World Championships: U.S. Medley Relays Face Tight Battles With Italy (Men’s) and Australia (Women’s)

U.S. breaststroker Nic Fink -- Photo Courtesy: Giorgio Scala / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

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World Championships: U.S. Medley Relays Face Tight Battles With Italy (Men’s) and Australia (Women’s)

The World Championships will conclude, as always, with the 400 medley relays, first the men’s event and then the women’s. The U.S. men have captured world titles in the 400 medley relay at 13 of the previous 18 World Championships, but at the last World Championships three years ago in Gwangju, Great Britain pulled off a stunning come-from-behind triumph over the Americans, with Duncan Scott recording the second-fastest freestyle split in history (behind Jason Lezak’s famous 46.06 from the 2008 Olympics) to overtake U.S. anchor Nathan Adrian.

The Americans got a measure of revenge on the British team at the Tokyo Olympics, setting a world record in the process, and with star breaststroker Adam Peaty missing this meet with a foot injury, the British team is unlikely to contend for gold this time around. However, the American relay is facing a big deficit here with Caeleb Dressel having withdrawn from the World Championships. After all, it was Dressel’s 49.03 butterfly split that vaulted the Americans in front in the Olympic final, with no other swimmer coming within a second of Dressel’s split.

Meanwhile, the team to watch as a serious challenger to the U.S. is Italy, which will feature 100 backstroke world-record breaker Thomas Ceccon and 100 breast world champion Nicolo Martinenghi swimming the first two legs. The Americans have very respectable candidates for back and breast, with Ryan Murphy the likely choice for back over Hunter Armstrong and Nic Fink set for breaststroke.

As for butterfly, the Americans will likely turn to Michael Andrew, who handled the breaststroke leg on the gold-medal-winning team in Tokyo. Andrew was fourth in the 100 fly final Friday in 51.11, and that swim was likely convincing enough for the U.S. coaching staff to stick with Andrew over other two capable candidates in Budapest for other events, Shaine Casas and Trenton Julian. The freestyle leg will either go to 100 free fifth-place finisher Brooks Curry or Ryan Held, who split 46.99 on the 400 free relay to open the meet and posted a pair of sub-48 flat-start 100 free swims Friday.

Italy will counter with Federico Burdisso on fly and either Alessandro Miressi or Lorenzo Zazzeri on free. Italy will stay close on those two legs, but if the Americans are in front after the breaststroke, as they were on the mixed 400 medley relay earlier in the week when Ceccon and Martinenghi went first and second, it will be very tough for the Italians to come back.

Australia will be tough on the end with Kyle Chalmers likely to anchor following 200 breast world champion Zac Stubblety-Cook and 100 fly finalist Matt Temple, while Great Britain can turn to James Wilby, James Guy and Lewis Burras on the last three legs, but neither country is close to having a 52-second backstroker, let alone the 51s that the Italians and Americans will roll out. Neither country projects to come within two seconds of the top two quartets.

Composite relay times for the Italians and Americans based on the top 100-meter results from this week favor Italy, but it is extremely tight.

Italy: Ceccon 51.65 + Martinenghi 58.26 + Burdisso 51.45 + Miressi 47.89 = 3:29.25
United States: Murphy 51.97 + Fink 58.55 + Andrew 51.11 + Held 47.85 = 3:29.48


Australian backstroker Kaylee McKeown — Photo Courtesy: Giorgio Scala / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

In the women’s medley relay, the Americans set a world record in a dominant performance at the 2019 World Championships, but Australia turned the tables in the Olympic final as Cate Campbell edged out Abbey Weitzeil by 0.13 at the finish. Both teams have seen massive turnover on their relay squads. The American lineup in Budapest will only feature one swimmer who raced in both Gwangju and Tokyo, backstroker Regan Smith. Lilly King returns to the breaststroke spot after Lydia Jacoby raced there in Tokyo, and Torri Huske will also be a holdover from the Olympic lineup. Australia will bring back only backstroker Kaylee McKeown from its Olympic lineup, while sprint star Emma McKeon skipped Worlds.

In recent years, the Americans have typically maintained a sizeable advantage on the breaststroke leg, but King has struggled with her speed this week. She won the world title in the 200 breast, but she ended up fourth in the 100-meter race and barely qualified for the 50 breast final. The Aussies will counter on that leg with Jenna Strauch, a semifinalist in the 100 breast and the silver medalist behind King in the 200-meter race. This time, the big U.S. advantage will come on butterfly. Huske won the world title in the 100 fly in 55.64, while the Aussies’ top flyer in Budapest, Brianna Throssell, has a season best of 56.96.

Huske is also the fastest U.S. 100 freestyler, but it seems likely that Claire Curzan will take that leg, especially since the 17-year-old from Raleigh, N.C., has posted sub-52 splits in anchoring three American relays already this week (women’s 400 free relay, mixed 400 medley relay, mixed 400 free relay). The Aussies, meanwhile, have Mollie O’Callaghan, another teenager who was the world champion in the 100 free, and she split 52.03 in anchoring the mixed free relay to gold in world-record time.

Based on times recorded in individual events this week, the Americans and Australians are easily the top teams. McKeown skipped the 100 back this week, but for this composite, both she and Smith are listed at 58.22, which was Smith’s winning time in the individual event. It’s unlikely that we will see much separation on the leadoff leg.

United States: Smith 58.22 + King 1:06.07 + Huske 55.64 + Curzan 53.63 = 3:53.55
Australia: McKeown 58.22 + Strauch 1:06.16 + Throssell 56.96 + O’Callaghan 52.67 = 3:54.01

So this will be a two-team battle for gold? Not exactly. We cannot forget about Canada, the bronze medalists in this relay in Tokyo. Canada will have Kylie Masse (silver in 100 back) and Penny Oleksiak (fourth in 100 free) bookending the team, and Masse was very close to Smith in the 100 back final while Oleksiak out-split Curzan by seven tenths (52.11 to 52.84) anchoring the medley relay. Meanwhile, 100 fly Olympic gold medalist Maggie Mac Neil should handle that leg. Mac Neil is only in Budapest for relay duty, so it’s unclear what she has in the tank right now, but surely she will be competitive.

Canada’s major weakness, however, is breaststroke. Canada’s only entrant in the 100 breaststroke, Sophie Angus, was 24th in 1:08.76. That certainly won’t get the job done against the likes of King and Strauch. In Tokyo, Canada turned to IM and 200 breast specialist Sydney Pickrem, who split 1:07.17 on the breaststroke leg. It does not make sense to put together a composite relay for Canada given the uncertainty surrounding Mac Neil and the breaststroke leg, but it would be no surprise if Canada ended up pulling out a gold medal here.

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