Can Team USA Dominate Freestyle Relays At Worlds?

Nathan Adrian
Photo Courtesy: Joao Marc Bosch

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Each week leading up to the start of the swimming competition at the FINA world championships, Swimming World will offer medal predictions for the 42 events set to be contested in Kazan, Russia.

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By Jeff Commings, Swimming World Senior Writer

The freestyle relays at any major international swim meet are among the most exciting races to watch. These events are where national pride is on the line the most, while the team camaraderie and the depth each country comes to the forefront.

The freestyle relays at the 2013 world championships offered a few surprises. The United States managed a mini-upset in the women’s 400 free relay, while France’s come-from-behind victory in the men’s 400 free relay continued that country’s resurgence after the bitter loss at the 2008 Olympics. This year, the global competition isn’t offering many obstacles for the United States, who stand to make history in Kazan this August.

If Team USA wins all eight relays in Kazan (including the two new mixed relays), it will be the second time a nation has won every swimming relay at the world championships. The USA won all five at the 1978 world championships, where the women only swam the 400 free relay and 400 medley relay. The addition of the 400 mixed free relay and 400 mixed medley relay this year adds a bit of uncertainty regarding the Americans’ history-making attempt, as does the strength of the Australians and a couple other countries who could surprise.

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Men’s freestyle relays at world championships

Men’s 400 free relay

The United States hasn’t won this event at a major international meet since the 2010 Pan Pacific championships. Team USA is looking very good for a trip to the top step of the medal podium in Kazan, as Australia’s James Magnussen will be out of the meet repairing his shoulder. Without Magnussen, Australia’s chances of getting a medal are very slim. The Aussies won the 2014 Pan Pacific championship on the strength of Cameron McEvoy’s anchor, but without the key leg that Magnussen could provide, the team has a weak spot.

France, the 2012 Olympic champion and reigning world champion, will need to pull off another miracle similar to the ones they pulled off in the past two years. The results from the French nationals don’t paint a strong picture for the French, given that no one has posted a time below 48.5 seconds. Mehdy Metella’s improvements at the Golden Tour meet last month gave the French a bit of a boost, but can he help Jeremy Stravius and Fabien Gilot keep up with the Americans? Florent Manaudou could be the fourth swimmer, but he’s been focusing so much on the 50 free that a race twice as long might be daunting for him. The French won the European title last year, and the above foursome could make it four years in a row of major relay international titles.

With the 400 free relay taking place on the first night of competition, the Russians would love to capture a gold medal in front of a home crowd to kick off the meet. On the back of Vladimir Morozov, it could happen, but the three teammates who will join him will need to get back to the performances they put up to gain silver at last year’s European championships. The team doesn’t look as strong as in years past, but the cheers from the crowd are bound to bring a surge to the Russian swimmers.

Brazil’s 400 free relay is rapidly improving, and could provide an upset to get on the podium. Brazil was just .23 behind the United States at the Pan Pacs last year, but will need to be faster to get on the podium against a bigger field.

The big question remains: Who will swim the 400 free relay for the United States? As always, that’s not decided until hours before the final. Nathan Adrian and Jimmy Feigen, the two 100 freestyle representatives, are assured of spots. Anthony Ervin, Matt Grevers and Conor Dwyer will likely race in the prelims to get the remaining spots. Ryan Lochte should be included in the conversation, as he was originally set to swim the 100 free at worlds but gave his spot to Feigen. Ervin has been doing fairly well on the relay, but if Lochte gets the third spot without having to prove himself, the final position might go to Dwyer. He’s been improving in the 100 free, and will need to dig into his 200 free endurance to keep challengers at bay.

Men’s 400 freestyle relay medal predictions
Gold: USA
Silver: France
Bronze: Russia

Jimmy Feigen

Photo Courtesy: Joao Marc Bosch

Men’s 800 freestyle relay

Updated June 30
The last time Australia won the 800 free relay at the world championships, Grant Hackett was part of what was then an unstoppable Aussie team in 2003. Twelve years later, Hackett is back on the squad, and he’ll be looking to return to the 800 free relay final for the chance to earn a fourth gold medal in the event and fifth overall.

It’s not out of the realm of possibility that Australian can win the 800 free relay. Hackett will be able to provide a solid leg for the Aussies, but with the talents of McEvoy, David McKeon and Thomas Fraser-Holmes behind him, the chances rise significantly. All four will have to average 1:45 to compete with the Americans, which is a tall order but not an impossible one.

The United States would appear to have no problem approaching the 7:00 barrier, with Lochte and Dwyer leading the squad. But the remaining two spots might be filled by swimmers not yet accustomed to a major championship meet. Reed Malone, Michael Weiss and Clay Youngquist are all newbies to the long course worlds, which is much more intense than short course worlds. Michael Klueh swam prelims of the 800 free relay in 2013, but wasn’t fast enough for the final. Neither of them have best times faster than 1:47.4, which is only average when racing at world championships. Whomever joins Lochte and Dwyer on the relay must contribute something faster than 1:46.00 to keep the competition at bay. If not, it opens the door for Australia, Japan and Great Britain.

Yes, Great Britain has a medal shot in the 800 free relay. James Guy, Calum Jarvis and Robbie Renwick were exceptional at nationals in April, and if Daniel Wallace or someone else capable of splitting under 1:47 joins them, it could be their first 800 free relay medal at worlds.

Japan nearly took down the United States in this event at the Pan Pacific championships, but I don’t foresee that happening again in Kazan. Maybe Kosuke Hagino can put up a split to keep them in the game, but the 200 free didn’t seem to be a focus event for the Japanese at their world championship trials. But, as they did at Pan Pacs, they could put up a surprisingly tough foursome in Russia.

China was third at the 2013 world championships on the strength of a 1:43.1 from Sun Yang. They could sneak in for another medal, but they cannot rely on Sun’s amazing speed to pull them from fifth to third this time. With Yannick Agnel withdrawing from world championships, France appears to be out of contention, while the rest of the world shapes up to be well behind the top four.

Men’s 800 freestyle relay medal predictions

Gold: USA
Silver: Australia
Bronze: Japan

Cameron McEvoy

Photo Courtesy: Delly Carr

Women’s freestyle relays at world championships

Women’s 400 free relay

This shapes up to be more thrilling than the men’s sprint relay. In 2013, Megan Romano overtook Alicia Coutts on the anchor leg to prevent the Aussies from winning. But in the span of a year, Australia made a big leap forward with a world record in the event at the 2014 Commonwealth Games. That seemingly puts Australia well at the top of the pack this year at the world championships, and the same foursome could make the rest of the field look like age groupers.

No matter where you put her in the lineup, Cate Campbell will be the biggest contributor. Put her first, and she’ll give her teammates a fairly insurmountable lead. Put her last, and any doubt about a win will be erased after 75 meters. Along with sister Bronte, Emma McKeon and Melanie Wright (formerly Schlanger) the Aussies can’t be beat.

The Americans will try their hardest, though. Simone Manuel and Missy Franklin are going to be tough racers. The two ladies who will join her can’t match any of the splits that the Aussies will put forward, so it makes the Americans in a fight for silver. Whether it’s Lia Neal, Abbey Weitzeil, Margo Geer or Shannon Vreeland, the Americans don’t stand a chance.

The Netherlands were formerly the queens of the 400 free relay, winning the 2008 Olympic and 2009 world titles. The ladies still have plenty of firepower to contend, as evidenced by Femke Heemskerk, Inge Dekker and Ranomi Kromowidjojo. Those three could keep the pace with the Americans, with their fourth swimmer likely to hold pace and give the Dutch a chance for a silver medal. Elise Bouwens has been on the squad the past two years, so look for her to be back in Kazan.

Women’s 400 free relay medal predictions

Gold: Australia
Silver: USA
Bronze: The Netherlands

cate-bronte-campbell-pan-pacs-2014 (2)

Photo Courtesy: Delly Carr

Women’s 800 free relay

Updated as of June 22
As strong as the Australians are in the 400 free relay, the Americans are equally untouchable in the 800 free relay. Franklin and Katie Ledecky are likely to go 1-2 in the 200 free at worlds and that combination makes for a dominating force on a relay. Put Ledecky first, and the Americans are in the lead. Put Franklin last, and you have one of the most reliable anchor swimmers in the world. Who joins those two? Vreeland has been a part of the relay since the 2012 Olympics, and might be back in this final. Chelsea Chenault has been right on the brink of a major international relay, and it would be great to see her earn a spot in the championship final. Cierra Runge and Leah Smith have been making big improvements since last summer, so they could also be fighting hard in the prelim race to put up the fastest splits.

Australia will be fighting for second. The recent news that Brittany Elmslie is withdrawing from the world championship team, and the voluntary withdrawal of Kylie Palmer during the investigation of a positive drug test, puts the Aussies further behind the unstoppable Americans. McKeon, Bronte Barratt and Schlanger will be three of the four in the final. It’s unclear who will fill the fourth spot, but that woman will need to make up for Australia’s big loss in this event.

The door is open for Sweden to take the silver medal. With the help of Sarah Sjostrom, the Swedes could find the momentum that could carry them past the Australians to an unprecedented silver medal. France’s freestyle strength hasn’t been up to par in the past two years, so they might not defend their bronze medal from the 2013 world championships. That opens the door for the always-strong China and Germany. Italy won the European title last year, so they could also be in the medal race.

Women’s 800 freestyle relay medal predictions

Gold: USA
Silver: Sweden
Bronze: Australia

800 freestyle relay at 2013 world championships

Photo Courtesy: Pamela Roberts

Mixed 400 freestyle relay

For the first time at a long course world championships, mixed relays will be swum. They’ve been a popular event at the short course worlds, and have been part of the European championships for many years. That would likely give the Europeans the advantage here, but this is a simple squad to fill for the “inexperienced” countries. Put in your two fastest women and two fastest men in the 100 free and — voila! — you’ve got your mixed 400 free relay.

This could be an exciting one (again) between Australia and the United States. On paper, the advantage goes to Australia. Their women are faster than the Americans, while the Australian men are about equal with the Americans. But, the event comes on the seventh day of competition, when most will be running on reserve energy. That will affect the times, but not the racing mindset.

The major strategy to consider is where to put your women and men in the lineup? Put a male first, and you stay in the lead. Put your men last, and they are swimming in the wake of others. Put your women last, and they might have to fend off a few men. It will make this a thrilling debut, but probably not enough to add it to the Olympic schedule (where it’ll have to stand in line behind 50s of the strokes).

Mixed 400 freestyle relay medal predictions

Gold: Australia
Silver: USA
Bronze: The Netherlands

Previous world championships predictions:
Backstroke

12 comments

  1. avatar
    David Rieder

    Hmm, interesting picks. I don’t think the winner of either of the women’s relays should be too hard to pick. I am interested to see, though, how close the Americans can come to the Aussies in the 400 free. With Manuel improving, I see it being closer than some might expect, and I’ll be interested to see how not just Weitzeil and Vreeland stack up but also Natalie Coughlin, who’s swimming at Pan-Ams but could be a factor on this relay in 2016.

    As for the men, I think the absence of Phelps hurts the Americans. I’d pick them in the 800 as well, but it’ll be close with Australia and Japan. In the 400 free relay, they could win gold or they could get fourth, and neither result would really stun me. France and Russia will be there, Italy has some studs, and I think Jeff is underrating Brazil. I spoke to Cesar in Charlotte last month, and he’s really excited about where this relay could go. Mattheus Santana wasn’t on Brazil’s relay last year, and he has 48-low credentials already, and they’ve got Fratus, Nilo, Cherighini, and even some depth. And when they have home-crowd advantage in Rio? Scares me.

  2. avatar
    carlo

    I was surprised by the prediction that the US men will win the 400 free relay. To me it will be between France and Russia with Brazil and the US battling for bronze. If Australia had magunussen with them, they would have been battling for a medal too.

    • avatar
      Jeff Commings

      France’s 100 free times at nationals were not impressive, which leads me to believe France will struggle a bit in the 400 free relay. The Americans, though we have not seen tapered swims from them since August, appear to have the stronger team. But then again, I did not pick France to win the relay in 2012 or 2013.

    • avatar
      aswimfan

      I agree with Carlo here.
      IMHO, All three Russia, France, and USA has equal chance for men 4×100 free gold. In fact , I would put both Russia and France just a bit ahead of USA.

  3. avatar
    commonwombat

    The issue with the mixed relays is …… just how seriously are the major nations going to approach them ? Will they bother fielding their top seeds or even their 2nd seeds if they’ve had demanding programs ? Fine; they are World Championship medals being handed out but these are non-Olympic events and the non-Olympic 50’s may serve as a guide in this regard.

    I see the M 4×100 as a complete lottery with no-one being the overwhelming favourite. AUS can be discounted but even before Magnussen’s withdrawal they were long-shots due to the inadequacy of their 3rd & 4th swimmers. RUS at home have to be considered. BRA have to be considered as do FRA & USA.

    I’ve certainly seen much stronger USA 4X200 line-ups but their record says they cannot be discounted. JAP threw down a marker at Pan Pacs that cannot be ignored. AUS M 4×200 often looks good on paper but over the past 4-5 years, that’s where it ends as it’s proven to be a chronically misfiring engine. Hackett’s return may add some stability/maturity but this is a 35y.o version not the Hackett of 10-11 years ago. McEvoy has been an erratic performer in this relay (his 2014 outings were very sub-standard); McKeon has a poor intl record and 2015 Fraser-Holmes is prob 1.5sec slower that the 2014 model.

    • avatar
      Jeff Commings

      I never considered that any nation would “bag” the mixed relays at worlds and not submit their best swimmers. But since the USA is not requiring the best athletes to do 50s of the strokes, it is possible that policy will be the same for the mixed relays.

  4. avatar
    petriasfan

    Women’s 4x200m free – Aussies may win silver, but it is going to be a challenge to do so without Kylie Palmer. Final line up will include McKeon, Barratt, Wright and possibly Leah Neale. I believe Melanie Wright will get individual 200m free spot.

    I doubt the Aussies will race an A-Team in the mixed relays. I believe the likes of Kyle Chalmers, Matt Abood, Melanie Wright and Madison Wilson will swim the mixed 4x100m Free. Not sure how the final line up will look. As history has shown, a M, M, F, F line up looks to be the winning method. If this is the case, I’d suggest the team would be Ashley Delaney, James Packard, Madeline Groves (yet to see a fly split in a medley relay), Melanie Wright.

  5. avatar
    gbswim

    Fair predictions but I would say that the Mens 4x100m Free Relay has no clear favourite. The USA will as ever be the toughest competition in a relay event but France, Russia or Brazil taking gold wouldn’t be an upset.

    The Womens 4x100m Free Relay on the other hand looks like the Aussie’s to lose and I don’t see them faltering. The battle for silver behind them will be close than expected between USA and Netherlands. Franklin and Manuel will have to go Sub 53.5 splits and I think the Americans should race Coughlin. But the Netherlands strongest two are Heemskerk and Kromowidjojo (World No. 1 and Olympic Champ.) Along with Dekker, their issue was the fourth leg. But Marrit Steenbergen split 53 Flat at the European Games this week, and will be on the team in Kazan.

  6. avatar
    gbswim

    Fair predictions but I would say that the Mens 4x100m Free Relay has no clear favourite. The USA will as ever be the toughest competition in a relay event but France, Russia or Brazil taking gold wouldn’t be an upset.

    The Women’s 4x100m Free Relay on the other hand looks like the Aussie’s to lose and I don’t see them faltering. The battle for silver behind them will be close than expected between USA and Netherlands. Franklin and Manuel will have to go Sub 53.5 splits and I think the Americans should race Coughlin. But the Netherlands strongest two are Heemskerk and Kromowidjojo (World No. 1 and Olympic Champ.) Along with Dekker, their issue was the fourth leg. But Marrit Steenbergen split 53 Flat at the European Games this week, and will be on the team in Kazan.

  7. avatar
    martin

    France will win. Manadou did 47.9 in euro and said he is preparing the 100 for the relay,Giilot is the French Lezak (worst case scenario he will go 47.5 split) and then you have: Agnel back in shape, Stravius, Mignon or Metella for the other 2 positions. Just because they haven’t posted good times doesn’t mean they are not in shape. If something weird happens with France Russia with morozov, izotov and any other 2 will take it.

  8. avatar
    petriasfan

    GBSWIM, imagine if the Dutch place Steenbergen on their team. It’ll be a good hit out for her and the Dutch team before Rio. I so wish Coughlin was on World Champs team, but she isn’t. Will be interesting to see how well she can swim at Pan Ams.

  9. avatar
    aswimfan

    Agree with everyone who says men 4×100 free has no clear favorite and I am dumbfounded by this article confident prediction that USA will win it.
    In fact, I would put FRA and RUS just a little bit ahead in this race. BRA is unpredictable. and AUS chances evaporated the moment Magnussen announced he’s not going.

    men4x200 free, I am slightly confident in AUS to deliver it this time, although they burned my prediction the last two years. At some point, that combination of mcEvoy-FraserHolmes-McKeon-Horton will deliver a 7:00, if not this year then next year. USA will be a bit weaker from the lost of Phelps and Japan was very surprising last year, but can they do it again this year?

    mixed free relay prediction is very very hazy at this point. Prior to Magnussen’s withdrawal, it was easy to predict AUS will win this and break the WR like it’s nothing. But now with the loss of Magnussen and with no certainty that AUS will swim C1, C2 and mcEvoy in this race, I really really can’t tell how it’s going to be. One thing is for sure: RUS will swim all their top sprinters, because as the host country, collecting as many medals as possible is their current priority, Rio be damned.

    Both women 4×100 and 4×200 have clear very strong favorites, but stranger things happened.

    So excited!