Olympics Day 6 Notebook: Medley Relay Storylines Multiplied

Jul 24, 2021; Tokyo, Japan; Adam Peaty (GBR) during the men's 100m breaststroke during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Summer Games at Tokyo Aquatics Centre. Mandatory Credit: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Network
There is no question that Adam Peaty is key to Great Britain's medal hopes in the men's and mixed 400 medley relays -- Photo Courtesy: Rob Schumacher/USA Today Sports

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Olympics Day 6 Notebook: Medley Relay Storylines Multiplied

At long last, we have reached the point in the Olympics when the medley relays are coming up fast, and this time, there are three such races to consider instead of the usual two, with the mixed 400 medley relay added to the program. That event will take place at the end of day seven’s finals, while the women’s and men’s relays will conclude the meet, as usual.

We broke down the numbers before the Olympics began, but the events have taken shape further over the course of the week’s individual 100-meter events. The full composite relays will wait until the day of the events, but while some countries have incredibly straightforward medley relays, others must make very interesting decisions, particularly in the mixed-gender events. Let’s look at a few of the burning questions.

Who swims for the United States in the mixed medley relay?

Caeleb Dressel will be on this relay. Book it. He’s too good not to be. To determine a lineup for a mixed medley, coaches must add up the various combinations of two men and two women and also compare the top men’s 100-meter time in each stroke to the top women’s mark. For the Americans, the difference in most strokes is right around six seconds, and the only difference less than six seconds is in backstroke. Ryan Murphy’s best 100 back time this meet is 52.20, while Regan Smith swam her best effort so far leading off the prelims mixed medley relay at 57.64.

Jul 29, 2021; Tokyo, Japan; Hali Flickinger (USA), left, and Regan Smith (USA) embrace after finishing third and second respectively in the women's 200m butterfly final during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Summer Games at Tokyo Aquatics Centre. Mandatory Credit: Grace Hollars-USA TODAY Sports

Hali Flickinger, left, and Regan Smith embrace after the 200 fly final at the Olympics — Photo Courtesy: Grace Hollars-USA TODAY Sports

Smith previously won bronze in the 100 back and then took silver in the 200 fly Thursday morning, crushing her lifetime best by more than a second, and the shocked look on the 19-year-old’s face said enough. Smith clearly took some confidence from that race into her relay leadoff, and she will have that going for her when she handles the first leg of the women’s medley relay Sunday, whether or not she is on the mixed relay.

The case for Murphy is pretty straightforward, too. He has led off a lot of medal-winning relays during his time on the U.S. team, and his 100 back in Tuesday’s finals was one of the better efforts of his career. And using Murphy allows the U.S. to deploy 100 breast gold medalist Lydia Jacoby on that leg.

Where does Emma McKeon go?

Australia will absolutely swim Emma McKeon on both the mixed and women’s medley relays, but she is the country’s fastest performer in both butterfly and freestyle (where she is favored for 100 free gold in Friday morning’s final). McKeon holds the world’s top time of 52.13 in the 100 free, and while her 100 fly time of 55.72 is stellar, it leaves her basically dead even with top butterflyers from Canada (Maggie MacNeil), China (Zhang Yufei) and the United States (Torri Huske). But Australia’s next best 100 flyer is Brianna Throssell, who swam a 57.59 in the 100 fly, while Cate Campbell is less than a second behind McKeon in the 100 free.

So for the women’s medley relay, expect to see McKeon on fly and Campbell on free. For the mixed relay, 100 back world-record holder Kaylee McKeown should lead off, and although Australia is not great in either the women’s or men’s 100 breaststroke, 200 breast gold medalist Zac Stubblety-Cook ripped off a 58.80 split in Thursday’s prelims, so he can handle that leg for the mixed relay (and the men’s). For fly and free, would Australia rather Matt Temple on fly and McKeon free or McKeon fly and Kyle Chalmers free? One of those men is an Olympic gold medalist and consistent performer in big spots, while the other is an Olympic rookie, so that should be a simple call.

How do contenders handle their breaststroke weaknesses?

The four top contenders for the women’s medley relay medals are the U.S., Australia, Canada and China. Australia and China each had a swimmer eliminated in the 100 breast semifinals, while Canada’s top finisher was 23rd-place Kelsey Wog. The Americans, meanwhile, went 1-3 with Jacoby and Lilly King.

For the men’s medley relay, Russia is the weakest of the contenders on breaststroke, but everyone looks weak when they are racing all-time sprint breaststroker Adam Peaty on that leg. No country can surrender two seconds to Great Britain on the breaststroke leg and expect to win gold.

Any surprising lineup decisions?

Will some team, dissatisfied with their performance so far, attempt to roll the dice and insert a swimmer with a higher ceiling of potential performance but also a swimmer with a greater chance of falling flat. Maybe this is a swimmer in Tokyo to participate in a different individual event but gets thrust into relay duty. These moves are gambles, and that can backfire – just like it did for the Americans with using Zach Apple on the 800 free relay Wednesday morning.

At the 2019 World Championships, Canada used Sydney Pickrem, known exclusively for her IM and 200 breast skills, on the medley relay, but Pickrem is not swimming at her usual world-class level right now, which would encourage against a lineup change. Perhaps in this instance, the United States may want to swim more experienced racers instead of up-and-comers who have outperformed those veterans this year. Could King be considered for a medley relay final instead of 100 breast gold medalist Jacoby? Simone Manuel over Abbey Weitzeil for the women’s freestyle leg?

Duncan Scott may not have competed in the 100 free for Great Britain, but expect him to anchor the men’s medley relay anyway. Let’s be clear: that would not be a surprising lineup decision. Scott split 46.14 to pass Nathan Adrian and earn the British an upset gold medal over the U.S. at the 2019 World Championships. Fair to say that between those results from Gwangju and Scott’s already-stellar form at the Olympics, he has earned further chances to bring this relay home.

Historically Fast 100 Freestyle Races

At the 2016 Olympics and the 2017 and 2019 World Championships, the cutoff for making the men’s 100 freestyle final was somewhere in the 48.2 or 48.3 range. At these Olympics, the number for eighth place was 47.82. Andrej Barna, a 23-year-old from Serbia who swam at Louisville, became the first man at any meet ever to break 48 and not qualify for the final. Only once before, at the supersuit World Championships of 2019, has eight men broken 48`in the 100 free semis.

Andrei Minakov, Zach Apple and Thomas Ceccon all swam 48.0s and missed the final. Teenagers Jacob Whittle (Great Britain) and Joshua Liendo (Canada) both swam 48.1s, and that got them 13th and 14th place, respectively. All of these times would have easily qualified for any major final since the suit era.

Jul 28, 2021; Tokyo, Japan; Emma McKeon (AUS) after the women's 100m freestyle heats during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Summer Games at Tokyo Aquatics Centre. Mandatory Credit: Grace Hollars-USA TODAY Sports

Emma McKeon is the favorite in the women’s 100 free at the Olympics, which will be the fastest field in history in the event — Photo Courtesy: Grace Hollars/USA Today Sports

In the equivalent women’s event, breaking 53 had become just about as common as breaking 48 in the men’s. Anyone who wanted an international medal needed to be swimming 52s, but no one who swam a 53.3 in a semifinal had ever missed out on the final. Until Tokyo.

In the Olympic semifinals, Great Britain’s Anna Hopkin swam a 53.11, and France’s Marie Wattel was 53.12. That hundredth was the difference in qualifying for the final, and the other seven women all broke 53. American Abbey Weitzeil swam her best time by two tenths, becoming just the third U.S. woman to crack 53, and she needed every bit of that to sneak in a spot in lane one for the final.

Winning a medal in the final? That’s almost certainly going to take below a 53.5, even without No. 3 all-time performer Simone Manuel in the field.

And if you want to look further at the depth, here were the times required to make it back from prelims to semifinals at the last three major meets: 54.50 at the 2016 Olympics, 54.49 at the 2017 Worlds and 54.25 at the 2019 Worlds. In Tokyo? The two swimmers tied at 53.87 got in but only after three swimmers originally ticketed for the semifinals scratched to focus on other events. The Russian Olympic Committee’s Maria Kameneva swam a 53.92, and the Czech Republic’s Barbora Seemanova was 53.98, and that got them 20th and 21st, respectively.