Where Was Caeleb Dressel? How About Seliskar? Lineup Decision Dooms U.S. Men’s 800 Free Relay to Historically Poor Result

Jul 28, 2021; Tokyo, Japan; United States relay team members react after the men's 4x200m freestyle relay during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Summer Games at Tokyo Aquatics Centre. Mandatory Credit: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports
The disappointed American men's 800 free relay team after finishing fourth in the Olympic final -- Photo Courtesy: Rob Schumacher/USA Today Sports

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Where Was Caeleb Dressel? How About Seliskar? Lineup Decision Dooms U.S. Men’s 800 Free Relay to Historically Poor Result

The American men were underdogs in an Olympic relay like never before. They had won four straight Olympic gold medals in the 800 freestyle relay, all of them with Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte on the team, but it was abundantly clear that the group bound for Tokyo was not at that level. The Americans had not won gold in the relay for three straight World Championships, and with Great Britain heavily favored for Olympic gold and both Russia and Australia fielding impressive groups, the specter of the American men missing the podium in an Olympic relay was raised.

That had never happened before. Except in the boycotted 1980 Olympics, the American men had finished on the podium in every single Olympic relay ever contested. And this group did not want to be the ones to break that streak.

Jul 28, 2021; Tokyo, Japan; Zach Apple (USA) looks up at the timing board after finishing sixth in the men's 100m freestyle semifinal during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Summer Games at Tokyo Aquatics Centre. Mandatory Credit: Grace Hollars-USA TODAY Sports

Zach Apple finished 11th in the 100 free prior to swimming on the U.S. men’s 800 free relay team — Photo Courtesy: Grace Hollars/USA Today Sports

But that’s exactly what happened. As expected, Great Britain won gold, missing the world record by a miniscule three hundredths, while the Russian Olympic Committee took silver and Australia bronze. The Americans? Fourth, in 7:02.43, six tenths behind the Aussies.

And this was no case of the other teams simply being superior. Three of the Americans produced amazing splits, but on the third leg, Zach Apple simply could not replicate his speed from the Olympic Trials. Two days after anchoring the U.S. to an impressive gold in the 400 free relay, Apple was tasked with swimming the third leg after racing in the 100 free semifinals earlier in the evening. And he fell apart at the end of his leg, falling from second to fifth on the last 50, his leg raced in 1:47.31.

The piano dropped, and Apple’s last 50 split was 29.00. His competitors? All in the 27-low or 26-high range.

So everyone wanted to know: Where was Caeleb Dressel?


The Decision

Following Olympic Trials, the individual 200 free event in Tokyo and even the relay preliminaries, the American coaching staff, led by head men’s coach Dave Durden, had decisions to make. Kieran Smith, the bronze medalist in the 400 free in Tokyo and the sixth-place finisher in the 200 free, would be on the team for sure. So would Townley Haas, with his history of remarkable relay performances.

The remaining options: Drew Kibler, third at Olympic Trials in 1:45.92 and responsible for a 1:46.12 leadoff leg in prelims; Andrew Seliskar, fourth at Trials and coming off a split 1:46.17 in prelims; Apple, fifth at Trials and just days removed from his amazing gold-medal anchor; and Dressel.

Dressel is not an experienced 200 freestyler. He has never participated in the 800 free relay in international competition. He swam the race once at Olympic Trials, recording a 1:46.63 in prelims before bowing out. But given his talent, surely he could throw down a 1:45 200 free, maybe split 1:44 on a relay. No question.

The argument against using Dressel was that the Americans probably could not win gold even with a perfect performance, so don’t waste his energy. He would have the 100 freestyle semifinals earlier in the session before the relay final, and all three of his individual finals were still to come.

In the end, the U.S. coaches decided that the drawbacks of using Dressel on this relay outweighed the potential benefits. So when they submitted the relay card, it was Smith, Kibler, Apple and Haas.

That choice majorly backfired.

In his role as a commentator for NBC Sports, Phelps was not pleased with the decision to leave Dressel off the squad. “It’s shocking,” he said. “In my opinion, he’s probably the best 200 freestyler in the world. He could probably put up one of the best times that we’ve seen. Leaving him off that relay, to me, I think it makes it a lot harder to win the gold medal.”

Or any medal.

Jul 25, 2021; Tokyo, Japan; Kieran Smith (USA) before the men's 400m freestyle final during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Summer Games at Tokyo Aquatics Centre. Mandatory Credit: Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Network

Kieran Smith gave the U.S. men a chance with his brilliant leadoff leg — Photo Courtesy: Robert Hanashiro/USA Today Sports

It started off perfectly. Smith, who has overperformed and challenged swimmers considered his superior in each of his races this week, went out on the opening leg and unleashed a 1:44.74, improving his lifetime best by three tenths. In that race, Smith became the 15th-fastest performer in history and the third-fastest American behind only Phelps and Lochte. More importantly, he was in the lead, almost a full second ahead of Great Britain, who led off with individual 200 free gold medalist Tom Dean.

Kibler delivered, too. He split 1:45.51, leaving the Americans in second place, barely behind the Brits. Still, it was looking really promising for a medal.

And then Apple went into the water, and he exploded on the first 100, but the last 50, he fell apart. Russia’s Evgeny Rylov passed him. Then Australia’s Zac Incerti passed him. Even Italy’s Filippo Megli went ahead. Haas dove in and swam an awesome 1:44.87 final split, but he could not catch up with the top three.

And the medals streak was over. For the first time in Olympic swimming history, the U.S. men had missed the podium in a relay.


The Fallout

Let’s make one thing clear: This result does not fall on Apple. He is a great swimmer who accomplished a lot to make his first Olympic team and put forth some career performances already in Tokyo. But he should never have been put in that position, tasked with a 200 free less than two hours after what would be a mad dash to qualify for an Olympic final in the 100 free (where Apple ended up finishing just on the outside in 11th place).

Why not roll the dice with Dressel and see what he can do? He is never one for backing down from a challenge, and he likely would have split 1:44-high in that position. No, that would not have won the U.S. the gold, but they would have easily claimed the silver medal.

Or if that’s still too risky to put Dressel out there with all of the swims he has coming up over the next four days, Seliskar would have been a fine option. No, his 1:46.17 split in prelims was not great, but he has been 1:45 from a flat start in the past. He clearly went out too hard in his qualifying effort, with a 49.86 split to the feet, so he surely had a 1:45 in the tank in an Olympic final.

In the end, the coaches chose to take a gamble, but they rolled the dice with Apple, hoping that his heroics from Monday would carry over in a race twice the distance. It did not work, and now, the U.S. team and their coaches live with that. They will try to rally themselves and pick each other up, and there’s plenty of racing still to come, plenty of medals still to be awarded.

After the Americans’ six-medal blastoff on day one, the last three days have been a struggle for the Americans, the men in particular. The men’s team’s only medals since day one were the 400 free relay gold and Ryan Murphy’s bronze in the 100 back. The last four days set up for the Americans to have plenty of great medal chances, with Dressel having his three individual events to come, Murphy looking for a medal in the 200 back and Michael Andrew racing as the favorite in the 200 IM. If this team stays locked in and rallies around Apple and the relay, the meet could turn back towards the stars and stripes party it started out as.

But looking back on the 800 free relay, when even a 1:46 would have been enough for silver, even a split of 1:46.45 – the exact time that Apple swam on his way to finishing fifth at Olympic Trials – that’s a tough pill to swallow. Even with Dressel, winning gold here was probably out of the question, but having the silver medal so tantalizingly close and then letting it slip away is a painful outcome for the U.S. men.

1 comment

  1. avatar
    Leander

    It looks to me like Zach Apple just took his 200 out too hard, which is a really easy thing to do when you are swimming the 4 x 200 relay, especially in the Olympics. Which is too bad for him and the USA, but these things happen. He’s still a gold medalist on the 4 x 100, and we’re still the greatest swim nation ever.

    And isn’t it great to see the Aussies doing so well this Olympics after all the bad luck they’ve had the last two Olympics?

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