Olympics: Australian Women Should Crush 800 Freestyle Relay World Record; USA and Canada to Battle for Silver

Jul 28, 2021; Tokyo, Japan; Ariarne Titmus (AUS) celebrates after the women's 200m freestyle final during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Summer Games at Tokyo Aquatics Centre. Mandatory Credit: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports
After capturing gold medals in the 400 free and 200 free, Ariarne Titmus will lead Australia in the women's 800 free relay -- Photo Courtesy: Rob Schumacher/USA Today Sports

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Olympics: Australian Women Should Crush 800 Freestyle Relay World Record; USA and Canada to Battle for Silver

For the first time all Olympics long, a relay should go off without too much competitive drama since it’s really difficult to imagine the Australian women being challenged at all in the 800 freestyle relay. The United States has won this relay in five of its six appearances at the Olympic Games, but no other country, including the Americans can match the combination of Ariarne Titmus, Emma McKeon and the Aussies’ extraordinary depth. It’s the full package.

On Wednesday morning, Titmus added the 200 free Olympic gold to the medal she previously won in the 400 free, and she is now the fastest swimmer ever in a textile suit. Her 1:53.50 from the Olympic final was the third-fastest swim in history, behind only Federica Pellegrini’s world record from 2009 (1:52.98) and Titmus’ own 1:53.09 from June.

McKeon, a veteran of every single Australian relay at a major meet since 2013, skipped the 200 free in Tokyo, but she captured Olympic bronze in the event in 2016 and has already won bronze in the 100 fly. Her 400 free relay anchor split of 51.35 was by far the fastest in the field, and her 100 free prelims mark of 52.13 was the fastest in the world.

Madison Wilson finished third at Australia’s Olympic Trials in the 200 free at 1:55.68 but swam the individual event after McKeon withdrew, and Wilson finished eighth in the final of that event. The fourth leg should belong to Leah Neale, who swam a 1:56.08 for fourth at the Australian Trials, and she will have to handle a relay leg in the final since this is her only event of the Olympics.

Jul 28, 2021; Tokyo, Japan; Australia relay team react after finishing first in their women's 4x200m freestyle relay heat during the Tokyo 2020 Olympics at Tokyo Aquatics Centre. Mandatory Credit: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports

Australia qualified first in prelims of the women’s 800 free relay at the Olympics — Photo Courtesy: Rob Schumacher/USA Today Sports

That means Australia will not be able to return any swimmers from its thoroughly impressive prelims squad. That foursome, Mollie O’Callaghan, Meg Harris, Brianna Throssell and Tasmin Cook, combined for a 7:44.61, faster than Australia’s group swam to win the silver medal at the 2016 Olympics (a group which included Neale, McKeon and Cook). And O’Callaghan, 17, led off in 1:55.11, which ranks her seventh in the world this year. That time would have placed fourth in the 200 free final!

It would be rough for O’Callaghan to not get the finals shot, but she will still earn the gold medal Australia will inevitably win. And take a look at this relay composite, using best times from the Olympics if available or season-best times otherwise.

Australia: Titmus 1:53.50 + McKeon 1:54.74 + Wilson 1:55.87 + Neale 1:56.08 = 7:40.19

The current world record is 7:41.50, and those composites are all flat-start times. That means that should the Australian swim to their maximum potential, they will become the first team to ever break 7:40. The Aussies already have four gold medals in swimming at these Olympics, which matches their total from the last two Games combined , and with two medals tonight (a likely outcome between this relay and the men’s 200 breast final), they will already have their highest medal count since 2008 with three days still to go.

So with that out of the way, who will join Australia on the podium? Most likely, it’s the same two countries as in the women’s 400 free relay four days earlier.

United States vs. Canada

Jul 27, 2021; Tokyo, Japan; Katie Ledecky (USA) after the women's 200m freestyle semifinals during the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. Mandatory Credit: Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

Katie Ledecky will need a big split for the U.S. women in the 800 free relay final — Photo Courtesy: Robert Hanashiro/USA Today Sports

The two North American rivals should be battling for the silver medal here, while China is the potential spoiler to the medal party. For the Americans, Katie Ledecky did not swim well in the 200 free final, as her 1:55.21 was eight tenths off her best time this year from back in April. Ledecky typically anchors this group, so maybe she can throttle up and find a 1:54-low there. She might need to.

Meanwhile, Allison Schmitt did not qualify for the individual 200 free final after swimming a 1:56.87 in the semifinals, and that is about as fast as she has been all year. Likely to join that experienced duo on the finals relay are Paige Madden, who split 1:55.96 in prelims, and Katie McLaughlin, who split 1:56.02 but was as fast as 1:55.36 on the 800 free relay at the 2019 World Championships. McLaughlin is competing in her first Olympics, but she has handled a spot on this relay several times and come through.

The Americans could make a bold move in place of one of these swimmers to try to find a spark (Simone Manuel or Olivia Smoliga, perhaps?), but that exact move backfired badly on the U.S. men just one day earlier, so expect to see this lineup play it a little more safe to ensure they can grab a medal.

As for Canada, Penny Oleksiak earned bronze in the 200 free in 1:54.70, while 14-year-old Summer McIntosh will be in the spotlight after recording a 1:56.11 in the 200 free semifinals. Rebecca Smith split 1:55.99 on prelims, and she will swim in the final, and while the next-best prelims split was Mary-Sophie Harvey’s 1:57.53, the last spot in the final will likely go to Kayla Sanchez.

penny oleksiak, olympics

Penny Oleksiak earned her first international medal in the 200 free with a bronze in Wednesday’s Olympic final — Photo Courtesy: Rob Schumacher/USA Today Sports

Sanchez swam the leadoff leg on Canada’s national-record setting relay at the 2019 Worlds, splitting 1:57.32. Her 100 freestyle efforts have been significantly quicker in Tokyo than they were in 2019, so it’s likely Sanchez could pull a 1:56-mid flat start leg (and she normally does go first on these relays).

The most obvious evidence that Sanchez will be on this squad? She swam the 100 free prelims, finished 10th in 53.12 (her best time) and scratched the semifinals, apparently to focus on the relay. With that in mind, we’re going to pencil Sanchez into the composites at 1:56.50, a total guess but an educated one based on her form so far in Tokyo.

That math puts the Canadians seven tenths ahead of the Americans in the composite rankings, and this math probably gives the benefit of relay exchanges to two American swimmers (Madden and McLaughlin) compared to just one Canadian (Smith).

Canada: Oleksiak 1:54.70 + McIntosh 1:56.11 + Smith 1:55.99 + Sanchez 1:56.50 = 7:43.30
United States: Ledecky 1:55.21 + Schmitt 1:56.87 + Madden 1:55.96 + McLaughlin 1:56.02 = 7:44.06
China: Yang 1:55.01 + Li 1:56.29 + Tang 1:57.29 + Zhang 1:57.63 = 7:46.22

We also included China here, as 200 free fourth-place finisher Yang Junxuan will join that group for the final. China probably will add someone to this mix for the final – maybe Wang Jianjiahe, who split 1:56.52 at the 2019 World Championships, or perhaps Zhang Yufei, who will have the 200 fly final earlier in the session. That’s probably not enough to knock the Americans off the podium, but they still bear watching.

Despite the composites, the Americans and Canadians should be tight for silver. Ledecky will likely be out to prove something after her rough effort in the 200 free final, and Oleksiak will be coming off the individual 100 free semifinals earlier in the session. But it seems like a far stretch that either of these countries or any other team in the final could mount a challenge to the heavy favorites, Australia.

After this, only one women’s relay will remain on the program, the 400 medley relay, so if the U.S. (or any other country, for that matter) wants a relay gold from Tokyo, that will be the only shot.

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9 months ago

This forecast didn’t age well.