Can Russia Take Down the American Men in the Olympic 400 Freestyle Relay?

Russia 400 free relay gold European Championships
The Russian men on their way to a European championships gold medal in the 400 free relay -- Photo Courtesy: Deepbluemedia/Insidefoto

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Can Russia Take Down the American Men in the Olympic 400 Freestyle Relay?

The American men have not lost the 400 freestyle relay at an international meet since Caeleb Dressel first joined the squad at the 2016 Olympics and became entrenched as the leadoff man. After taking down France at the Rio Olympics, the Americans won world titles in the event in 2017 and 2019. While Michael Phelps retired after 2016, Nathan Adrian has remained a stalwart on the anchor leg, a position he has found himself in on so many occasions going back to 2009.

MEN - 50M BACKSTROKE - FINAL KOLESNIKOV Kliment RUS Russia Celebrate World Record Swimming Budapest - Hungary 18/5/2021 Duna Arena XXXV LEN European Aquatic Championships Photo Giorgio Scala / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

Russia’s Kliment Kolesnikov, the top-ranked swimmer in the world in the 100 free, at the 2021 European Championships — Photo Courtesy: Giorgio Scala / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

At the 2021 Olympics in Tokyo, the most significant challenge will no doubt come from Russia, which took silver at the 2019 Worlds and has a strong core of young sprinters it will rely on. That includes 20-year-old Kliment Kolesnikov, who owns the fastest time in the world for 2021 at 47.33 and won gold at the European Championships in the 100 free Wednesday in 47.37.

In fact, Russia currently owns three of the top four times in the world with 19-year-old Andrei Minakov (47.74) and Vladimir Grinev (47.85), the 2019 World Championships bronze medalist in the 100 free, both under 48. Either Aleksandr Shchegolev, veteran sprinter Vladimir Morozov or backstroke specialist Evgeny Rylov could handle the fourth leg, and all are capable of 47-second splits. A quartet of Minakov, Shchegolev, Grinev and Kolesnikov cruised to victory at the European championships this week in 3:10.41.

Meanwhile, the Americans’ 2021 results do not present a very compelling argument for deeming them the Olympic gold medal favorites in the 400 free relay, although the upcoming U.S. Olympic Trials could change that. Dressel owns the top time in the country at 48.00, and only three others, Ryan Held, Adrian and Blake Pieroni, have even cracked 49. But while Russia selected its Olympic team in April, the Americans still have their Olympic Trials to come, and the bar is set high for the 100 free. In 2019, the last full year of competition prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, American sprinters posted some truly remarkable performances in the event.

Caeleb Dressel of the United States of America (USA) reacts after winning in the men's 50m Freestyle Final during the Swimming events at the Gwangju 2019 FINA World Championships, Gwangju, South Korea, 27 July 2019.

Caeleb Dressel has led the United States to two straight world titles in the 400 free relay — Photo Courtesy: Patrick B. Kraemer

In 2019, six Americans swam under 48, the most in any calendar year: Dressel (46.96), Held (47.39), Maxime Rooney (47.61), Zach Apple (47.69), Pieroni (47.87) and Tate Jackson (47.88). Dean Farris (48.07) narrowly missed getting under that barrier, and Adrian, in a season following surgery to treat testicular cancer, had a season-best time of 48.17. Heading into the original 2020 Olympic season, it was a fair presumption to expect that it would take close to 48.0 or maybe under just to qualify for the semifinals at Olympic Trials. Now, following the one-year delay and inconsistent training conditions for top athletes around the country, the prognosis is more murky.

In order to properly compare the 400 free relay potential for the United States against Russia, we will need to use 2019 times for the Americans. Exactly how this relay will shake out at the Olympics will become much more clear once we see exactly how fast the stable of American sprinters manages to swim at the Olympic Trials next month in Omaha. But here is the best projection based on the information currently available. This relay hypothetical will only compare flat start times, so that excludes times like the 47.0 splits Adrian and Rylov swam on the end of their respective relays at the 2019 Worlds.

United States (2019): Dressel 46.96 + Held 47.39 + Rooney 47.61 + Apple 47.69 = 3:09.65
Russia (2021): Kolesnikov 47.31 + Minakov 47.74 + Grinev 47.85 + Morozov 48.00 = 3:10.90

From that perspective, the Americans have a small margin of breathing room, but again, this is all dependent on the U.S. swimmers replicating their outstanding 2019 performances this time around, which is far from a guarantee. In fact, it would be downright stunning if that ends up as the quartet that represents the U.S. in the 400 free relay in Tokyo.

The 100 free at Olympic Trials still projects as a slugfest to qualify for the semifinals—which will likely require a time in the high-48 or low-49 range—and then to get into the final. Six of the eight swimmers who get into the final will end up qualifying for Tokyo as (at least) relay alternates, so maybe they can push each other to times akin to the heights of 2019. But until Omaha, those relay projections are fool’s gold. It’s clear how good the Russians are in 2021, but the Americans still have plenty to prove.

2 comments

  1. avatar
    Nathan

    I think the better question is why no one wants to accept that there is an 80% chance The Olympics will be canceled.

    • avatar
      MB

      Because they won’t be.

      Japan is a proud nation, cancelling now would be seen as weak. The 11th hour has gone.

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