Mixed Medley Relay Madness: Can the United States Rebound from Tokyo Disaster?

Caeleb Dressel -- Photo Courtesy: Andrea Staccioli / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

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Mixed Medley Relay Madness: Can the United States Rebound from Tokyo Disaster?

The debut of the mixed 400 medley relay at the Olympic Games will be remembered as one of the lowest moments in U.S. Olympic swimming history. The Americans had won medals in five out of eight 100-meter events at the Tokyo Olympics and finished fourth in two others, and they would end up winning gold in the men’s medley relay (in world-record time) while finishing second by a tiny margin in the women’s event. So it should have been no trouble piecing together a medal-winning mixed-gender relay, right?

Not so much. The Americans actually finished more than a second-and-a-half off the pace in the relay final as Adam Peaty led Great Britain to gold in world-record time while China took silver and Australia bronze. Fifth place in a relay was the worst finish by any U.S. swimming relay in Olympic history.

Tuesday evening at the World Championships in Budapest will bring the first opportunity for an American rebound. It’s not like the United States has never had success in the mixed medley relay — on the contrary, when the World Championships were last held in Budapest five years ago, the Americans won gold by more than 2.5 seconds. The Tokyo result came down to strategy, and the Americans did not employ the right one.

The key to a mixed medley relay is deciding which two strokes men should race and which two legs women should handle. Because breaststroke is the slowest stroke, the best men’s breaststrokers hold the largest margin over the top women’s breaststrokers (usually about seven seconds in a 100-meter race). The time gaps between men’s and women’s winning times are around six seconds in the 100 butterfly and 100 backstroke, while the 100 freestyle gap is around five seconds.

By that logic, the best mixed medley relays will almost always deploy a male breaststroker and a female freestyler, and almost all countries operate that way when selecting their teams. Indeed, seven of the eight finalists in Tokyo had male breaststrokers and female freestylers. The exception? The American team, which had Lydia Jacoby on the breaststroke leg and Caeleb Dressel swimming freestyle, combined with Ryan Murphy on backstroke and Torri Huske on butterfly.

After the race, the U.S. coaches reflected on the relay and admitted they would handle the lineup differently if they knew the outcome. “We’re learning through this,” women’s head coach Greg Meehan said. “It’s still a relatively new thing.”

For this year’s American team, led by women’s head coach Todd DeSorbo and men’s head coach Anthony Nesty, there are again numerous possible combinations, but the fastest American lineup based on swimmers’ fastest times from the World Championships (or earlier this season, if no Worlds times are available) would be favored for gold. Remember, Great Britain is missing Peaty at these Worlds, while China lacks lineup flexibility, and some of its stars have struggled so far in Budapest.

That lineup would be Regan Smith on backstroke, Nic Fink on breaststroke, Dressel on butterfly and Huske on freestyle. Smith has already won gold in the women’s 100 back, while Fink took bronze in the 100 breast. Huske is the world champion in the 100 fly, but it makes sense to swim her on freestyle instead because her 400 free relay leadoff split of 52.96 is closer to Dressel’s season-best mark in the 100 free (47.67) than her 100 fly time is to Dressel’s (55.64 vs. 50.01).

The Americans could also consider a lineup with Murphy on back, Fink on breast, Huske on fly and Claire Curzan on free, especially after Curzan anchored the U.S. women’s 400 free relay in 52.71, but that combination is slightly slower, and it would be counterintuitive to exclude the best sprinter in the world, Dressel.

Here are the top three combinations for the Americans, all involving Fink on breaststroke:

United States option 1: Smith 57.65 + Fink 58.55 + Dressel 50.01 + Huske 52.96 = 3:39.17
United States option 2: Smith 57.65 + Fink 58.55 + Huske 55.64 + Dressel 47.67 = 3:39.71
United States option 3: Murphy 51.97 + Fink 58.55 + Huske 55.64 + Curzan 53.58 = 3:39.74

The closest competition for the Americans should include Australia, Great Britain, China and Italy. The Aussies will have hree of the four swimmers from last year’s bronze-medal-winning relay likely to return: Kaylee McKeown holds the world record in the women’s 100 back, while Zac Stubblety-Cook set the world record in the 200 breast last month and qualified for the 100 breast final in Budapest. The Aussies could then use Matt Temple on fly and Mollie O’Callaghan on free, or Brianna Throssell could handle fly and Kyle Chalmers would anchor. Here’s what both Aussie options would look like.

Australia option 1: McKeown 58.31 + Stubblety-Cook 59.51 + Temple 51.50 + O’Callaghan 52.49 = 3:41.81
Australia option 1: McKeown 58.31 + Stubblety-Cook 59.51 + Throssell 56.96 + Chalmers 47.08 = 3:41.86

Note that since Chalmers has no recorded 100 freestyle times this season, we are using his best flat-start time (47.08). McKeown did not swim the 100 back at Worlds, so she can likely come much closer to her world record, while Temple has a lifetime best of 50.45, and he split 50.26 on last year’s mixed relay.

The British team will return only James Guy (fly) and possibly Anna Hopkin from last year’s quartet, with Medi Harris swimming backstroke, and James Wilby on breast, while Freya Anderson may take over anchor duties. China’s top relay team still includes Xu JiayuYan ZibeiZhang Yufei and Yang Junxuan, but Xu has a season-best mark of 53-mid in the 100 backstroke, which will be nowhere near quick enough to contend.

Italy brings a pair of world champions on the first two legs with world-record-breaker Thomas Ceccon on back and Nicolo Martinenghi on breast, but while Elena di Liddo can swim a solid butterfly leg, Italy’s best freestyle option is probably Chiara Tarantino, seeded at 54.90 in the individual event. Federica Pellegrini anchored for the fourth-place Italian team in Tokyo, but the legendary Italian who won four world titles in the 200 free has now retired.

Below are the composites for these three teams:

Great Britain: Harris 59.24 + Wilby 58.93 + Guy 50.96 (2021) + Anderson 52.70 (relay split) = 3:41.83
China: Xu 53.45 + Yan 59.22 + Zhang 56.41 + Yang 52.79 (relay split) = 3:41.87
Italy: Ceccon 51.65 + Martinenghi 58.26 + Di Liddo 57.41 (2021) + Tarantino 54.90 = 3:42.22

Admittedly, these projections are not as accurate as they will be by the end of the meet when all 100-meter events as concluded, but the Americans have the strongest possible quartet on paper, with Australia the next-most likely option if McKeown and Temple swim closer to their personal-best times than their season-best marks. We will find out in the pool Tuesday evening.

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4 days ago

Curious why you are using 47.08 for Kyle a Chalmers when he literally just swam 46.6 as anchor leg a few days ago? Wouldn’t that be a more accurate indicator since your putting him as anchor leg anyway ?? Just curious

3 days ago

Great Britain are missing Kat Dawson (injured) and Duncan Scott (covid) as well as Peaty from their Tokyo finals lineup.

3 days ago
Reply to  MastersSwimmer

Gah- not Scott- he wasn’t in the mixed!!!

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