Who Will Win the Inaugural Olympic Gold in Mixed Medley Relay?

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Adam Peaty hopes to be flying the British flag as a gold medalist again in the inaugural mixed 400 medley relay at the Olympics -- Photo Courtesy: Robert Hanashiro/USA Today Sports

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Who Will Win Inaugural Olympic Gold in Mixed Medley Relay?

When national coaching staffs are preparing for any relay at an international meet and certainly at the Olympics, they must crunch the numbers, develop a strategy and weigh external factors such as event schedules to determine which four swimmers give their team the best shot. Sometimes, decisions backfire, like the United States using Zach Apple on the men’s 800 free relay or Australia using too many swimmers in the women’s 800 free relay and being forced to leave a 1:55.1 flat-start swimmer (Mollie O’Callaghan) off its finals squad.

The mixed 400 medley relay, a new add to the Olympic program, takes that challenge to another level. Each country must select two women and two men for their squad, and they can put the swimmers in any order they choose. Countries must compare their strengths among the four strokes and between the top women’s performer in an event and the top men’s swimmer and then determine which combination works best.

Jul 27, 2021; Tokyo, Japan; Kaylee McKeown (AUS) celebrates her gold medal in the women's 100m backstroke final during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Summer Games at Tokyo Aquatics Centre. Mandatory Credit: Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

Kaylee McKeown won the Olympic gold medal in the women’s 100 back — Photo Courtesy: Robert Hanashiro/USA Today Sports

Of the seven swimmers who have already captured individual Olympic gold in a 100-meter event, six could participate in this final (all except Maggie MacNeil, whose Canadian team was eliminated in prelims). That means 100 back men’s gold medalist Evgeny Rylov and 100 back women’s gold medalist Kaylee McKeown could go head-to-head, even though Rylov is some 5.5 seconds faster than the Australian. Ditto Adam Peaty and Lydia Jacoby, separated by 7.5 seconds in breaststroke. You would expect 100 freestyle champions Emma McKeon and Caeleb Dressel to be involved, although one or both may handle the butterfly leg instead of freestyle.

With countries switching between genders on different legs, you will see massive swings and lead changes. It is a strong bet that Italy will be in first place at the halfway point after leading off with Thomas Ceccon, fourth place in the 100 back, and putting 100 breast bronze medalist Nicolo Martinenghi on the second leg. China will likely be in second with Xu Jiayu and Yan Zibei handling the front half. Why those two countries? Because none of the others will lead off with two men before handing it over to women for butterfly and freestyle.

The mixed medley relay offers a medal opportunity for countries with no real chance of putting together a single-gender medley relay that would land on the podium. The best example here is the Netherlands, which will likely utilize women’s 100 back finalist Kira Toussaint, men’s 100 breast silver medalist Arno Kamminga, men’s 100 fly finalist Nyls Korstanje and veteran relay anchor Femke Heemskerk on freestyle. Israel, which did not field either a women’s or men’s medley relay at the Olympics, qualified for the mixed medley relay final!

The Contenders

Jul 29, 2021; Tokyo, Japan; Caeleb Dressel (USA) celebrates after winning the men's 100m freestyle final during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Summer Games at Tokyo Aquatics Centre. Mandatory Credit: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports

Caeleb Dressel will race in finals of the 100 fly and mixed 400 medley relay during Saturday morning’s finals — Photo Courtesy: Rob Schumacher/USA Today Sports

The country with the most difficult lineup choices here is, understandably, the United States. The Americans have won a medal in five 100-meter events so far, with Dressel a certainty to make it six in Saturday’s finals prior to the mixed medley relay. And Torri Huske just missed the podium by 0.01 in the 100 fly, with Abbey Weitzeil eighth in the 100 free.

Even in the midst of an extremely busy last two days of racing at the Olympics, Dressel will swim a leg here, either fly or free, so the other male participant would be Ryan Murphy on back, Michael Andrew on breast and, if Dressel swam fly, Apple on free. For the women, two of four out of Regan Smith (back), Jacoby (breast), Huske (fly) and Weitzeil (free) will swim. A spreadsheet containing all the swimmers’ fastest swims from Tokyo was used to determine that the best combinations involved Huske on fly and Dressel anchoring, leaving a decision for the front half.

United States option 1: Smith 57.64 + Andrew 58.84 + Huske 55.73 + Dressel 47.02 = 3:39.23
United States option 2: Murphy 52.20 + Jacoby 1:04.95 + Huske 55.73 + Dressel 47.02 = 3:39.90

Smith led off the mixed relay in prelims in 57.64, her fastest 100 back time this year and the second-quickest mark of her career, and that made option 1 more appealing, but a relay featuring Murphy and Dressel as the bookends also makes a lot of sense. Due to the chaos of this race, the composite times do not necessarily tell the full story regarding how the action will play out. A country may very well choose to use its best swimmers at the cost of a few tenths in the composites. The races are swum in the pool, of course, not as composite charts.

Also with some tough lineup calls is Australia, but the “use your best swimmers philosophy” simplifies things a lot. McKeown, McKeon and Kyle Chalmers are the country’s best swimmers, so McKeon will handle fly and Chalmers will anchor after splitting 46.44 in the 400 free relay and taking silver in the 100 free in 47.08. Breaststroke is Australia’s weakness over 100 meters for both women and men, but 200 breast gold medalist Zac Stubblety-Cook ripped off a 58.80 split in the mixed medley relay prelims to ease concerns for that leg.

Jul 29, 2021; Tokyo, Japan; Zhang Yufei (CHN) celebrates after winning the women's 200m butterfly final during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Summer Games at Tokyo Aquatics Centre. Mandatory Credit: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports

China’s Zhang Yufei has already won gold in the 200 fly and 800 free relay and earned a silver in the 100 fly — Photo Courtesy: Rob Schumacher/USA Today Sports

Every other country should have a pretty straightforward lineup when relay cards get turned in. Great Britain, which almost broke the world record in prelims, will go with 100 back finalist Kathleen Dawson, 100 breast gold medalist and world-record holder Peaty, veteran James Guy on butterfly and 100 free finalist Anna Hopkin on the anchor leg. China will have 100 fly silver medalist and 200 fly gold medalist Zhang Yufei on that leg, while Yang Junxuan will anchor after her 1:54.37 leadoff split in the 800 free relay and propelled China to gold.

Russia will have backstroke double gold medalist Evgeny Rylov leading off and 100 free bronze medalist Kliment Kolesnikov anchoring, but it’s tough to imagine their middle legs (breaststroker Evgeniia Chikunova and butterflyer Svetlana Chimrova) keeping pace.

So here are the composites for the five teams that, along with the aforementioned multi-optioned Americans, could win a medal in the inaugural mixed medley relay for the Olympics. Most of these times are swimmers’ best times from Tokyo, although some use season-best times (Dawson’s backstroke) or a relay split (Stubblety-Cook, Guy, Yang, Heemskerk and Federica Pellegrini).

Great Britain: Dawson 58.08 + Peaty 57.37 + Guy 50.58 + Hopkin 52.75 = 3:38.78
Australia: McKeown 57.47 + Stubblety-Cook 58.80 + McKeon 55.72 + Chalmers 47.08 = 3:39.07
China: Xu 52.51 + Yan 58.72 + Zhang 55.64 + Yang 52.50 = 3:39.37
Netherlands: Toussaint 59.09 + Kamminga 57.80 + Korstanje 51.54 + Heemskerk 51.90 = 3:40.33
Italy: Ceccon 52.30 + Martinenghi 58.28 + Di Liddo 57.41 + Pellegrini 53.02 = 3:41.01

The Americans have slower projections than the top three teams here, but all the American times are from a flat start, while each other country has at least one relay split in their composite due to what times were available. The most likely outcome is a podium from among the group of the Great Britain, Australia, China and the United States, although the Netherlands will be dangerous down to the end. Of those contenders, only the U.S. and Australia (with Dressel and Chalmers, respectively), will have male swimmers on the anchor leg, so the likes of Hopkin, Yang, Heemskerk and others will have to hold them off.

Who will win this race? No idea. No other relay has come down to chalk this week, so surely the first-ever mixed medley relay at the Olympics will not. The world record of 3:38.41, set by China last year, is a near certainty to go down. The British team already put a scare into that mark in prelims. But definitely expect the biggest swings you have ever seen in any swimming event at an Olympics.

2 comments

  1. avatar
    Tony

    McKewon (57.4), S-Cook (58.8), Temple (50.4) & McKeon (51.3) gives Australia a 3:37.9.

  2. avatar
    Coraline Jones

    Who was the, excuse me for saying so, idiot that came up with this ridiculous idea? I’ll include the Track & Field version in this!

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