Women’s Relay of the Year: China Scores Stunning Gold in 800 Freestyle Relay

Jul 29, 2021; Tokyo, Japan; China relay team poses with their gold medals during the medals ceremony for the women's 4x200m freestyle relay during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Summer Games at Tokyo Aquatics Centre. Mandatory Credit: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports
China won gold in the women's 800 freestyle relay at the Tokyo Olympics -- Photo Courtesy: Rob Schumacher/USA TODAY Sports

Women’s Relay of the Year: China Scores Stunning Gold in 800 Freestyle Relay

Going into the Olympics, Australia was heavily favored to secure gold in the women’s 800 freestyle relay, and through the first half of the swimming competition at the Games, the Aussies cemented that status.

Ariarne Titmus had already reached star status by out-dueling Katie Ledecky for gold in the women’s 400 free, swimming the second-fastest time in history in the process, and by coming from behind to take down Siobhan Haughey in the 200 free, setting an Olympic record. Titmus would be joined by Emma McKeon, who was on her way to winning seven medals in Tokyo, including individual golds in the 100 free and 50 free. McKeon had been the Olympic bronze medalist in the 200 free five years earlier in Rio. Madison Wilson was a 1:55-level performer in her own right.

Simply, how could the Australians be beaten? The Americans boasted 2016 Olympic gold medalist Katie Ledecky on their squad, while Canada had 200 free bronze medalist Penny Oleksiak, and those two squads figured to battle for silver and bronze.

Then China crashed the party. Yang Junxuan, who had finished fourth in the 200 free final the day before, led off in 1:54.37, more than a half-second faster than her time from the individual event and 0.14 faster than Titmus. Then, Tang Muhan split 1:55.00, two seconds quicker than her lifetime best, to extend the lead. The third leg went to Zhang Yufei, who had won gold in a dominant effort in the women’s 200 butterfly earlier in the session, and she did not surrender any ground as she split 1:55.66.

Prior to the race, Zhang had no experience swimming the 200 free, and she didn’t even know she was slated to be on the relay until after she had secured her individual gold medal.

“I didn’t know I was doing it until I’d finished the 200 butterfly and our coach told me, ‘you’re in the relay,’” Zhang said. “I didn’t even know how to swim the 200 free, although I have the training qualities and levels for the 200 distances. At the Chinese National Championships, I went very fast, so maybe that’s why the coaches asked me to join the relay.”

Zhang handed a lead of three tenths over Australia to Li Bingjie, a 19-year-old who had already secured individual bronze in the 400 free in Tokyo. Australia had already used Titmus, McKeon and Wilson, and Leah Neale was handling the anchor leg, but Neale could not make up any ground. However, Ledecky was powering home for the United States, and she made up more than a second-and-a-half on China on the anchor leg.

It would not be enough though, as Li touched in 7:40.33 to win gold for China, while the Americans placed second in 7:40.73. Australia earned bronze in 7:41.29. All three teams were under the existing world record set by Australia at the 2019 World Championships. The time that fourth-place Canada swam (7:43.77) would have won silver at the previous two Olympics and gold at every Games before that. The top three teams were just so good that it literally took a world record to make the podium, making this a contender for the best women’s relay ever at the Olympics.

We may see more of this Chinese group on the international stage in the future. Zhang was the only participant who is not a teenager. Yang and Li are both 19, while Tang was 17 at the time and has since turned 18. Expect this young Chinese squad to continue battling against the United States, Australia and Canada for the next several years, and the first sub-7:40 800 free relay is definitely on the horizon.

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