After Commonwealth Games, Australian Women in Command of All Three Relays

emma mckeon, mollie o'callaghan, shayna jack, commonwealth games
Australia's Emma McKeon, Mollie O'Callaghan and Shayna Jack at the Commonwealth Games -- Photo Courtesy: Delly Carr

After Commonwealth Games, Australian Women in Command of All Three Relays

One year ago, Australia’s women were dominant at the Olympics. The swimming-obsessed nation had won just a single women’s gold medal in both London and Rio, but Ariarne Titmus, Kaylee McKeown and Emma McKeon led an Aussie revival in Tokyo, an effort bookended by gold medals in the 400 freestyle and 400 medley relays. In the aftermath, Titmus and McKeon skipped the 2022 World Championships, but with a nearly-full-strength roster restored, Australia annihilated the field in the women’s races at the Commonwealth Games.

Now, with one year complete in this shortened three-year cycle culminating with the Paris Olympics, the Aussies are the team to beat. That includes individual events, where Mollie O’Callaghan is a bourgeoning star alongside the golden trio from Tokyo, and also in relays. That’s right: the most prestigious events in women’s swimming are leaning all Australia.

Of course, the 400 free relay has been all Australia for many years. The last time Australia did not win a global title in the event was 2017, when the United States beat an Aussie group missing sprint star Cate Campbell by just three tenths. At this year’s Worlds, Australia was missing three of the four swimmers from last year’s Olympic-gold-medal-winning and world-record-setting squad, and the result was the same: gold by more than a second. And that was without McKeon, who split as fast as 51.88 at the Commonwealth Games.

Simply put, there’s no foreseeable scenario where either of the other medal-winning countries from Budapest can catch up to Australia. A Canadian team of Penny Oleksiak, Taylor Ruck, Maggie Mac Neil and Summer McIntosh? An American squad led by Torri Huske, who broke 53 for the first time in the 100 free this year and won bronze at the World Championships, and fellow teenager Claire Curzan? Those are good teams but no match for an Aussie roster led by McKeon and the swimmers ranked first and second in the world in the 100 free this year, teenage world champion O’Callaghan and the resurgent Shayna Jack — and it’s really tough to imagine that landscape changing in the two short years before Paris.

As for the 800 free relay, Australia entered the Tokyo Games as big favorites for gold with a Titmus-led quartet, but in one of the biggest upsets of the Olympics, China took the win followed by the U.S. and then Australia. At this year’s Worlds, Australia was again favored, even without Titmus, but this time it was the Americans, fueled by Katie Ledecky’s usual excellence and an out-of-body anchor split from Bella Sims, who won gold.

Then, at the Commonwealth Games, Australia took down the world record, the first-ever relay under 7:40 — the swim that the Aussie women were fully capable of one year earlier in Tokyo. This time, Madison Wilson, Kiah Melverton and O’Callaghan set it up, and Titmus finished with the fastest split in history. The time was two seconds quicker than the Americans’ Budapest performance.

Unlike the 400 free relay, however, this one is not insurmountable, and the nation best-equipped to chase down Australia is once again the U.S., with Ledecky leading the way and a cohort of teenagers showing big improvements in the 200 free. That includes Sims, Claire Weinstein, Katie Grimes and Erin Gemmell, who entered the top-10 in the world in the 200 free at last week’s U.S. Nationals. Canada, led by the quickly-improving McIntosh, and China, with 200 free world champion Yang Junxuan on the squad, remain players.

It’s worth noting that Australia’s track record of consistent performances in the longer free relay is not great (again, think Tokyo), so that leaves a glimmer of hope for the teams in pursuit. But it’s hard to argue with a days-old world record.

Finally, the medley relay, where the U.S. has captured the last three world titles but Australia won Olympic gold by a mere 0.13 last year in Tokyo. This year’s Budapest showdown went to the United States by a half-second, but that was without McKeon holding down her usual butterfly leg. Add in her 56.59 split in a winning effort in Birmingham, and the outcome is different.

Perhaps the medley relay should be best described as a toss-up, with a lot of qualifications to declare either country the favorite. For instance, the Americans lacked their usual breaststroke pop this year with Lilly King struggling at Worlds, but for Australia, McKeown did not come within a second of her 100 back world record at either of the summer’s championship events. Then again, Huske’s butterfly leg of the U.S. medley relay was more than a second slower than her individual 100 fly performance.

That back-and-forth could go on all day. But that’s the Australians’ weakest of the three women’s relays and the best of the American squads.

And sure, all events are important, but relays mean a little extra. A huge relay performance is galvanizing for any team, from an Olympic team or elite college squad to a high school or summer league team, and a relay flop is equally deflating. Accordingly, the highest-priority focus for the U.S. in the leadup to Paris? “We’re going to try to focus on how we can get our men and our women faster in these relays,” U.S. National Team Managing Director Lindsay Mintenko said. “It’s going to be a big focus for us.”

And surely, it did not sit well for the U.S. to be shut out of the gold medals in women’s relays in Tokyo, even with all swimmers in relay finals producing admirable performances. But right now, it’s Australia in the driver’s seat and leaving the Commonwealth Games in an enviable position in the most significant events in women’s swimming.

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