Olympics: Men’s Medley Relay Lineup Was Right One — And Gold Medal Proved It

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Michael Andrew delivered for the U.S. men in the 400 medley relay -- Photo Courtesy: Rob Schumacher/USA Today Sports

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Olympics: Men’s Medley Relay Lineup Was Right One — And Gold Medal Proved It

The U.S. swim team coaching staff had made some relay decisions that could best be described as questionable, decisions that resulted in the two worst relay finishes for the United States in Olympic swimming history. Confidence in those decisions was shaken, significantly so. Prior to the meet’s final day, yet another agonizing relay decision hovered over the American men’s staff, with only an all-time undefeated record at the Olympics on the line.

They made the call, they submitted the lineup, and they walked out to the blocks behind lane one, where the Americans would swim after a rough effort in the prelims more than 36 hours earlier. This time, the difficult decision paid off — Michael Andrew, the scrutinized 22-year-old at the end of an Olympics debut where his performances were not up to the par he set for himself at last month’s Olympics Trials, put up exactly the split he needed on the breaststroke leg.

Less than two minutes later, the American men were gold medalists again — with a world record to boot.

Credit where credit is due. The U.S. staff got this one right.

For the purposes of relay selection, the coaching staff mainly involves head U.S. men’s coach Dave Durden, women’s coach Greg Meehan and National Team managing director Lindsay Mintenko. The other eight members of the official Olympic team coaching staff contribute their input, but it’s that trio who make the final calls.

Jul 31, 2021; Tokyo, Japan; USA relay team reacts after the mixed 4x100m medley relay final during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Summer Games at Tokyo Aquatics Centre. Mandatory Credit: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports

The U.S. mixed medley relay team finished a stunning fifth Saturday morning in Tokyo — Photo Courtesy: Rob Schumacher/USA Today Sports

Around the halfway point of the Olympics, the staff made the decision to place Zach Apple in a high-stakes spot in the 800 free relay — when the 200 free is not Apple’s best event and Apple had already swum the 100 free semifinals earlier in the session — and Apple faded down the stretch. The Americans could not make up the difference and ended up fourth. Then, the staff bucked conventional wisdom and even the straight numbers when putting together the lineup for the mixed 400 medley relay. That team ended up fifth, more than one-and-a-half seconds away from the podium.

After that mixed relay debacle on day seven, only the single-gender medley relays remained on the Tokyo schedule, and those are typically straightforward strategically. Cannot mess that up, right? In this case, maybe.

By all accounts, it was not a perfect week for Andrew. He took fourth in the 100 breast final, more than a half-second off his American record set at Olympic Trials. In the 200 IM, the event he arrived in Tokyo holding the world’s fastest time by more than a half-second, Andrew faded badly down the stretch. While he usually slows down on the freestyle, this was way more of a slog than Andrew’s Olympic Trials performances. He ended up fifth, more than two seconds off his Olympic Trials time.

Do we trust him? The coaches had to ask themselves that question. By this point, the staff had realized they were over-analyzing decisions and second-guessing themselves, all to the detriment of the team. But given Andrew’s struggles and the fact that he would be competing on the relay just an hour after the 50 freestyle final, you wondered if the U.S. would turn to Andrew Wilson, eighth in the 100 breast at the Olympics, or perhaps Nic Fink, third in the 100 breast at Olympic Trials and fifth in the 200 breast in Rio.

Any of the three would bring risk. While Caeleb Dressel and Ryan Murphy are longtime veterans of this medley relay, the others, certainly would not. The U.S. has spent years searching for swimmers to take up the mantle of in sprint breaststroke, and while Andrew took massive strides in that direction at Olympic Trials, his Tokyo struggles brought him back to Earth.

Could they trust Andrew, who would be competing in an international long course relay for the first time in his career?

Yes. Yes they could.

Aug 1, 2021; Tokyo, Japan; Ryan Murphy (USA) and Caeleb Dressel (USA) and Zach Apple (USA) celebrate after winning the men's 4x100m medley final during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Summer Games at Tokyo Aquatics Centre. Mandatory Credit: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports

The U.S. men celebrate gold in the men’s 400 medley relay — Photo Courtesy: Rob Schumacher/USA Today Sports

Andrew began with a two-tenth-lead over Italy, but it was sixth-place Great Britain he had to watch out for, with world-record holder Adam Peaty handling that leg. Undoubtedly, Peaty was going to crush Andrew, but by how much? Peaty would put up a 56.53 breaststroke split, one of history’s fastest. Andrew got out-split by two seconds — and you know what? That kept it close enough for Dressel to launch into the pool and got the job done, building a lead the Americans would never surrender.

And after the men’s 800 free relay and mixed 400 medley relay resulted with two of the most disappointing moments in U.S. Olympic swimming history, the men’s medley ended in a signature moment: the Americans winning gold by seven tenths, breaking a 12-year-old, supersuit-era world record by a half-second. Murphy, in particular, shouted and screamed in jubilation, his teammates joining in on the celebration.

If the earlier debacles were on the coaching staff, so too was this enormous success. They took a strategic gamble, and it worked. Placing Apple on the anchor leg was another slight risk since Apple would be racing for the first time since that rough 800 free relay split Wednesday. But here, Apple would deliver the fastest anchor split in the field at 46.95, another decision gone right — and a redemptive moment for Apple, too, after the 24-year-old had been up and down in his first Olympics experience.

It took until the very last race of the meet, but a difficult relay choice finally worked like a charm, earning the Americans another gold medal. The coaches pushed the right buttons this time, and that kept the Americans undefeated in the event throughout Olympic history.

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9 months ago

Happy to see Michael Andrew get to the podium.

Isabelle fraser
9 months ago
Reply to  KRW

Yes. He had a great breast leg. I was happy for him. And he was 4th in the actual 100 breast swim so he deserved to be in the relay.

ashley madison
9 months ago

andrew wilson wasn’t 8, he tied for 6

Chris Stockton
9 months ago

Whew, the Men’s prelim Medley Relay made it, that was close. I was really please with Murphy, Andrew, Dressel, and Apple for each of their legs on the relay. Congratulations with the win, the Gold Medal and the World Record.