Olympics: Razor-Thin Margins in Women’s and Men’s Medley Relays

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Caeleb Dressel will try to drop the hammer for the U.S. men in the 400 medley relay -- Photo Courtesy: Rob Schumacher/USA Today Sports

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Olympics: Razor-Thin Margins in Women’s and Men’s Medley Relays

We have reached the final day of swimming competition at the Tokyo Olympics, and the women’s and men’s 400 medley relays will go off in their traditional spots as the very last events. The Americans swept both medley relays at both the 2012 London Olympics and the 2016 Rio Games – and the American men have never lost their medley relay – but both races set up to be extremely tight.

The women’s event will take place first, and this is a race where the Americans have set world records in each of the last two World Championships. But only one swimmer will return from the current record-holding squad from 2019, backstroker Regan Smith. Lydia Jacoby earned the breaststroke spot when she topped Lilly King in the 100 breast final, while Torri Huske is the top U.S. 100 butterflyer after finishing fourth in the event in Tokyo. Kelsi Dahlia, who swam on the team at both the 2017 and 2019 Worlds, did not qualify for Tokyo. And while Simone Manuel is in Tokyo, she qualified in only the 50 free after being diagnosed with Overtraining Syndrome earlier this year, so Abbey Weitzeil is the obvious anchor choice.

Jul 27, 2021; Tokyo, Japan; From left Kylie Masse (CAN) , Kaylee McKeown (AUS) and Regan Smith (USA) with their medals after the women's 100m backstroke final during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Summer Games at Tokyo Aquatics Centre. Mandatory Credit: Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

The medalsits in the women’s 100 back, Canada’s Kylie Masse, Australia’s Kaylee McKeown and the USA’s Regan Smith, will lead off for their respective countries’ 400 medley relay squads — Photo Courtesy: Robert Hanashiro/USA Today Sports

The closest competition for the U.S. will be – as usual – Australia. Aussies Kaylee McKeown (backstroke) and Emma McKeon (freestyle) captured individual 100-meter gold, but McKeon will be needed for the Aussies’ fly leg after taking bronze in the 100 fly. So Cate Campbell will anchor this medley relay team. Australia’s weakness is breaststroke, where Chelsea Hodges finished ninth in Tokyo in 1:06.60 before splitting 1:06.16 on Australia’s prelims relay.

Next up on the watch-list is Canada, which has three studs in 100 back runner-up Kylie Masse, 100 fly champion Maggie MacNeil and 100 free fourth-place finisher (and 200 free bronze medalist) Penny Oleksiak. But Canada, too, has serious breaststroke issues. Kelsey Wog was the top Canadian swimmer in the 100 breast in Tokyo, finishing 23rd in 1:07.73 (while she swam a 1:06.77 at Canada’s Trials), while Sydney Pickrem handled the leg on the prelims relay with a 1:07.03.

Those top three countries project to be well ahead of the next bunch, which includes Sweden, Italy and China. These countries have a lot of talent, particularly the Swedes with sister Sophie Hansson (breaststroke) and Louise Hansson (butterfly) setting up Sarah Sjostrom on freestyle, but none have anything on the backstroke leg. McKeown, Masse and Smith could be two seconds ahead of anyone else in the field at the end of their legs.

Here are the composite relays, using mostly a swimmer’s best flat-start time from the Olympics or, in a few cases, previous relay splits or a season-best performance.

United States: Smith 57.64 + Jacoby 1:04.95 + Huske 55.73 + Weitzeil 52.99 = 3:51.31
Australia: McKeown 57.47 + Hodges 1:06.16 + McKeon 55.72 + Campbell 52.52 = 3:51.87
Canada: Masse 57.72 + Wog 1:06.77 + MacNeil 55.59 + Oleksiak 52.38 = 3:52.46
Sweden: Coleman 59.74 + S. Hansson 1:05.66 + L. Hansson 56.22 + Sjostrom 52.62 = 3:54.24
Italy: Panziera 59.74 + Castiglioni 1:05.26 + Di Liddo 56.74 + Pellegrini 52.70 = 3:54.44
China: Peng 59.78 + Tang 1:06.47 + Zhang 55.64 + Yang 52.71 = 3:54.60

In the key leg here for Australia is breaststroke, where Hodges will want to stay as close to Jacoby as possible, and the Americans need Huske to come through with McKeon, a 27-year-old veteran with a decade of experience performing in high-level relays, coming on hard. McKeon and Campbell will surely out-split Huske and Weitzeil, respectively, but the Americans are banking on having enough of a lead and getting solid back-half performances to hold on.

Jul 28, 2021; Tokyo, Japan; Duncan Scott (GBR) reacts after the men's 200m individual medley heats during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Summer Games at Tokyo Aquatics Centre. Mandatory Credit: Grace Hollars-USA TODAY Sports

Expect Great Britain’s Duncan Scott to roar home on the freestyle leg — Photo Courtesy: Grace Hollars/USA Today Sports

As for the men’s relay, Great Britain won the 2019 world title in a very memorable finish as Duncan Scott out-split Nathan Adrian by a second and a half on the last leg with a 46.14, the second-quickest mark in history behind Jason Lezak’s 46.06 from the Beijing Olympics. It’s going to be tough for Scott to replicate that out-of-body experience from Worlds, but he’s certainly capable of a 46-mid split.

Great Britain’s first two legs are extremes: Luke Greenbank won bronze in Tokyo in the 200 back, but his 100 back is not very impressive. His best this year is 53.34, and his Tokyo best time is 53.79. His main competition will include Russia’s Evgeny Rylov (51.98), the USA’s Ryan Murphy (52.19), Italy’s Thomas Ceccon (52.23), China’s Xu Jiayu (52.51) and Australia’s Mitch Larkin (52.76). That’s a really tough group.

Good thing Britain has all-world breaststroker Adam Peaty diving in next. Peaty won gold in the 100 breast in Tokyo in 57.37, and he split 56.78 on his country’s gold-medal winning mixed medley relay Saturday morning. Then Britain has James Guy, off a 50.00 fly split on the mixed relay, and Scott.

Meanwhile, the latest composite numbers show five teams in the final all within a second of one another. And in a bit of a surprise, first among them is the United States, which will go with Murphy on backstroke, Caeleb Dressel on fly and Zach Apple on free. Apple will be competing for the first time since a disappointing 800 free relay split Wednesday, but he anchored the 400 free relay in 46.69, so the coaches will have plenty of trust in Apple, even with Scott and other top sprinters, like Australia’s Kyle Chalmers, bearing down.

The big question mark for the U.S. men is breaststroke. After Michael Andrew set an American record of 58.14 at Olympic Trials, it looked like problem solved. Instead, Andrew has been disappointing at the Olympics, and he may not even swim the medley relay final if the coaches do not want to ask him to race a double, with the 50 free final an hour earlier. The other possible options would be Andrew Wilson, eighth in the 100 breast in Tokyo, and Nic Fink, fifth in the 200 breast in Tokyo and narrowly third in the 100-meter event at Olympic Trials. But a tweet from Fink posted late Saturday night in Tokyo suggests he is done for the Games, leaving the leg down to Andrew or Wilson.

Jul 26, 2021; Tokyo, Japan; Thomas Ceccon (ITA) in the men's 100m backstroke semifinals during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Summer Games at Tokyo Aquatics Centre. Mandatory Credit: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports

Thomas Ceccon will swim the backstroke leg for Italy — Photo Courtesy: Rob Schumacher/USA TODAY Sports

The British team and the American team don’t have much separation from the rest of the field, but the most likely outcome is seeing Australia, Russia and Italy battling for the last spot on the podium. Italy did not come in with high expectation in the relays, but the Italians have already been second in the 400 free relay and fourth in the 800 free relay, and the team of Thomas Ceccon, Nicolo Martinenghi, Federico Burdisso and Alessandro Miressi is stellar, particularly on the front half.

Australia will have elite speed on the anchor leg with Kyle Chalmers coming home after Mitch Larkin, Zac Stubblety-Cook and Matt Temple set him up. The Russian Olympic Committee team, meanwhile, is very similar to the Canadian women: three great legs with Evgeny Rylov on back, Andrei Minakov on fly and Kliment Kolesnikov on free, but Kirill Prigoda is significantly behind the field on the breaststroke leg.

Here are the composites for the men, again with mostly Tokyo-best flat start times but also a few relay splits. Duncan Scott has not swum a 100 free yet at the Olympics, so he is projected at 47.50.

United States: Murphy 52.19 + Andrew 58.62 + Dressel 49.45 + Apple 48.04 = 3:28.30
Great Britain: Greenbank 53.79 + Peaty 57.37 + Guy 50.00 + Scott 47.50 = 3:28.66
Italy: Ceccon 52.23 + Martinenghi 57.73 + Burdisso 51.46 + Miressi 47.42 = 3:28.84
Australia: Larkin 52.76 + Stubblety-Cook 58.80 + Temple 50.26 + Chalmers 47.08 = 3:28.90
Russian Olympic Committee: Rylov + Prigoda 59.15 + Minakov 50.80 + Kolesnikov = 3:29.04.

If the United States want to win gold for the 15th time in 16 Olympics (except for the boycotted 1980 Olympics), their breaststroker, whoever it may be, needs to post a split less than two seconds behind Peaty’s. One-and-a-half-seconds down would be terrific – and while that’s very possible on paper based on best times, Peaty looks much more likely to perform at his best in this spot. Certainly, if Dressel can go into the water just behind Guy for the butterfly leg, the Americans will be in excellent position.

One key aspect to watch is that the Americans will be competing in lane one after barely getting into the final as the seventh seed, but this will be an entirely new quartet in the final. We’ll see how that physical separation from the field could come into play. Australia, another medal contender, will be physically distant as well from its spot in lane seven.

Zooming back out, both medley relays set up as competitive races with strong chances of American gold. While the U.S. men have never been defeated in an Olympic medley relay in 14 chances, the U.S. women have 10 golds of the 14, with two silver medals behind East Germany in 1976 and 1988 and two silver behind Australia in 2004 and 2008. And with the Americans only having won a single relay so far, they need both golds to make it three for the Games. The U.S. has won at least three relays at every Olympics since 1960, before which each Games only had two.

So after an Olympics of disappointing American relay performances and broken podium streaks, will a couple more come to an end on the last day?

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