Olympics: American Women Need Entirely New Squad for 400 Freestyle Relay Final

usa 400 freestyle relay prelims tokyo olympics, allison schmitt, olivia smoliga, catie deloof, natalie hinds
Photo Courtesy: Robert Hanashiro -- USA Today Sports

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Olympics: American Women Need Entirely New Squad for 400 Freestyle Relay Final

In recent years, the American women have had some success in the 400 freestyle relay. At the 2017 World Championships, they edged out Australia for gold by three tenths, even though the Aussies were missing legendary sprinter Cate Campbell at that meet. At the 2019 Worlds, the Americans finished less than a second behind Australia. But at the Tokyo Olympics, they are not in the same stratosphere as the heavy gold medal favorites, who led the field in prelims by 1.78 seconds without the services of their two best swimmers.

Emma McKeon ranks first in the world in the 100 free in 52.29, and Campbell is second at 52.59, but Mollie O’Callaghan, Meg Harris, Madison Wilson and Bronte Campbell (Cate’s younger sister) more than held their own in qualifying the Aussies for the final. It’s unclear which two from that quartet will join McKeon and Cate Campbell in the final. Wilson had the slowest split of the quartet, but she ranks third in the world at 52.76, so Australia has no bad options here.

The Americans, meanwhile, did not look good in prelims at all. They were fifth in their heat at the halfway point, behind Denmark, Sweden, Great Britain and France, not exactly known as 400 freestyle relay powerhouses. The team eventually moved up to finish second behind Britain after Natalie Hinds swam a 53.28 anchor split (especially impressive with a 0.43 reaction time), but it was a rough effort that did not inspire confidence in the Americans’ ability to win a medal in the final.

Now, they have critical decisions to make and just hours to make them. Abbey Weitzeil won the 100 free at Olympic Trials in 53.53, and she is now an experienced veteran. She split 52.66 on that silver medal relay at the 2019 Worlds, so Weitzeil will be fine. Erika Brown took second at Trials in 53.59, so she will likely swim in her very first Olympics race in the final Sunday morning. She has never been in a situation like that before, so it’s unclear how Brown will handle that pressure.

Who will join them? The prelims squad saw Olivia Smoliga lead off in 54.06, followed by Catie DeLoof in 53.42 and Allison Schmitt in 54.04 before Hinds’ swift anchor split. Typically, the top two prelims splits join the finals group, but the Americans have some other options here.

Will Simone Manuel be on this relay? She is the defending Olympic gold medalist and two-time world champion in the 100 free and the third-fastest performer in history, but she finished ninth in the 100 free at Olympic Trials, revealing later that she had been diagnosed with Overtraining Syndrome. She later made the team in the 50 free, but does Manuel have a great 100 free to add to this relay?

Greg Meehan, the head coach of the U.S. women’s Olympic team and Manuel’s coach at Stanford, has been non-committal about whether Manuel would be considered here, saying the focus was on individual events first. But she has to be in consideration right now.

So does Torri Huske, a future Stanford swimmer who qualified fourth in the 100 butterfly prelims after setting an American record in the event at Olympic Trials. Huske finished 10th in the 100 free at Trials, but she is actually the fastest American this year in the 100 free at 53.46, which she swam in April. The relay will take place a full hour after the 100 fly semifinals, so recovery should not be an issue if Huske were to pull the double.

And finally, maybe Katie Ledecky gets in on the Olympics action a day early and competes in the 400 freestyle relay final. Ledecky swam a 53.82 in the 100 free in May, her quickest time in the two-lap race in five years, and she anchored the U.S. women’s 400 free relay team to a silver medal in 2016 with a 52.79 split.

During a pre-Olympics virtual media session, Meehan was as vague as he could be about who will be on the squad aiming for medals in this relay while acknowledging that it may not include only the athletes who technically qualified for the event. “There’s always going to be conversations about how we put together each group,” he said. “We’re just going to go down the path of picking the four athletes to give us the best performance possible.”

At this point, the American coaches must make some tough decisions. They only ended up 1.29 seconds behind the second-fastest qualifier, and it’s not like the Netherlands, Canada or Great Britain have much more time to drop here.

The Dutch have already used Ranomi Kromowidjojo, who split 52.50, and Femke Heemskerk, who anchored in 51.90. Maybe they could add Kira Toussaint, but she has never posted a sub-54 split on this relay. Canada’s Penny Oleksiak showed elite speed in her 52.38 anchor split, and while Taylor Ruck was sluggish at 54.16, she has not showed anything impressive so far in 2021. Maggie MacNeil would be the only possible addition for the final. And Great Britain used its top four swimmers, and Anna Hopkin was huge with a 52.65 split, while Freya Anderson will likely split a 52 in the final after anchoring in 53.46 in prelims.

None of those teams are insurmountable, so the Americans could win a silver medal, if they push the right buttons. Or they could end up with bronze or miss the medal podium entirely. Maybe they can keep Hinds from the prelims relay, but expect to see at least three new swimmers for the final. The pressure is on for the U.S. to get the lineup right in the first relay of the Olympics.

1 comment

  1. avatar

    I think you have to swim the first and second place finishers from trials. I think Natalie Hinds earned a place too. Hopefully she can hit 52.9 in Finals. Probably on the third leg. The question really is should coaches replace a very steady Catie DeLoof with Simone Manuel. DeLoof would still get a medal if one was earned by the team. However, as far as we know Simone Manuel is unproven to date. And she has a history of swimming well but less than lights out on the FR relay when it is first in the meet. She tends to warm up as the meet goes on and frankly to swim better for herself. So I am not sure I would substitute her. I think we should let the four who qualified get up and race. And after if it does not go well, and it may go in face go well, figure out why we can’t produce at least 4 swimmers of a higher caliber given our college programs are spring dependent to win NCAA and conference titles. I think over the last three plus years we have had about 6 different sprinters pop relay splits 53.0 or faster.

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