How China Has Assembled an Olympic Gold-Medal-Caliber Men’s Medley Relay

Haiyang Qin of China compete in the Men's Breaststroke 50m Heats during the 20th World Aquatics Championships at the Marine Messe Hall A in Fukuoka (Japan), July 25th, 2023.
China's Qin Haiyang racing American Nic Fink -- Photo Courtesy: Andrea Masini / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

How China Has Assembled an Olympic Gold-Medal-Caliber Men’s Medley Relay

Never considered a men’s swimming power, China has changed that trend within the last 15 years since winning its first-ever Olympic medal in men’s swimming at the 2008 Games. Zhang Lin was the first medalist, and he has since been followed by Sun YangWang Shun and Xu Jiayu at the Olympics. In men’s relays, meanwhile, China’s only international success came in a three-year period from 2011 through 2013 when an 800 freestyle relay group led by Sun earned a run of bronze medals.

Now, though, the Olympic year beckons with China in position to threaten the United States in a relay the Americans have lost at an Olympics. The 400 medley relay was added to the program for the 1960 Games, and the U.S. has earned 15 out of 16 Olympic golds since, with the lone exception coming at the boycotted 1980 Olympics. At the 2008, 2012 and 2016 Olympics, Michael Phelps blasted his U.S. team to lead with his butterfly leg, and Caeleb Dressel pulled the same at the Tokyo Games.

The American men fell to Italy at the 2022 World Championships but regained control of the medley relay in dominant fashion this year, with veterans Ryan Murphy and Nic Fink leading into a pair of relay rookies, Dare Rose and Jack Alexy. China earned a breakthrough silver medal but finished 1.80 seconds behind the Americans.

Well, the results from the ongoing Asian Games in Hangzhou, China, have thrown a wrench into the status quo in the event, with China moving to the precipice of world-record pace while the American swimmers are away from high-level racing, their attention already turned toward preparations for the Olympic season. In two months, China’s swimmers combined for a mark two seconds quicker than their result from Worlds while nearly knocking off the world record set by the U.S. men at the Tokyo Olympics.

Pan Zhanle

Pan Zhanle — Photo Courtesy: Hiroyuki Nakamura/World Aquatics

The team consisted of Xu Jiayu, Qin Haiyang, Wang Changhao and Pan Zhanle, the same group that earned silver in Fukuoka. Xu, now 28, led off in 52.05, much closer to his best time of 51.86 than his disappointing 53.39 swim from Worlds which doomed China’s chances of chasing down the United States. Qin, the world’s new breaststroke superstar, was slightly slower than his corresponding split from Fukuoka while Pan was nearly the same, but Wang, the least acclaimed member of the squad, dropped from 51.56 at Worlds to 50.68 at Asian Games.

China’s final time of 3:27.01, less than a quarter second off the world record of 3:26.78, but one day later, the front half of this squad recorded even quicker splits on a Chinese mixed 400 medley relay team that came within 15-hundredths of a global standard. Xu led off in 51.91, his quickest time in six years, with Qin going 57.25. Combine those splits with the best efforts of Wang and Pan, and China has a faster mark than the vaunted American team that included Dressel splitting an absurd 49.03.

Already the favorites for Olympic gold in that mixed medley relay, China has now moved into at least co-favorite status with the U.S. men in that medley relay by fixing the weak spots from Worlds. Can they now bring that form to the Olympic level and make a real run at gold? Doing so will require every piece of the puzzle to maintain career-best form in 10 months and in less friendly territory than the home-pool advantage provided at these Asian Games.

Qin looks like a superstar, a three-time world champion in breaststroke who holds the world record over 200 meters and is matched only by Adam Peaty in the 100. Pan has made steady improvements, leading to his sub-47 100 free flat-start swim at the Asian Games. But Xu has been erratic in recent years, and even a significant bounce-back in 2023 was marred by poor swims in Worlds finals. Wang has continued to raise his game to give China a competent butterfly leg.

The Americans, meanwhile, have seen Murphy and Fink grow into consistent presences on the front end of this relay while Rose and Alexy, both Cal-trained swimmers like Murphy and New Jersey-natives like Fink, seized their positions with substantial improvements this year. It remains to be seen if Dressel can approach his best form in time for the Olympics and provide a substantial boost. At the very least, U.S. depth that far exceeds China (including the likes of backstroker Hunter Armstrong) increases the American margin for error.

But China’s men have set themselves up for a national first next year in Paris, with these four hoping to continue their progression and culminate their rise with a medley relay upset of the mighty Americans.

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7 months ago

China has decided swimming is their path to topping the overall medal tally in Paris over the United States

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