Caeleb Dressel and U.S. Men Set for Intense Duel with Russia for 400 Free Relay Olympic Gold

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Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Dressel and U.S. Men Set for Intense Duel with Russia for 400 Free Relay Gold

Since the beginning of the Caeleb Dressel era in 2016, the American men earned one Olympic gold medal and two world titles in the 400 free relay. The only slip-up came at the 2018 Pan Pacific Championships, when the team was disqualified (after touching first) for swimming out of order. And in the fall of 2019, the contingent of U.S. 100 freestylers looked stronger than ever, when American men occupied eight of the top 17 spots in the world rankings, with six men under 48 and Nathan Adrian ranked eighth but still at 48.17.

At that point, winning Olympic gold in Tokyo in the 400 free relay seemed like a lock. Perhaps it would take a sub-48 swim just to qualify for the 100 free final at Olympic Trials.

But it could never be that simple. The 400 free relay at a global level always brings a dramatic race between two or more countries, Now, following the pandemic and the Olympic delay, the American team has some new faces and not as much speed as before, while the Russians, silver medalists at the 2019 World Championships have emerged as a serious threat, and maybe the favorite for gold at this point.

The U.S. relay team in Tokyo will feature Dressel, who took first in the event in 47.39, as well as Zach Apple, who officially qualified for his first Olympic team after taking second in 47.72. Blake Pieroni and Brooks Curry were the other two official qualifiers, both posting times in the 48.1 range, while Ryan Held finished sixth, so he could find himself on a second Olympic team after playing a key role on the gold medal-winning relay in 2016. Adrian, the veteran presence that has been on every American 400 free relay since 2009, missed out on the final entirely, depriving the Americans of a key veteran presence.

Russia, meanwhile, is the home of Kliment Kolesnikov, the only swimmer in the world faster than Dressel this year after he swam a 47.31 in April, as well two other swimmers under 48 (Andrei Minakov and Vladislav Grinev), veteran relay contributor Vladimir Morozov at 48.00 and backstroker Evgeny Rylov having anchored their 2019 team in 47.02. That’s a stacked group. Here’s how the two countries compare, based on 2021 best flat start times, and we’ll also look at Australia, Great Britain, Italy and Brazil.

Russia: Kliment Kolesnikov 47.31 + Andrei Minakov 47.74 + Vladislav Grinev 47.85 + Vladimir Morozov 48.00 = 3:10.90
United States: Caeleb Dressel 47.39 + Zach Apple 47.72 + Blake Pieroni 48.14 + Brooks Curry 48.19 = 3:11.44
Australia: Kyle Chalmers 47.59 + Matthew Temple 48.32 + Cameron McEvoy 48.49 + Zac Incerti 48.51 = 3:12.91
Great Britain: Duncan Scott 47.87 + Matthew Richards 48.23 + Tom Dean 48.30 + Jacob Whittle 48.55 = 3:12.95
Italy: Alessandro Miressi 47.45 + Thomas Ceccon 48.50 + Lorenzo Zazzeri 48.59 + Manuel Frigo 48.83 = 3:13.37
Brazil: Andre Souza 48.15 + Pedro Spajari 48.31 + Gabriel Silva 48.49 + Bruno Correia 48.74 = 3:13.69

At this stage, it would be surprising to see any country besides the U.S. or Russia win gold and silver (in some order), but this one is too close to call for sure. A lot depends on how swimmers show up to the Games and who has more in the tank than they have shown so far this year by late July. Certainly, it’s reasonable to expect more from the two fastest 100 freestylers in recent history, Dressel and Chalmers. Dressel has been as quick as 46.96 and Chalmers 47.08, and both of them could break the 100 free world record of 46.91 in Tokyo.

In Tokyo, the American men will be defending a significant legacy of success in the 400 free relay. The U.S. had never lost the event prior to the 2000 Games before Ian Thorpe touched out Gary Hall Jr., who had promised to “smash the Aussies like guitars.” In 2004, the U.S. bottomed out with a bronze medal before Jason Lezak swam his insane 46.06 split in the famous comeback over France in 2008. The French turned the tables in 2012 as Yannick Agnel ran down Ryan Lochte and scored gold, but the Americans reclaimed the event with Dressel, Michael Phelps, Held and Adrian in 2016.

Pieroni, who swam on the prelims relay in 2016, knows the significance of what this group will be defending in Tokyo.

“There is a huge tradition I think for all U.S. relays, really, but the 400 free, people think it’s one of the most exciting relays, and I think so, too,” Pieroni said. “I remember being at the Olympics last time and being in the stands, because I only swam in prelims, and I remembered Michael being on the final, and I was getting the times and everything. He was like, ‘What did I split?’ And I was like, ‘I think you went 47.0 or something like that,’ and he was super pumped. I remember how every time at Worlds, at the Olympics, every time we win that relay it doesn’t get old, and I think we have a great shot to win it again.”

Dressel added, “We’re going to do our part to take care of what we can control. Right now we have the four fastest guys at this meet, so we’re going to go into Tokyo with some confidence, and we are going to go take care of business. Not guaranteeing anything, but I think the four of us can do something special and we’re going to go in with the mindset that we’re going to take care of business. That’s what we have always done.”

We’ll have to wait for Tokyo to be sure exactly what this group can accomplish. Certainly, this relay is in nowhere near as much trouble as the American men’s 800 free relay, which is clearly the fourth-best team in the world right now. Enough members of this squad have track records of swimming very fast, and they will definitely be a factor for gold. But it will be a dogfight. Of course it will be. It’s the 400 free relay. The race could never go any other way.