Vlad Morozov leads the Russians with a strong supporting cast. Aussies James Magnussen and Cameron McEvoy ranked first and second, respectively, in the world last year in the 100 free.

Filippo Magnini is 33 years old, but he’s still the anchor on the Italian team, and they have some young blood on the squad in Luca Dotto and Marco Orsi. The Americans, meanwhile, will not have Phelps on hand this year after his withdrawl from the World Championships team following a DUI arrest. Even with Olympic gold medalist Nathan Adrian leading the way, they will struggle to get onto the podium this summer in Kazan. And then there’s Brazil.

Cesar Cielo has been the headliner of Brazilian swimming for years, winning the 50 free at the 2008 Olympics and each of the last three World Championships. He holds the world records in both the 50 and 100. But he passed on his country’s relay at the 2012 Olympics, where they finished ninth, and at the 2013 Worlds, where they placed last in the final. But this year, Cielo will have some motivation to return to the squad.

Photo Courtesy: Raia Rapida

Photo Courtesy: Raia Rapida

At last year’s Youth Olympic Games, Matheus Santana won the 100 free for Brazil in 48.25. That time ranked eighth in the world last year. Santana, who won’t turn 19 until April 2, looks poised to step up to the big boy squad this year. Meanwhile, Bruno Fratus, Joao De Lucca, Marcelo Cherighini, and Nicolas Oliveira all finished among the top 25 swimmers in the world in 2014; among other countries, only Russia had more than three in that bunch.

France posted the top 400 free relay time in the world last year at 3:11.64. Brazil had the seventh-best time with a 3:13.59, but that swim came without Cielo or Santana, and the aggregate time of the top four swimmers from last year adds up to almost the exact same time, without accounting for relay starts.

Brazil has a window to win: right now. Cielo remains in his prime, gearing up towards one last run at an Olympic Games in his home country. Fratus and De Lucca have been steadily improving in recent years, and Santana could be an emerging sprint star. 11 years ago, South Africa found four great sprinters and pulled out a stunner of an Olympic gold medal. Now, Brazil might be building towards some similar magic to thrill a home crowd in 18 months time.

5 Comments

5 comments

  1. Mario Rivera Gaona

    Puede empezar la nueva era brasileña aunque tidavia veo dificil que superen a los franceses.

  2. Robert Genter

    A must see event next year in Rio!

Author: David Rieder

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David Rieder is a staff writer for Swimming World. He has contributed to the magazine and website since 2009, and he has covered the NCAA Championships, U.S. Nationals, Olympic Trials as well as the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio and the 2017 World Championships in Budapest. He is a native of Charleston, S.C., and a 2016 graduate of Duke University.

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