The Difference Between Two American Relay Silver Medals at Pan Pacs

Photo by Delly Carr

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By David Rieder

GOLD COAST, Australia, August 23. THE always-exciting 400 free relays wrapped up the third night of action at the Pan Pacific Championships, and in both the women’s and men’s events, Australia defeated the United States to take gold. The Australian women picked up a two second win over the Americans, while it took a big anchor leg from Cameron McEvoy to pass Ryan Lochte to earn a narrow win for the host team. Still, the American performance on the women’s side brings more optimism than the men’s relay.

Coming into the meet, the Australian women had set the world record in the event with a 3:30.98 at Commonwealth Games last month, so few picked the Americans to win, but Simone Manuel, Missy Franklin, Abbey Weitzeil, and Shannon Vreeland put on an admirable show. Manuel has blossomed this summer into the leader of the American women’s sprint corps. Leading off, she dropped her best time from a 53.60 at Nationals to a 53.25. That time ranks fourth in the world behind some big names – Sarah Sjostrom and the Campbell sisters, Cate and Bronte.

Manuel’s time also made her the second-fastest American ever, trailing just Amanda Weir’s 53.02 from 2009, and no one has ever swum faster in a textile suit. Manuel is on the rise, but in order to continue the development of this relay team, Manuel will need support from Missy Franklin, who split a 53.38 second leg. After a week of battling back problems and a disappointing fourth-place finish in the 200 back, the leg was exactly what one might have expected from the weakened superstar.

On the back end, the duo of Abbey Weitzeil and Shannon Vreeland had little chance to stay with Aussies Melanie Schlanger and Bronte Campbell. Still, both Weitzeil (53.81) and Vreeland (53.79) posted swift splits relative to their own best times. Vreeland has become a rock for the Americans on the free relays, while Weitzeil has become the rising star, cutting a full second from her 100 free time in the past year, and she’s just entering her senior year of high school. This young team must mature, but they have the talent to make a run at the Aussies within the next two years.

But while the American women cemented their status as the best team in the world, the American men will end the year fifth in our Virtual World Championships. The last time they did not make the podium at an actual World Championships came in 2001, when they were disqualified. But this year, France, Russia, Australia, and even Italy have clocked faster times, and a Brazil team not at full strength finished just two tenths behind the Americans in for the Pan Pacs bronze.

Vreeland is the only non-teen on the women’s team, at age 22. This was her second time on the finals 400 free relay at a major meet, and both Manuel and Weitzeil entered the meet as relay rookies. Conversely, the men’s relay featured Michael Phelps for the ninth time, Nathan Adrian for the sixth time, Ryan Lochte swimming in his fifth 400 relay final, and Anthony Ervin his fourth. All but Adrian are 29 or over. And only Adrian split under-48, and he has swum much faster in his career than 47.71.

The team at Pan Pacs subbed Phelps for Jimmy Feigen from last year’s relay, where the Americans won a silver medal at the World Championships in 3:11.42. Their Pan Pacs time? 3:13.36, almost two seconds slower. Ervin and Lochte both swam significantly slower splits than they did in Barcelona, while Phelps’ 48.88 leadoff split trails his 48.45 that he clocked in the prelims of the individual event on Friday. Feigen, meanwhile, has gone from a 47.82 breakout performance at Worlds last year to a best time this year of 48.98.

Meanwhile, the French have Florent Manaudou coming into his own in the 100 while Vlad Morozov leads the Russians, and Australia has the dynamic duo of James Magnussen and Cameron McEvoy on their side. Italy and Brazil each have young balanced squads. If the Americans want to think about winning the gold – perhaps even winning a medal – at next year’s Worlds or at the 2016 Olympics, the veterans need to reach back and find their old form. There’s no “next generation” ready to swim 47s and 48-lows, so this team will only go as far as the old crew leads it.

Individual highlights for the Americans came in a couple of minor medal performances in the 400 free. Cierra Runge took silver in 4:04.55, the fifth-fastest time in the world and just seven tenths of a second away from the number two time. Meanwhile, Connor Jaeger picked up a bronze in a tight field on the men’s side as he knocked Matt McLean out of the event for next year’s World Championships.

Jaeger, the first American man to win the 1500 at an Olympics, World Championships, or Pan Pacs since 1984 – 30 years! – has raced tough throughout this meet, scoring victories over swimmers with faster annual bests. As he showed in last summer’s World Championships final, he brings his A-game in the big races, and he remains a solid bet to be a force in all three distance events at Worlds next year.

Final note: Yes, I realize I have made it through 900 words without mentioning Katie Ledecky. Honestly, are her records even a story anymore? She has now broken four world marks in a year, the first person to do that since the suit era. I thought I was witnessing a swim for the ages when I saw Ledecky record her 3:58.86 two weeks ago in Irvine. Who would have thought she would have now made that look pedestrian once again? 3:58.37. Jeez.