Katie McLaughlin Adds Olympic Medal to Stellar, Unique Relay Legacy at All Levels of Swimming

Jul 29, 2021; Tokyo, Japan; Katie McLaughlin (USA) reacts with her teammates after finishing second in the women's 4x200m freestyle relay during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Summer Games at Tokyo Aquatics Centre. Mandatory Credit: Grace Hollars-USA TODAY Sports
Photo Courtesy: Grace Hollars/USA Today Sports

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At every level of her career, Katie McLaughlin has been on a big relay in a big moment. She has helped high school relay set national records, college relays set NCAA records and Team USA relays break world records.

After all of her relay history the past decades, McLaughlin finally got the chance to show her relay prowess on the Olympic stage.

Like nearly every big relay swim, McLaughlin did not disappoint.

In the 800 free relay, McLaughlin split a 1:55.38 to help lead the U.S. to the silver medal (7:40.73), along with Allison Schmitt, Paige Madden and Katie Ledecky — finishing behind China (7:40.33) and ahead of favored Australia (7:41.29) as all three teams broke the previous world record in the event.

“It is really a great experience. I just felt so lucky to be there and race. It was the most nervous I have ever been for a race, but it was such a different kind of nervous. I felt excited and inspired nervous, not scared nervous or worried nervous,” Katie McLaughlin told Swimming World.

Jul 29, 2021; Tokyo, Japan; Katie Ledecky (USA), left, reacts with her teammates including Katie McLaughlin (USA) after finishing second in the women's 4x200m freestyle relay during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Summer Games at Tokyo Aquatics Centre. Mandatory Credit: Grace Hollars-USA TODAY Sports

Katie Ledecky and Katie McLaughlin. Photo Courtesy: Grace Hollars/USA Today Sports

She watched Schmitt go faster than she did in the prelims, then the same thing for Madden.

“It was really amazing. It is such a blur,” McLaughlin said. “I remember when Schmitty finished, I was like ‘OK we are up there. … We are getting somewhere here.’ I don’t remember anything from when Paige was swimming. I wish I remember more. I remember diving in and not being able to feel like my hands. I was like, ‘I hope I am holding on to water right now.’ I remember turning my head to see where everyone was, then wondering why I looked. The emotions were just so high.”

Then McLaughlin threw down her stellar split and gave way to Ledecky.

“There is no better feeling than finishing my leg with Katie jumping in. That is who you want behind you,” McLaughlin said. “I saw Katie’s first 50 and I ran behind the blocks to watch the end (because you had to get out of the water at the side of the pool). The three of us were just screaming our heads off. Everything was going through our heads. ‘Are we about to win?’ ‘Are we about to beat Australia?’ Katie just whipped it out.”

Another 5-10 meters and Ledecky would have likely overtaken the leaders, but the U.S. won a silver medal in the most epic relay of the Olympics.

Big relays nothing new

Katie McLaughlin has put together one of the most unique array of big time relay performances during her career.
It started in high school as she led Santa Margarita to the national private school record in the 400 freestyle relay.

In 2013, she was part of the winning 800 free relay at the Junior World Championships in Dubai, teaming with Quinn Carrozza, Katie Drabot and Cierra Runge to win in a meet-record 7:59.42. She then won the 200 butterfly (2:08.72) and teamed with future Olympians Kathleen Baker, Gunnar Bentz and Caeleb Dressel in the mixed medley relay, earning the bronze.


Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

“We didn’t win but it is kind of legendary that we were all on there,” McLaughlin said.

It was far from her final time on a star-studded relay.

In 2015, she was on the 800 free relay at the world championships, swimming with Missy Franklin, Leah Smith and Ledecky.

“It was about 40 minutes after the 200 fly. I thought I was fatigued, but I wasn’t. I was 17. I think I went a 1:56,” she said.

It helped Team USA win the gold medal in 7:45.37. She also won the silver in the mixed medley relay with Ryan Murphy, Kevin Cordes and Margo Geer.

In 2017, she was part of a silver medal in the 800 free relay at the World University Games, teaming with Claire Rasmus, Drabot and Ella Eastin.

In her time at Cal, McLaughlin made her mark as pulling off a rare double — twice at the NCAA championships. She is one of few swimmers in history to swim the 200 free and 100 butterfly in the same session, and despite it being just a few minutes apart, she earned All-American honors in both events as a junior and senior.

But as a senior, McLaughlin’s biggest mark came on the relays as she was on three NCAA championship relays, along with teammates Abbey Weitzeil and Amy Bilquist, with the fourth swimmer different for each relay.

The trio teamed with Maddie Murphy to break the NCAA record in the 200 free relay, then teamed with Ema Rajic to win the 400 medley relay, and the trio finished with Isabel Ivey to break the NCAA record in the 400 freestyle relay (3:06.96) in the final race of McLaughlin’s career at Cal.

“As a whole team, we kind of knew what our strengths were and knew that we could give a little sneak attack and people didn’t see us coming perhaps in the team race,” McLaughlin said. “But we knew. We wanted it to be our best and that showed up in our leadership style that year and we wanted it to be the best season possible. When we did get up for the relays, we did have a job to do together. It was having that fight for our team and showing our appreciation for Cal as seniors and wanting to do it for Teri (McKeever).”


Katie McLaughlin. Photo Courtesy: Becca Wyant

McLaughlin wasn’t done in 2019.

Then at the 2019 World Championships, she teamed with Simone Manuel, Ledecky and Melanie Margalis to win the silver in the 800 free relay with McLaughlin anchoring. She split a 1:55.36 and the U.S. went 7:41.87 to break the American record as they finished ahead of the previous world record, but finished just behind Australia (7:41.50).

“I didn’t do the prelims and just kind of got thrown on the end. Katie was sick and they put her in the middle. There is just something about the 800 free relay. You have to be smart with it and I like the strategy that comes with it. That was a really fun relay. The 800 free is my favorite because the 200 is where I am comfortable,” McLaughlin said. “The 800 free was very fun and the Australians beat us and again we were under the world record. I went last on the 800 free relay. That was pretty scary racing Emma McKeon on the end, but it was pretty great. We all came together and went fast.”

Then she was again on the mixed freestyle relay and swam being Nathan Adrian, an experience she said she will never forget.

“Getting to do the 100 was so much fun,” she said. “I remember laughing because Nathan was before me and he was coming in faster to the wall than anyone I have ever seen, and diving into his wave was really funny. I got to do an 100 free with Nathan.”

Relay legacy continues

Now that Katie McLaughlin has added an Olympic medal to her seemingly ever-growing list of relay heroics, she is still planing on adding more to that. She will swim in the International Swimming League (ISL) this year, then decide if she wants to train for 2024.

If she does, she could have another huge impact on the U.S. relays.

“I feel like I am finding my place and my role. I am not going to go in there and get an individual medal, but I know my role and how I can help the team,” she said. “That helped me focus my Olympic training on what I can do to actually help the team.”

McLaughlin, whose best event at times has been the 200 butterfly, did not swim the event at the Olympic trials, focusing on the 200 freestyle, which paid off as she made the team as part of the 800 free relay.

She has been a part of relays and swam every leg of them over the years, though she prefers not to be first.

“I like not all starting at the same time if that makes sense. I like diving in and having to just race what my body is telling me to race. It is hard to tell when everyone is starting at a different point,” she said.

It is part of the mystique of the relays, which have a unique legacy in the U.S., something McLaughlin is extremely familiar with. For her, it is about doing it for her team and country, always giving her an extra boost of energy before diving in.

“I would prefer to be on a team and achieving something than by myself. It is a lot cooler to be a part of something where everyone has a part and everyone is relying on you and you are relying on everyone else. That makes it more satisfying for me,” she said. “I would rather be on a podium with teammates and share that moment. I got to share that with Schmitty who has been to four Olympics and won 10 medals, and Ledecky who is the greatest. I want to help be a part of their legacy, too.”

And in turn, they are a part of McLaughlin’s legacy.

Jul 29, 2021; Tokyo, Japan; Team USA swimmers Allison Schmitt, Paige Madden, Katie McLaughlin and Katie Ledecky stand on the podium after finishing second in the women's 4x200m freestyle relay during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Summer Games at Tokyo Aquatics Centre. Mandatory Credit: Grace Hollars-USA TODAY Sports

Photo Courtesy: Grace Hollars/USA Today Sports

“Everyone is bringing their best in a relay. That is pretty cool to have to race that. If everyone is truly bringing their best, it brings the best out in us,” she said.

That was the case when the U.S. team beat the previous world record and took the silver medal, with McLaughlin at her best in her first chance on the Olympic stage.

“Sometimes it feels more real than others,” Katie McLaughlin said. “When we were there, little moments like putting on our outfits for opening ceremonies was a moment that it felt real. I don’t think I necessarily feel different. It has kind of set in but at the same time, but it doesn’t feel like my life has changed too much. But I am in a period where I can reflect and that is great. Little things remind me or make me feel special.”

Now, one of the most special relay swimmers, with the most unique history of relay dominance, can finally feel as special as she has proved to be in the water.