Tokyo Flashback: Zach Apple Punctuates Title in 400 Freestyle Relay As American Dominance Grows

Jul 26, 2021; Tokyo, Japan; Zach Apple (USA) celebrates after anchoring the team to a gold medal in the men's 4x100m freestyle relay final during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Summer Games at Tokyo Aquatics Centre. Mandatory Credit: Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

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Tokyo Flashback: Zach Apple Punctuates Title in 400 Freestyle Relay As American Dominance Grows

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.

Remember that time when the United States struggled in the men’s 400 freestyle relay? If not, here’s a quick reminder. After mining gold in the first seven editions of the event at the Olympic Games, Team USA watched other nations stand atop the podium in 2000 (Australia), 2004 (South Africa) and 2012 (France). But the mojo seems to be back with the Red, White and Blue, and in dominant fashion.

For the third time in four Games, and going back-to-back, the United States routed the field at the Tokyo Games on Monday morning, picking up the gold medal with a time of 3:08.97. The effort is the third-fastest in history and arrived courtesy of the squad of Caeleb Dressel, Blake Pieroni, Bowe Becker and Zach Apple. The finishing touches were handled by Apple, who has become one of the best relay performers in the American arsenal and split 46.69 on the anchor leg.

Since the 400 freestyle relay debuted at the 1964 Olympics, the United States has won gold on 10 occasions. No other nation has won more than once.

More than a year out from the original scheduled start of the Games, and particularly following the 2019 campaign, the United States appeared to be the  heavy favorite for gold in Tokyo. There were a plethora of 47-second performances and that depth would surely prove beneficial when the squad for Japan was selected. Of cour, the COVID-19 pandemic hit and when Trials were held in June in Omaha, only two swimmers cracked the 48-second barrier – Dressel and Apple.

On the way to the Olympics, there was still reason for confidence, especially with a guy like Dressel at the coaching staff’s disposal. But the power was expected to be available in 2019 was not as strong and countries such as Russia, Australia and Italy were set to field potent units. For their parts, Australia and Italy came through, but Russia faltered badly and finished seventh in Tokyo.

As the United States retained its crown, the same man from four years ago got things started. Dressel is the biggest force in the sport, but when he is on the front of a relay and can stake a team to a lead with his ridiculous underwater prowess, he becomes even more of a weapon. By the time Dressel got done with his opening leg, which was timed in 47.26, the United States was in the lead and never dropped from that position.

“I felt good the whole way,” Dressel said. “I knew I had to get my hand on the wall first, get some clean water. Everyone did their job. It’s a relay for a reason. There’s four guys for a reason. It’s certainly not just me, and it’s certainly not just one guy. I wasn’t ever scared. The scariest part was my leg for myself because I had control over that. I knew they were going to get the job done. I wasn’t nervous at all, especially when (Apple) hit the water. I saw him break out and I knew it was over.”

Pieroni followed with a split of 47.58 and Becker contributed a marker of 47.44 to set the stage for Apple, who needed to be safe on the relay exchange and put together a sound leg. Well, Apple pushed the takeover a bit at .05, but he was more than efficient for his 100 meters, as his split was the second-fastest of the field. It shouldn’t be a surprise, though, as Apple was 46.86 on the winning 400 freestyle relay at the 2019 World Championships.

At the last four global championships, the U.S. has not been beaten, a pair of Olympic championships complemented by two world titles. More, the United States’ winning time is the fastest ever produced in textile suits, and was less than a second off the world record of 3:08.24, the time Team USA posted to win 2008 Olympic gold in Beijing.

“It’s easy when these three guys are leading me out, giving me a lead,” Apple said. “I love living in the pressure. It’s why we race, because we want to be in the pressure. That brings out the best in us. That’s what you saw there.”

Italy, which entered the final as the top seed, earned silver while Kyle Chalmers rallied Australia to the bronze medal with a closing split of 46.44. Canada just missed out on the podium by placing fourth in 3:10.82, with fifth place going to Hungary in 3:11.06. The medal is just the second in a relay for the Italian men in Olympic action, joining bronze from the 2004 Athens Games in the 800 freestyle relay.

“It’s so awesome from Italy that we won (a medal),” leadoff man Alessandro Miressi said. “It’s the first time this relay (medaled) in the Olympics, so we are very happy.”

Men’s 400 Freestyle Relay

World Record: United States (Michael Phelps, Garrett Weber-Gale, Cullen Jones, Jason Lezak) 3:08.24 (2008)
Olympic Record: United States (Michael Phelps, Garrett Weber-Gale, Cullen Jones, Jason Lezak) 3:08.24 (2008)

1. United States, 3:08.97
2. Italy, 3:10.11
3. Australia, 3:10.22
4. Canada, 3:10.82
5. Hungary, 3:11.06
6. France, 3:11.09
7. Russia, 3:12.20
8. Brazil, 3:13.41


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