U.S. Olympic Trials: American Women’s Freestyle Relays Looking Shaky on Road to Tokyo

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Abbey Weitzeil, Erika Brown, Olivia Smoliga and Natalie Hinds qualified to represent the U.S. in the women's 400 free relay in Tokyo -- Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

U.S. Olympic Trials: American Women’s Freestyle Relays Looking Shaky on Road to Tokyo

While many Americans have asserted themselves or defended their status as Olympic medal contenders this week in Omaha, few events have seen more of a dropoff from the pre-meet status quo than the women’s freestyles. With just two freestyle finals to go (the 800 free Saturday and the 50 free Sunday), it’s hard to find a medal contender in any of these six events outside of Katie Ledecky. At the same time, the potential of the American women’s freestyle relays has been drastically reduced.

The third through sixth-place times in the 100 and 200 free at Trials were not as fast as expected, and especially with no Simone Manuel in the fold, the Americans will be relying on some young and internationally inexperienced swimmers to carry the load, particularly in the 400 free relay. Meanwhile, over in Adelaide, the Australian Olympic Trials saw sterling times across the board but particularly in the freestyle events.

At the 2019 World Championships, the Australians and the Americans both beat a decade-old world record in the 800 free relay, with the Aussies taking gold by 0.37 in 7:41.50. But at this year’s Australian Trials, Ariarne Titmus missed the world record by just 0.11, while Emma McKeon showed why she will still be a contender for an individual medal in Tokyo. The Aussies ended up with two swimmers under 1:55, three under 1:56 and the fourth at 1:56.0. The composite of those four times is almost two seconds faster than that world record from Gwangju.

At the U.S. Trials, Katie Ledecky did not break 1:55 (although she was 1:54.40 earlier in the year), and the next three swimmers in the final all finished between 1:56.7 and 1:57.1. Add that up, and the American composite relay based on season-best times is more than five seconds behind Australia. Less than four tenths to more than five seconds in two years.

The current top five countries are:

Women’s 800 Free Relay
Australia: Ariarne Titmus 1:53.09 + Emma McKeon 1:54.74 + Madison Wilson 1:55.68 + Leah Neale 1:56.08 = 7:39.59
United States: Katie Ledecky 1:54.40 + Paige Madden 1:56.44 + Allison Schmitt 1:56.79 + Katie McLaughlin 1:57.16 = 7:44.79
China: Yang Junxuan 1:54.57 + Li Bingjie 1:56.64 + Tang Muhan 1:57.83 + Dong Jie 1:58.53 = 7:47.57
Germany: Isabel Gose 1:56.93 + Annika Bruhn 1:57.17 + Leonie Kullman 1:57.64 + Marie Pietruschka 1:58.46 = 7:50.20
Canada: Penny Oleksiak 1:57.37 + Rebecca Smith 1:57.43 + Summer McIntosh 1:57.65 + Kayla Sanchez 1:58.07 = 7:50.52

So that leaves the Americans very clearly as the second-best country as of now. However, this list comes with one big asterisk: Canada, which took bronze at the World Championships, is just beginning its Olympic Trials, so expect to see that nation move well up this list in the coming days. It probably would not be enough to surpass the Americans for second place on this list.

For the 400 free relay, four Australians broke 53 in the 100 free at their Olympic Trials, led by McKeon and former world record-holder Cate Campbell. Campbell’s younger sister Bronte, the 2015 world champion, will be a prelim contributor.

The Americans will bring an imperfect group here. No one at Olympic Trials managed to eclipse 53.5—so no one came within a half-second of the fourth-place time from the Australian Trials—but all four of them swam between 53.52 and 53.59 between the three rounds at Trials. And of the top four, only Abbey Weitzeil has significant international relay experience (from swimming the second leg on the American relay in Rio), while Erika BrownOlivia Smoliga and Natalie Hinds have never competed in a finals 400 free relay at a major meet.

This composite below again includes the top five countries, and it’s no surprise which country is well clear of the competition. Note that in this list, the times considered for Abbey Wood and Marrit Steenbergen are not flat-start times but rather relay splits from last month’s European Championships (chosen because of discrepancies with their season-best flat start efforts).

Women’s 400 Free Relay
Australia: Emma McKeon 52.29 + Cate Campbell 52.59 + Madison Wilson 52.76 + Meg Harris 52.92 = 3:30.56
United States: Abbey Weitzeil 53.52 + Olivia Smoliga 53.55 + Natalie Hinds 53.55 + Erika Brown 53.59 = 3:34.39
Great Britain: Freya Anderson 53.40 + Anna Hopkin 53.43 + Lucy Hope 53.89 + Abbey Wood 53.90 = 3:34.62
Netherlands: Femke Heemskerk 53.05 + Ranomi Kromowidjojo 53.13 + Marrit Steenbergen 54.13 + Kim Busch 54.59 = 3:34.90
Canada: Kayla Sanchez 53.57 + Penny Oleksiak 53.67 + Maggie MacNeil 54.06 + Rebecca Smith 54.44 = 3:35.74

Again, Canada will surely move up on this list, particularly with Taylor Ruck not yet having swum fast enough to make the national top four. The Americans’ numbers do not include the season-best times for Torri Huske (53.46) and Claire Curzan (53.55), two swimmers who are qualified for the Olympic team earlier in the week but swam poor races at Trials and did not qualify for the 100 free final. Either teenager could still be considered for the squad in Tokyo.

But barring any more surprising developments, the Americans face a tough and unlikely road to gold in both women’s free relays (and stop if you’ve heard that before). Missing the podium entirely, probably not, but that’s definitely a risk with untested performers. But Weitzeil believes that this group has much faster performances in store than they showed at Olympic Trials.

“When you have the flag on your cap, you get stuff done,” Weitzeil said. “I’m confident in this relay, and I’m confident in Team USA. We have our work cut out for us, no doubt. The Australians are fast, and they have been fast, and I’ve been on this relay, and it’s tough, but it’s fun. When you have the flag on your cap there is something else that comes out of you. I’m confident in these girls next to me.”

The Australians finishing on top of the 400 free relay on day one of the Olympics would be nothing new. They have won the past two Olympic gold medals, and in fact, that relay has been the only gold medal the Australian women have won in both London and Tokyo. In the 800 free relay, the Americans have been gold medalists in five of the six Olympics when it has been contested, but Australia won on the other occasion in 2008. Australia has struggled mightily to maintain momentum as the meet goes along at recent Olympics, so that pattern must change if the Aussies are going to back up the success that is projected right now.

But even if they should falter, they have such a massive on-paper advantage in both relays. It would take some massive U.S. improvements and (bold) an Australian collapse for any hope of American gold in a women’s free relay.

5 comments

  1. avatar
    Karyn Maki

    SW; what a poorly written article. Let’s show our athletes some support instead of knocking them down minutes after the medals are placed around their necks. Show them some faith! You think they’re not going to try for the gold?

    • avatar
      J Ossa

      Mate nobody is saying that the Americans don’t have a chance. He is just comparing facts. Take it easy and hope the US beats the Aussies (as we all here in Australia hope otherwise!)

  2. avatar
    Megan

    Let’s give them our support and love! This was a very negative and terrible article. Go USA! We are proud of all of you! ??

  3. avatar
    Roger

    It’s unfortunate the writer of the article has such a doom and gloom attitude towards new, young and humble swimmers on the team. Times on paper can be thrown out of the window at major events as some will be much faster and some much slower. It’s a combination of adrenaline, focus , preparation and mental toughness. Who better to put these together than teenagers with nothing but unjaded minds and their lives ahead of them living in the moment.

  4. avatar
    Nuno Albuquerque

    Congrats for a fair, clear article. Being from Europe (Portugal) have no favourites between the USA and Australia. The FACTS are very clear. Mental strength and atitude can help to change, but no miracles expected.