Tokyo Flashback: China Snares Upset Gold in 800 Freestyle Relay As Entire Podium Goes Under World Record

Jul 29, 2021; Tokyo, Japan; China relay team celebrates their victory in the women's 4x200m freestyle relay final during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Summer Games at Tokyo Aquatics Centre. Mandatory Credit: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports - 800 Freestyle Relay

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Tokyo Flashback: China Snares Upset Gold in 800 Freestyle Relay As Entire Podium Goes Under World Record

One year has passed since the Olympic Games, delayed by a year due to COVID-19, unfolded in Tokyo. To celebrate what went down in the Japanese capital, Swimming World is revisiting the championship finals – each on their one-year anniversary – by once again running the stories that were posted after the medals were decided.

No matter the lens used, it was impossible to see Australia finish anywhere but on top in the women’s 800-meter freestyle relay. The Aussies had ridiculous firepower and figured to obliterate the world record at the Olympic Games in Tokyo. Sure enough, the Dolphins went under the former global standard, but there was a major problem.

So did China and the United States.

In a major upset, China led wire-to-wire and produced a world record of 7:40.33 to narrowly hold off the United States and a hard-charging Katie Ledecky on the anchor leg. Team USA checked in at 7:40.73, with Australia a disappointing third in 7:41.29. The former world record stood at 7:41.50 to Australia from the 2019 World Championships.

China asserted itself from the start, and can thank Yang Junxuan for putting the relay in a position to chase gold. Facing off with Aussie Ariarne Titmus, the champion of the 200 freestyle, Yang was expected to trail after her leg. Instead, she registered a leadoff of 1:54.37, with Titmus at 1:54.51, a second slower than her individual swim. There is no doubt China received a boost from that development, and rode the momentum through the remainder of the event.

Tang Muhan followed with a split of 1:55.00 and was backed up by Zhang Yufei going 1:55.66 and Li Bingjie closing in 1:55.30. The balance demonstrated by China was too much to overcome, even as Ledecky split 1:53.76 for the United States and nearly pulled off a come-from-behind triumph for the ages. The gold medal from the relay was the second of the day for Zhang, who earlier in the session won the 200 butterfly in dominant fashion.

Zhang was not informed about her inclusion on the relay until after she completed her gold-medal run in the 200 fly. Upon receiving the news, she had to mentally prepare.

“I didn’t know I was doing it until I’d finished the 200 butterfly and our coach told me, ‘you’re in the relay,'” Zhang said. “I didn’t even know how to swim the 200 free, although I have the training qualities and levels for the 200 distances. At the Chinese National Championships, I went very fast, so maybe that’s why the coaches asked me to join the relay.”

Prior to Ledecky supplying the latest clutch effort of her career, the U.S. got a leadoff of 1:56.34 from Allison Schmitt. On the middle legs, Paige Madden (1:55.25) and Katie McLaughlin (1:55.38) had relay-defining swims that set the stage for Ledecky. The silver medal for Schmitt raised her career total to 10 Olympic medals.

A surprise for Australia was Emma McKeon splitting only 1:55.31, more than a second slower than what she is capable of doing. Earlier in the morning, McKeon had the semifinals of the 100 freestyle and may not have recovered enough. It also didn’t help that Australia didn’t use Mollie O’Callaghan, the 17-year-old who led off the prelim squad in 1:55.11. Because Leah Neale is on the Aussie roster as a relay-only swimmer, she had to be utilized, which left O’Callaghan on the deck. Neale was 1:55.85 on the anchor.


Women’s 800 Freestyle Relay

World Record: Australia (Titmus, Wilson, Throssel, McKeon) 7:41.50 (2019)
Olympic Record: United States (Franklin, Vollmer, Vreeland, Schmitt) 7:42.92 (2012)


1. China, 7:40.33
2. United States, 7:40.73
3. Australia, 7:41.29
4. Canada, 7:43.77
5. Russia, 7:52.15
6. Germany, 7:53.89
7. Hungary, 7:56.62
8. France, 7:58.15

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2 years ago

The big question needs to be asked is why wasn’t Leah Neale used in heats to test her mettle and therefore if she swam slower than Mollie then it would have been reason to include her .. I think part of the reason is that they wanted to give away free medals to Brianna throssell and tamsin cook as well

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