200 Free Race Strategies: Comparing Australian vs. U.S. Trials (Women)

The international swimming rivalry between the United States and Australia needs no introduction. The fact that Australia has unmatched depth in the women’s freestyle events also needs no introduction, but we’ll give a bit of it anyway.

At the 2023 Fukuoka World Championships, the quartet of Mollie O’Callaghan, Shayna Jack, Brianna Throssell, and Ariarne Titmus set a new world record in the 4×200 freestyle relay, destroying the previous mark by almost two seconds (7:37.50). At that same meet, O’Callaghan cracked Federica Pelligrini’s 14 year-old world record in the 200 free (1:52.85).

Just under a year later, O’Callaghan did it again at Australian Trials, but this time Titmus beat her to it. Adding up the top four times from that field results in a projected relay ceiling of 7:36.02, which would once again shatter the world record time by over a second.

Women’s 200 Free Top 8 – 2024 Australian Trials:

  1. Ariarne Titmus – 1:52.23 World Record
  2. Mollie O’Callaghan – 1:52.48
  3. Lani Pallister – 1:55.57
  4. Brianna Throssell – 1:55.74
  5. Shayna Jack/Jamie Perkins – 1:56.22
  6. Brittany Castelluzzo – 1:56.77
  7. Meg Harris – 1:56.93

Meanwhile, at the most cutthroat Trials meet in the world, the U.S. has struggled to find the same speed. Katie Ledecky made it three in a row, also having won the event at 2016 and 2021 Trials, but she was the only athlete to break 1:56 in that final.

Women’s 200 Free Top 8 – 2024 U.S. Trials:

  1. Katie Ledecky – 1:55.22
  2. Claire Weinstein – 1:56.18
  3. Paige Madden – 1:56.36
  4. Erin Gemmell – 1:56.75
  5. Anna Peplowski – 1:57.04
  6. Alex Shackell – 1:57.05
  7. Simone Manuel – 1:57.13
  8. Katie Grimes – 1:57.33

We noticed a stark difference in how the American women and Australian women approach this race as a whole, beyond the disparity in times. Let’s dive in.

This graph may seem overwhelming at first, but we’ll walk through how to best use it alongside our analysis.

The TL;DR of the matter is: the Australian women rely on strong closing splits, while the American women rely on early speed. Remember that a dip in the graph means a swimmer is getting faster, as it corresponds to a lower time.

This is of course an oversimplification, but even with a limited data pool of eight finalists* per nation, the trend is pretty easy to spot.

For instance, take a look at Lani Pallister versus Katie Ledecky. Both athletes swim up to the 1500, so at the surface level you can expect they have similar training bases. However, Pallister’s last three 50 splits have a delta of 0.34 seconds, while Ledecky’s is 1.24. If you select both athletes on the Flourish graph, you can see how Pallister hits her pace on the 2nd 50 and holds it, while Ledecky ascends into the 3rd 50 and then roughly matches it.

Another interesting comparison point is Shayna Jack and Paige Madden. Jack qualified for Paris individually in the 50 and 100 free, while Madden qualified in the 400 and 800 free. (Madden will also likely swim the 200 free individually following Ledecky’s expected withdrawal.) You might expect the athlete who trends towards the sprint events to employ more of a “fly and die” strategy, but in fact the opposite is the case. Jack actually descends her 2nd 100, while Madden’s splits only ascend as the race goes on.

Two exceptions on the American side are Katie Grimes and Erin Gemmell, whose graphs look similar to Meg Harris or Jamie Perkins with a peak at the 3rd 50. In fact, Gemmell has the narrowest delta of the American women across her last three 50 splits.

There are 120 unique pairs we could possibly discuss when comparing these 16 athletes, so call attention to any other interesting ones you find in the comments below.

To close, we wanted to answer a hypothetical: what would we expect a race between an American and Australian athlete to look like? We found the average splits for each field and, to make it fun, normalized them around Ariarne Titmus‘ new world record (1:52.23). Check out the visualization below:

The takeaway here is Titmus’ backhalf is something to be feared. In the visualization, she doesn’t pull even with either of the hypothetical swimmers until the final 50.

Going off of times, it seems likely Australian will easily notch a 1-2 finish in the individual 200 free in Paris, and dominate the field in the 800 free relay. But if those races happens to be close, the difference in strategies promises to keep it exciting.

*Erin Gemmell‘s splits from her finals swim are unavailable, so we used her semifinals swim instead.

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Weinstein-Smith-Ledecky-Sims
17 days ago

Chinese Swimming National Championships
W 200 FR
Yang, Junxuan – 1:54.37
Li, Bingjie – 1:56.29
Liu, Yaxin – 1:56.56
Tang, Muhan – 1:56.85
Total – 7:44.07

USA Swimming Olympic Team Trials
W 200 FR
Ledecky, Katie – 1:55.22
Weinstein, Claire – 1:56.18
Madden, Paige – 1:56.36
Gemmell, Erin – 1:56.75
Total – 7:44.51

The battle for the silver medal in the W 4 x 200 FR-R will be hotly contested.

jeff
18 days ago

I’ve been saying this but imo a big part of the problem is that the US essentially just skipped producing female 200 freestylers for the entire half decade from mid 1999 to mid 2004, which covers the age range of swimmers who would probably be in their physical prime right about now.

There’s a good amount of solid 200/mid distance freestylers in the 5 years before that period (Ledecky, Madden, Leah Smith, Manuel, McLaughlin, Missy Franklin) and plenty of up and coming talent born in the 5 years after (Gemmell, Sims, Weinstein, Shackell, Grimes) but it’s very barren in that period. Most notable one is probably Peplowski at this point and she’s pretty recent to the elite scene. Otherwise… Read more »

Last edited 18 days ago by jeff
Helk bengur
18 days ago

Walsh will certainly not be prepared to swim a 200 long, huske is not that good there she tried a couple of times and did not go under 1:58.
Smith made a big improvement of 1:57, maybe it could be around 1:56, but all the other girls have that.
The only case would be Douglass, who could be a good selection, but she has expressed her desire not to swim it, anyway, so why use her, they still wouldn’t win.

Buffalo Joe
18 days ago

Our 8 free relay needs KD, GW, and RS. Pair them with Katie in final

Our current crew ain’t winning

Troyy
Reply to  Buffalo Joe
18 days ago

The Chinese and Canadian teams would love that.

Genevieve Nnaji
Reply to  Buffalo Joe
18 days ago

China, GBR, Canada teams are thanking you for your genius suggestion.

They are praying: please please please let this be true. 🙏🙏🙏

Chas
18 days ago

A definite and consistent timing of the kick rhythm is seen in the underwater frontal views of Titmus and O’Callaghan at their trials. This establishes the foundation of their stroke and makes it easier to sustain. Most US coaches have no clue of its importance or how to help their athletes learn it. I recall the SS article on Lia Neal retirement in which she stated she was glad she swam on her ISL team because it was where she finally learned how to do a correct FS kick before she retired. I would be surprised if more than a handful of our ‘ASCA Top 100 Age Group Teams’ or ‘USAS Gold Medal Club Excellence’ teams do anything more than… Read more »

Greg
19 days ago

We teach and practice even pacing (within 0.8 seconds) for the last 3 50s on our HS team. I often see swimmers “going to sleep” on third 50 (yikes, I’m only 1/2 way finished, I better save some for last 50). We have sets for each 50.

Diehard
Reply to  Greg
19 days ago

I think it is more than just teaching and practicing the skill. I think it is training the skill as well. Doing 29 LC fly pace 50 all day versus 100 all out, a short rest, then going a couple 29s 50s. I call it lactate tolerance. How do you deal with lactate buildup?

Greg
Reply to  Diehard
19 days ago

We do lactate sets periodically, 50s and 75. For pace example, we would go 3x 50 d1-3 to 2p then 3x 50 2p all on 50. We might squeeze rep 6 to 40. Then 100 easy, then 50 build. 3-5X through. Then 4X 25 all out on 22.

Diehard
19 days ago

On a 800 free relay, the splitting is even more important! After the lead off, the tendency is to overswim the first 50/100 either trying to catch-up to the teams ahead of you or to stay ahead of those behind you. So this tendency could be uglier for Americans vs Aussies!
Thanks for the article!

Mike
19 days ago

The US won’t even win a medal in the individual 200m free..besides the Aussies, Ledecky and company have to go against McIntosh and Haughey who have swam faster this year and at last year’s worlds