Return of Abbey Weitzeil, Simone Manuel Could Boost U.S. Hopes in 400 Freestyle Relay

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Abbey Weitzeil -- Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Return of Abbey Weitzeil, Simone Manuel Could Boost U.S. Hopes in 400 Freestyle Relay

For eight years, Abbey Weitzeil never missed a senior-level U.S. international team, and she became a stalwart presence on the American women’s 400 freestyle relay. In 2021, when 100 free world and Olympic champion Simone Manuel had a disappointing year, Weitzeil stepped into the anchor role on the 400 medley relay and produced a career-best split of 52.49 to leave the Americans just short of gold-medal-winner Australia. At the end of the year, she won her first individual medal at an international meet with a 100 free bronze at the Short Course World Championships.

But only four months later, Weitzeil found herself out of the mix for 2022. A disappointing swim in the 100 free final at the U.S. International Team Trials left her in seventh place, three tenths shy of the time needed to qualify as a relay alternate for the World Championships, and Weitzeil’s 50 free was not much better. In the absence of Weitzeil and also Manuel, who did not compete at all in 2022, teenagers Torri Huske and Claire Curzan traveled to Budapest as the central figures in the sprint free (and butterfly) events for the U.S., and both were part of bronze-medal efforts in the women’s 400 free relay and mixed 400 free relay.

In the end, only one American broke 53 in the flat-start 100 free all year (Huske) while five others ended up in the 53-second range (Curzan, Natalie HindsErika BrownGretchen Walsh and Kate Douglass). Meanwhile, at the World Championships, Australia continued a long winning streak in the 400 free relay even with 100 free Olympic champion Emma McKeon and bronze medalist Cate Campbell absent. Canada, fueled by a big anchor split from Penny Oleksiak, got ahead of the Americans for silver.

Essentially, the American women have remained in just about the same spot in this relay since a win over Australia at the 2017 Worlds: medal-worthy but not on the same caliber as Australia. The depth is there but not the high-ceiling speed. Huske and Curzan took big steps in 2022, but more splits in the 52-mid range are necessary for even an outside shot at gold.

Who are candidates to reel off that sort of performance? Walsh is certainly a candidate if she can continue her upward trajectory in long course and bring her 50-meter swimming on par with her short course success, which included an NCAA title in the 100-yard free in 2022. Manuel is back in the mix, and her first 100 free final in a year-and-a-half saw her place third at the TYR Pro Swim Series in Knoxville, Tenn., behind Brown and Olivia Smoliga. All three swimmers posted 54s in Knoxville, perfectly solid results for mid-January but not overwhelming.

But it was Weitzeil who produced one of the biggest “wow” moments of the meet when she popped a 53.65 in the 100 free prelims before scratching finals and heading home. The swim was her quickest since the Tokyo Olympics, three tenths better than anything she produced in 2022, and already, it would have been quick enough to tie for fourth at last year’s International Team Trials. Weitzeil also won the 50 free in Knoxville in 24.74 before earning another win in the 50 fly (26.50).

It would be disingenuous to claim that Weitzeil is “back” when it was just one off swim that denied her a chance at the World Championships, and frankly, it’s impossible to make any definitive predictions about the summer championship season to come based on a single swim from January. But if Weitzeil can continue to swim in the 53-mid range throughout the season, that will position her well for a big rebound at this year’s U.S. Nationals in late June.

As for Manuel, it’s too early to determine the level she could reach this year. Her 54.81 in Knoxville is almost three seconds shy of her American record in the event (52.04), but again, this was her first meet since July 2021. We’ll see how this one plays out.

In a best-case scenario for the United States, Weitzeil is one of three or four swimmers in the 53-low or 52-high range in the 100 free final in Indianapolis, with a resurgent Manuel close to that mix as well. Is that enough to mount a serious challenge to Australia at the World Championships in Fukuoka? Probably not. An upset feels much less likely here than in the 800 free relay, where Australia set a world record last year but an American group led by Katie Ledecky and promising teenagers is carrying a lot of momentum.

Still, Weitzeil returning to full speed plus getting Manuel back into the mix could give the Americans some veteran speed along with the reliable next generation of 100 freestylers. Maybe that formula can get the Americans closer toward ending a long drought.

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