World Championships Preview — Mixed Relays: Americans, Australians Favored for Repeat World Titles (Predictions)

Nic Fink -- Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

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World Championships Preview — Mixed Relays: Americans, Australians Favored for Repeat World Titles (Predictions)

When mixed-gender relays were first introduced to the World Championships program in 2015, they were treated as novelty events. Records held relatively little value since these relays had never before been contested at major meets, and some countries opted against entering their top lineups to prioritize other events. Well, two years after that, the mixed 400 medley relay became part of the Olympic program, so coaches and federations had to learn how to assemble a successful grouping.

For the mixed 400 freestyle relay, which is only held on the World Championships level, almost every country begins with two men and finishes with two women. But the medley requires strategy, with countries picking and choosing based on different combinations. A consensus has emerged that a successful mixed medley relay should have a male breaststroker and female freestyler. That’s because the difference in time between the top males and top females is greatest in breaststroke and least in freestyle. The margins in the 100 backstroke and 100 butterfly are similar, so those legs are relatively interchangeable, and countries can play to their strengths.

Previous Events:

Mixed 400 Medley Relay

WR 3:37.58 Great Britain (Dawson, Peaty, Guy, Hopkin) Tokyo (JPN) July 31, 2021
CR 3:38.56 United States (Grevers, King, Dressel, Manuel) Budapest (HUN) July 26, 2017

The Olympic debut of the mixed medley relay saw Great Britain surge to gold, fueled by a marvelous 56.78 split by Adam Peaty. On the flip side, the United States finished in fifth place while swimming a female breaststroker and male freestyler, a strategy which no one else in the field opted for and one that backfired in a major way for the Americans. A team that won gold in the men’s medley relay and finished a very close second in the women’s event ended up fifth in the mixed-gender race? That’s a blunder.

OK, lesson learned, and in 2022, the U.S. cruised to gold by 2.55 seconds despite a last-minute lineup switcheroo. The original grouping was Regan SmithNic FinkCaeleb Dressel and Torri Huske, but that was the session from which Dressel had to withdraw due to health concerns, and there was no suitable men’s substitute on butterfly. So Hunter Armstrong took over on backstroke, followed by Fink on breaststroke, Huske moving to fly and Claire Curzan anchoring.

Expect a similar approach from the United States this time around. It helps that Fink is one of the top men’s breaststrokers in the world, having posted a lifetime best of 58.36 at U.S. Nationals last month. The lineup could feature a male backstroker (either Armstrong or Ryan Murphy, whoever finishes higher in the individual event one day earlier), a female butterfly swimmer (likely Huske) and female freestyler (Kate Douglass or Abbey Weitzeil). An alternate approach would use Smith on back and Dare Rose on fly.

Compare these two possible orders based on results from U.S. Nationals, and the results are nearly identical, so the U.S. coaches will likely base their final decision off results from the first few days of the meet.

United States: Regan Smith 57.71 + Nic Fink 58.36 + Dare Rose 50.74 + Kate Douglass 52.57 = 3:39.38
United States: Hunter Armstrong 52.33 + Nic Fink 58.36 + Torri Huske 56.18 + Kate Douglass 52.57 = 3:39.44

The only true challenger for the Americans is China. Backstroker Xu Jiayu is posting his best season in years, and breaststroker Qin Haiyang became the third man ever under 58 in the flat-start 100 breast. Zhang Yufei is the Olympic silver medalist in the 100 fly. The anchor leg, though, could be a problem, but Cheng Yujie did swim 53.26 earlier this year. Here’s what the lineup looks like, based on 2023 season-best times:

China: Xu Jiayu 52.26 + Qin Haiyang 57.93 + Zhang Yufei 56.48 + Cheng Yujie 53.26 = 3:39.93

Meanwhile, Great Britain should still feature a strong lineup, but Peaty’s absence from Worlds means James Wilby will have to pick up the slack on breaststroke, likely alongside Medi Harris on back, James Guy on fly and either Freya Anderson or Anna Hopkin on free. Australia, the silver medalists last year, is likely to enter a nearly-identical lineup, with Kaylee McKeownZac Stubblety-Cook and Matt Temple on the first three legs before either Mollie O’Callaghan or Emma McKeon anchors.

But neither of these teams can challenge the Americans since Wilby and Stubblety-Cook cannot match Fink’s speed over two laps. Meanwhile, the countries that do have a stud breaststroker, don’t have the same elite abilities on the other legs. The Netherlands, winner of bronze last year, are likely to surround breaststroker Arno Kamminga with backstroker Kira Toussaint, butterflier Nyls Korstanje and freestyler Marrit Steenbergen, certainly a medal-contending group. Italy is dynamite with Thomas Ceccon and Nicolo Martinenghi going first, but the Italian women cannot keep pace at the end.


Gold: United States
Silver: China
Bronze: Australia

Mixed 400 Freestyle Relay

WR 3:19.38 Australia (Chalmers, Cartwright, Wilson, O’Callaghan) Budapest (HUN) June 24, 2022
CR 3:19.38 Australia (Chalmers, Cartwright, Wilson, O’Callaghan) Budapest (HUN) June 24, 2022

In last year’s World Championships final, Australia took over the lead on the second leg when Kyle Chalmers swam the only sub-47 split of the race, and the women’s duo of Madison Wilson and O’Callaghan easily hung on. This year, the Aussie group looks even better. Based on season-best times, the fastest men’s 100 freestyle twosome in the world is Chalmers (47.44) and Flynn Southam (47.77). On the women’s side, O’Callaghan is the defending world champion in the individual event and ranked first in the world (52.48), with McKeon and Shayna Jack just behind her.

In short, it would be a surprise if Australia does not lower the world record set last year on the way to a comfortable gold medal. Sure, the United States has the depth to assemble really good single-gender 400 free relays, with the men’s team entering as a slight favorite and the women’s group a solid No. 2 in the composite relay rankings, but mixed relays deemphasize depth, so Australia’s top-end talent can shine through.

Look for the Americans to utilize some stars on this relay, with Douglass, Weitzeil, Huske and Gretchen Walsh all possibilities to handle the women’s legs while Ryan Held and Jack Alexy are currently the top two U.S. 100 freestylers this year, but the top five swimmers on the Worlds team have all posted times within a range of four tenths.

Canada won silver last year, but Penny Oleksiak is out for Worlds while Kayla Sanchez left Swimming Canada to represent the Philippines. Two out of Maggie Mac Neil, Taylor Ruck and Summer McIntosh will handle the women’s legs while the quickly-improving Josh Liendo will provide a spark on the front half.

Great Britain could assemble a strong relay with two out of Lewis BurrasDuncan Scott and Matt Richards joining Freya Anderson and Anna Hopkin. Watch out for China as well, with Pan Zhanle entering Worlds with the top-ranked 100 freestyle time in the world (47.22) and a group including Cheng, Yang Junxuan and Wang Haoyu.


Gold: Australia
Silver: United States
Bronze: Canada

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1 year ago

Regan Smith has the 200 fly final shortly before the mixed medley final so probably not the best option.

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