U.S. Men’s Medley Relay Turned Near Miss Into Gold To Cap Olympic Games

Aug 1, 2021; Tokyo, Japan; Ryan Murphy (USA) , Michael Andrew (USA) , Caeleb Dressel (USA) and Zach Apple (USA) celebrate during the medals ceremony for the men's 4x100m medley relay during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Summer Games at Tokyo Aquatics Centre. Mandatory Credit: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports
Ryan Murphy, Michael Andrew, Caeleb Dressel and Zach Apple led the U.S. men to 400 medley relay gold -- Photo Courtesy: Rob Schumacher/USA Today Sports

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U.S. Men’s Medley Relay Turned Near Miss Into Gold To Cap Olympic Games

(From September’s Swimming World Magazine)

The United States had never lost the men’s 400 medley relay at an Olympics, but in Tokyo, the team barely made finals, qualifying seventh. With Great Britain considered a slight favorite, Ryan Murphy, Michael Andrew, Caeleb Dressel and Zach Apple not only won the race for the Americans, but set a world record from Lane 1.

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It was a week that had produced the two worst finishes for the United States in Olympic history. First, the U.S. men’s 800 freestyle relay team faded to fourth after leading much of the race’s first half. The strategic decision to swim Zach Apple on the third leg backfired as Apple tightened up and slowed considerably on his last length. A few days after that, the U.S. team in the mixed 400 medley relay finished fifth. The Americans had bucked conventional wisdom by placing male swimmers on the backstroke and freestyle legs, and that left Caeleb Dressel to dive in eighth with an eight-second margin to try to overcome…which he could not.

As Dressel was climbing out of the water, backstroker Ryan Murphy told Dressel to put the race behind him. They had more work to do in the next day’s men’s 400 medley relay. “That’s how we work here,” Dressel said. “We knew we had a shot at doing something special tomorrow, so Murph was already refocusing.”

It was an opportunity the Americans barely earned after qualifying seventh for the men’s medley relay final, leaving them in Lane 1, far away from their top competition. Great Britain was considered a slight favorite, with two-time Olympic champion and world record holder Adam Peaty swimming breaststroke. The Brits also had Duncan Scott anchoring, and at the 2019 World Championships, Scott had split 46.14 on the last 100 to pass the Americans and steal away gold.

After strategic decisions had twice cost the Americans a medal in relays, one more decision remained for the men’s medley. Michael Andrew, who set the American record in the 100 breaststroke at U.S. Olympic Trials, but who finished fourth in the event earlier in the Olympics, had been struggling. In the 200 IM final just two days before the medley relay, he ended up fifth, two seconds off his best time from six weeks earlier. Also, he would have to swim the medley relay just an hour after the 50 freestyle final.

Would the American coaches consider a lineup switch?

No, they would not. U.S. men’s coach Dave Durden and national team managing director Lindsay Mintenko stuck with Murphy on back, Andrew on breast, Dressel on fly and Apple on free.

The stakes were high. The Americans had never lost the men’s 400 medley relay at an Olympics. The event was on the Olympic schedule for the 16th time, and the U.S. had won 14 of the previous 15 gold medals, missing only in 1980 when the U.S. boycotted the Moscow Games.

But in 2021, as in all those previous Olympics, the relay turned out perfectly.

Murphy led off in 52.31, the top split in the field—and more than 1.3 seconds faster than Great Britain’s Luke Greenbank. Murphy had been disappointing with his 52.92 split on the 2019 medley relay that ended up with silver, but he did his job this time. Andrew surrendered the lead to Peaty and to Italy’s Nicolo Martinenghi, but his 58.49 split was enough to give Dressel a chance. Dressel immediately passed Britain’s James Guy and opened up a lead of six tenths for Apple as he tried to hold off Scott.

Days before Apple faded in the 800 free relay, he had excelled as the anchor swimmer on the U.S. men’s 400 free relay, splitting 46.69 to expand a tiny lead and secure a gold medal. This time, Apple split a phenomenal 46.95 to expand the lead on Scott and win gold. The final time was 3:26.78, smashing the world record set by a U.S. team during the supersuit-era 2009 World Championships.

Once again, the Americans had delivered a signature medley relay performance to close the swimming portion of the Summer Olympics.

“It’s hard to mess that up when you have two world record holders and the fastest American breaststroker ever in front of you. I had an easy job there,” Apple said. “It’s such an honor to represent the USA, especially in relays, and to come home with gold and a world record is the icing on top.”

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