How the U.S. Women’s Relays Stack Up for World Championships

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Torri Huske will be critical to the hopes of the U.S. women’s relays at the World Championships -- Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

How the U.S. Women’s Relays Stack Up for World Championships

Following the U.S. International Team Trials, the U.S. women are set up to win a lot of medals at the FINA World Championships next month in Budapest. Consider this list of swimmers: Katie Ledecky, Lilly King, Kate Douglass, Claire Curzan, Torri Huske, Hali Flickinger, Regan Smith, Phoebe Bacon, Rhyan White, Alex Walsh, Katie Grimes and Emma Weyant. All 12 of those women, ranging in age from the 16-year-old Grimes to 27-year-old Flickinger, have at least a strong chance to win one individual medal or more.

That group covers almost every individual event. The major exception? The shorter freestyle events: 50, 100 and 200. Simone Manuel was the world champion in the 50 and 100 in 2019, but she has not competed since the Olympics last year. The top American sprinters have not posted times competitive internationally. Ledecky was the 2015 world champion and 2016 Olympic champion in the 200, but after she dropped the event from her individual lineup this year, the remaining U.S. women in the 200 free are a step behind.

And the short freestyle events are disproportionately significant at major competitions because of the relay implications. While the Americans would be big favorites in a women’s backstroke, breaststroke or butterfly relay, freestyle is a different story. Let’s go event-by-event to look at the three women’s relays set for the World Championships to examine American medal hopes.

400 Freestyle Relay

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Claire Curzan — Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

This relay has been the domain of Australia over the past decade. The American women did edge out the Aussies for gold at the 2017 World Championships, but at that point, Simone Manuel and Mallory Comerford were each capable of 52-mid flat start times and the Aussies were missing star sprinter Cate Campbell. In 2022, the Americans have no swimmer on their World Championships team who has ever broken 53 as Abbey Weitzeil narrowly missed out with a seventh-place finish in the 100 free at Trials.

Torri Huske was the 100 free winner at Trials in 53.35, while Claire Curzan, Erika Brown and Natalie Hinds were all in the 53-mid range. That should produce a medal-winning relay, but Australia will still present a big challenge, even the Aussies set to bring a scaled-down roster to Budapest this year.

Campbell is again skipping this year’s Worlds, and so is 100 free Olympic gold medalist Emma McKeon. Bronte Campbell, Cate’s younger sister, hasn’t competed so far this year. And Australia still has a legion of extremely competitive 100 freestylers. But the Aussies should have Shayna Jack, ranked No. 1 in the world in the 100 free at 53.13, and Madison Wilson and Mollie O’Callaghan both have 53-low capabilities. Meg Harris, who swam on the gold-medal-winning Olympic finals squad last year, may also be in the mix.

And this race won’t be just about the U.S. and Australia. After edging out the U.S. women for silver last year, Canada should bring a formidable squad led by 2016 Olympic co-champion Penny Oleksiak, and a Chinese squad featuring Zhang Yufei and Yang Junxuan is also capable of winning a medal.


800 Freestyle Relay

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Katie Ledecky — Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

The group representing the U.S. in the 800 free relay will be inexperienced. Three of the four swimmers from last year’s Olympic silver-medal-winning squad will be absent, with only Katie Ledecky returning, plus Bella Sims from the prelims relay. Ledecky was the 200 free winner at Trials in 1:55.15, but no one else swam under 1:57. The runnerup in that race was surprising 15-year-old Claire Weinstein, with Leah Smith and Hali Flickinger clinching relay spots and Sims and Alex Walsh getting on the team as alternates.

That group will face an Australian roster missing Emma McKeon and Ariarne Titmus, the Olympic gold medalist in the 200 and 400 free, but three other Australians (Mollie O’Callaghan, Kiah Melverton and Madison Wilson) have already been under 1:57 with the country’s Trials still to come. China returns a group that won Olympic gold last year in a shocking upset, and Canada has fast-improving 15-year-old Summer McIntosh to team with 200 free Olympic bronze medalist Penny Oleksiak and likely Taylor Ruck and Kayla Sanchez.

Long-term, the Americans have hope for improvement in the 200 free with four teenagers (Weinstein, Sims, Erin Gemmell and Katie Grimes) swimming in the final at Trials and Walsh just now coming into her own as a 200 freestyler, but this year’s group looks caught in between. More likely than not, the Americans do win a medal in this event at Worlds, but you could make a case for Australia, China and Canada all to be ranked ahead of the Americans right now.

Of course, the U.S. women have a track record of success in this relay, and Ledecky knows it. “I don’t know how many times I’ve been on it now, eight or nine times maybe. It’s a different group each time, and I think we always find a way,” she said. “We always find a way to be in the mix.”


400 Medley Relay

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Lilly King — Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Much better news for the Americans in the medley relay. Australia touched out the U.S. for Olympic gold by 0.13 in Tokyo, but that required little-known breaststroker Chelsea Hodges to produce the split of her life and then Emma McKeon and Cate Campbell to deliver on the end.

But a projected team of Regan Smith, Lilly King, Claire Curzan and Torri Huske might be the favorites for a world title even against a full-strength Australia. Smith looked great with her 57.76 performance in the 100 back at Trials, and King has her sights set on a return to 1:04 territory in the 100 breast. Curzan and Huske are both better butterflyers than freestylers, so the key will be seeing which swimmer can produce a big-time performance in the 100 free to prove ready for this key anchor spot.

The Americans typically use a completely different squad from prelims to finals for the medley relay, but Curzan and Huske account for five of the eight spots in the 100-meter events (both are swimming the 100 fly and 100 free, while Curzan also qualified for the Worlds team in the 100 back). But the Worlds team includes plenty of capable alternates qualified in other events. Rhyan White and Katharine Berkoff can handle backstroke duties in prelims, and Kate Douglass (fly) and either Erika Brown or Natalie Hinds (free) can allow both Huske and Curzan to rest for the finals relay as they both navigate extremely busy competition schedules.

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Swimfan
14 days ago

Mallory comerford actully is the only swimmer on the team that’s ever been under 53 and she did it 5 times in 2017, granted that was 5 years ago, but none the less she has accolade, and Katie ledecky and Erika brown have split sub 53 on the relay, ledecky most likely won’t swim the relay.if comerford finds her form and has a fast prelims coaches could put her on the finals

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commonwombat
13 days ago

With AUS significantly weakened this year and CAN’s BRS weakness still apparent; USA’s severest hurdle to winning 4XMED gold will probably be themselves.

4X200 looks a lottery. USA boasts the biggest (remaining) gun with Ledecky but the remaining legs need to lift significantly. AUS is minus its primary weapons but still look a major factor. CAN have to be highly respected but will need all 4 legs on song. May not be the worst bet in town putting a few $$ on CHN backing up their Olympic gold.

Realistic to say that we won’t be seeing AUS winning the 4X100 by 3+ seconds when they are minus the 3 fastest ever 100free relay splitters. Having said that; they still have Wilson & Harris as sub53 flat starts and O’Callaghan & Jack with sub53 relay splits to their name. Unless AUS Trials prove to be unusually slow, there should be at least 3 swimers faster than the fastest at US Trials. Hard to be bet against the same podium composition as Tokyo; lower steps could go either way. Probably a year or two early but GBR look the only real potential gatecrashers.

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Swimfan
12 days ago

The 800 relay is the one I’m most excited about… it’s in the middle of the meet, I have my eye on the final lineup of Weinstein, smith, Walsh and ledecky. The good thing is that they all would have raced earlierIn the meet to give us a clue as to how well they are coming and who officially will be on the finals

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