Tokyo 2020 Olympic Swimming Previews: Strategy Overload In Mixed Medley Relay

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2020 TOKYO SUMMER OLYMPIC GAMES

Mixed 4×100 medley relay

  • World Record: China (Xu, Yan, Zhang, Yang) – 3:38.41 (2020)
  • Olympic Record: N/A
  • World Junior Record: USA (Grant, Matheny, Huske, Walsh) – 3:44.84 (2019)
  • 2016 Olympic Champion: N/A

*With this mixed medley relay offering lots more lineup choices, we’re zeroing in on the lineups we’d project. We’ll list the top two potential lineups when a nation doesn’t have a clear-cut top option. Aggregate times are put together using the best relay splits we could find for that athlete stretching back to the year 2018, but no earlier than that.

About This Relay

The mixed 4×100 medley relay will join the Olympic lineup for the first time in 2021. The event is swum in traditional medley relay order (back, breast, fly, free), with two men and two women filling out the four legs. Each nation can choose which legs will be swum by the men and which will be swum by the women.

The event is still a relative newcomer to international swimming in general, not just the Olympics. FINA’s World Championships have only featured the event since 2015. A different nation has won every World Championships gold in this race: Great Britain in 2015, the United States in 2017, and Australia in 2019.

The event will swim heats on the evening of Thursday, July 29, with finals on the morning of Saturday, July 31. Here are the two sessions and the events that will double up with this relay at the Olympics:

Thursday, July 29 (Evening Heats Session)

  • Women’s 800 free (heats)
  • Men’s 100 fly (heats)
  • Women’s 200 back (heats)
  • Mixed 4×100 medley relay (heats)

Saturday, July 31 (Morning Finals Session)

  • Men’s 100 fly (final)
  • Women’s 200 back (final)
  • Women’s 800 free (final)
  • Men’s 50 free (semifinals)
  • Women’s 50 free (semifinals)

If teams choose to prioritize fresh athletes for the mixed relay, we might tend to see more male backstrokers and female butterflyers, with any 100 freestylers who don’t swim the 50 free getting a bump, too. We’d expect most nations to focus on covering for their weakest strokes first and foremost, but the event order might help as a ‘tie-breaker’ of sorts when a nation has two very comparable lineups to choose between.

The Favorites

We’ll start with the past three world champs in this event, plus the world record-holders:

Great Britain
Swimmer Split Swimmer Split
Kathleen Dawson 58.08 Kathleen Dawson 58.08
Adam Peaty 57.13 Adam Peaty 57.13
James Guy 50.61 Laura Stephens 57.55
Anna Hopkin 52.65 Duncan Scott 46.14
TOTAL: 3:38.47 3:38.90

The one piece that shouldn’t move on Great Britain’s relay is Adam Peatyprobably the most difference-making single leg of any relay. We’d expect Kathleen Dawson to lead off after her stellar 58.08 from European Championships in May. The only reason to keep Dawson off this relay would be if she popped a big 200 back at any point and had a medal chance in the final.

As far as the two lineup above go, the lineup on the right comes up slower even when factoring in Duncan Scott‘s ridiculous 46.1 split from 2019 Worlds – not something many expect to be repeated. But the second lineup also saves James Guy from a potential double with the 100 fly final.

USA
Swimmer Split Swimmer Split
Regan Smith 57.57 Ryan Murphy 51.94
Michael Andrew 58.14 Lilly King 1:04.72
Caeleb Dressel 49.28 Torri Huske 55.66
Abbey Weitzeil 52.66 Caeleb Dressel 47.23
TOTAL: 3:37.65 3:39.55

For Team USA, the biggest decision is how to best use Caeleb Dressel, currently the best sprint weapon on the planet. Dressel is potentially the best 100 flyer and 100 freestyler not just on the U.S. team, but in the entire field. One interesting note: Dressel rarely swims a 100 free from a relay start. He’s almost always the leadoff leg of the free relays, and typically has swum fly on the U.S. medleys. With a flat-start 47.0, Dressel certainly has a chance to go 46-low on a free leg, though his relay starts typically don’t give him as much of an advantage over his flat start compared to what you’d expect.

This relay comes late enough in the meet that Team USA can perhaps work around who is swimming well. Ryan Murphy and Regan Smith might be swimming off for this spot in their respective 100 backs. If either can crack a world record, it’ll be hard to pick the other. Smith, Michael Andrew and Torri Huske are all Olympic rookies, so if any of them struggle in the massive spotlight, the relay has options to pivot elsewhere.

The U.S. has two sneaky Hail-Mary type options here, too. If Simone Manuel seems to regain form, she could be an anchor option – though she’s expected to swim the 50 free semifinals just before this relay. (So are Dressel, Weitzeil, and Andrew, for that matter). The really gutsy option would be Smith/King/Andrew/Dressel, as many suspect Andrew could have been the second-best U.S. flyer at Trials had he not scratched the race to focus on the 200 IM.

The other somewhat-gutsy option would be to leave Dressel off this relay, allowing him to focus on the 100 fly/50 free combo (maybe still swimming prelims of this relay to add a medal). That would allow the U.S. to swim the traditional man/man/woman/woman lineup with Murphy/Andrew/Huske/Weitzeil, and also avoid most of the lineup conflicts, outside of Weitzeil.

Australia
Swimmer Split Swimmer Split
Mitch Larkin 52.38 Kaylee McKeown 57.45
Matthew Wilson 59.16 Matthew Wilson 59.16
Emma McKeon 55.91 Emma McKeon 55.91
Cate Campbell 51.10 Kyle Chalmers 46.60
TOTAL: 3:38.55 3:39.12

The defending World champs have almost as many options as the Americans. Kaylee McKeown is on fire after breaking Regan Smith‘s world record in the 100 back. But Larkin is a solid leg as well, and could get Australia clean water out front if most of the top nations lead off with female backstrokers (as we would roughly project). There’s an argument, though, that McKeown might be even faster if she can draft off a male backstroker in another lane.

Breaststroke is the weakness on both sides, so Australia’s focus is (1) minimizing the breaststroke weakness and (2) taking full advantage of four very strong options on fly and free. Kyle Chalmers and Cate Campbell should be among the best anchor legs in the field, and every team in the pool will have to remember 2019 Worlds, where Campbell torched the field in 51.1 to run down everyone and win this relay, while Chalmers anchored the men’s medley in a wicked 46.6, effectively bringing his crew from dead last into the middle of the field.

Emma McKeon could be the flyer or the freestyler – she’s got a chance to be a Dressel-like difference-maker on the back half. Matthew Temple could easily be in the mix on fly, too.

We should note that we included Matthew Wilson as the male breaststroker above for his 59.1 split at 2019 Worlds. Zac Stubblety-Cook might actually have the edge based on a 59.6 this year.

China
Swimmer Split Swimmer Split
Xu Jiayu 52.17 Xu Jiayu 52.17
Yan Zibei 57.96 Tang Qiating 1:06.04
Zhang Yufei 55.32 Zhang Yufei 55.32
Yang Junxuan 52.68 Yu Hexin 47.92
TOTAL: 3:38.13 3:41.45

Compared to those top three, who swept the medals at 2019 Worlds, China didn’t even contest this relay. But they put together their four best legs in the fall of 2020 to earn an Olympic berth as a wild card. They didn’t just earn the Olympic spot, they also smashed the world record in the process.

This relay lines up almost perfectly for China in every way. Their overall roster strengths fit with this relay’s best strategy in a vacuum: using two men first, followed by two women. Xu Jiayu might be the best male backstroker in the field. Yan Zibei split 57.9 on breaststroke in October, one of the few who has ever done so. Meanwhile Zhang Yufei has been China’s best swimmer on the women’s side and is a fly/free monster who will probably swim fly here.

Three of the best splits above came from that October 2020 world record swim, so China has already proven they can put together best times on the same day. They also should be free from almost all doubles: with a likely male backstroker and female flyer, they avoid the 200 back and 100 fly conflicts other teams will have. And their anchor is probably not going to be one of their top 50 freestylers, as Yang is more of a 100/200 type than a pure sprinter. There’s a chance Zhang swims the 50 free, but it’s very low on her list of top events, and it might make more sense to focus on this race, where China could make Olympic history as the first gold medalists ever.

Other Contenders

We’ll run through some of the other teams more quickly (since we’re already doubting how many swim fans are dedicated enough to read this entire block of text instead of glancing at the time charts and jumping directly to the comment section to vent):

Russia
Swimmer Split Swimmer Split
Evgeny Rylov 51.97 Evgeny Rylov 51.97
Yulia Efimova 1:03.95 Kirill Prigoda 58.22
Andrei Minakov 50.54 Svetlana Chimrova 56.78
Maria Kameneva 52.80 Maria Kameneva 52.80
TOTAL: 3:39.26 3:39.77

Admittedly, Yulia Efimova‘s split here is three years old (from 2018 Euros), and the aggregates change significantly if she’s closer to the 1:05.7 she split at Euros in May of this year. Both of these aggregates use Evgeny Rylov‘s faster time from 2019, but we’d expect Kliment Kolesnikov to be on this relay, either instead of Rylov on back, or as the freestyler. Anton Chupkov may also be the breaststroker over Kirill Prigoda.

Netherlands
Swimmer Split
Kira Toussaint 58.65
Arno Kamminga 57.90
Nyls Korstanje 51.45
Femke Heemskerk 52.19
TOTAL: 3:40.19

The Dutch don’t really have any other good options on the men’s side, but this relay still lines up pretty well for them, with Arno Kamminga among the best male breaststrokers in the field and Kira Toussaint and Femke Heemskerk providing two top-tier bookends on back and free. They’ll look to come back from a DQ out of the Worlds final in 2019.

Italy
Swimmer Split Swimmer Split
Thomas Ceccon 52.84 Thomas Ceccon 52.84
Nicolo Martingenghi 57.84 Arianna Castiglioni 1:05.67
Elena di Liddo 57.33 Elena di Liddo 57.33
Federica Pellegrini 52.53 Alessandro Miressi 47.16
TOTAL: 3:40.54 3:43.00

Italy has strong breaststroke legs on both sides. Sticking to man/man/woman/woman makes sense, if Thomas Ceccon continues to swim well as the male backstroker (probably Italy’s weakes spot on the women’s side).

Canada
Swimmer Split Swimmer Split
Kylie Masse 57.70 Markus Thormeyer 53.35
Gabe Mastromatteo 1:00.11 Gabe Mastromatteo 1:00.11
Maggie MacNeil 55.56 Maggie MacNeil 55.56
Yuri Kisl 47.89 Penny Oleksiak 52.48
TOTAL: 3:41.26 3:41.50

Canada’s women are the stronger group, so it really comes down to which of Maggie MacNeil, Kylie Masse and Penny Oleksiak they are willing to leave off this relay.

Germany should be in the mix, with Marius Kusch a likely 50-point fly leg and Anna Elendt rising fast in breaststroke. Host nation Japan could make a run, but it’d require Rikako Ikee swimming back to her elite level on fly or free. Belarus should be flying on breaststroke with Ilya Shymanovich and could sneak into the final.

TOP 8 PICKS

Pure math favors the U.S. But we see the busy session adding up more for Team USA’s contenders than some of the other top competitors. Dressel can easily swim three events (100 fly final / 50 free semifinal / 4×100 mixed medley relay) in one session – but that load might reduce him from an unbeatable machine to just a great leg.

The difference-maker for Great Britain, meanwhile, should be fully primed. Peaty does not have a busy Olympic schedule and should be able to really gear up for this race, along with the men’s medley relay and the individual 100 breast.

The Brits might have to deal with doubles for Dawson and/or Guy. The Australians might with McKeown, Temple, and/or Campbell. The U.S. probably will with Dressel, Andrew, and Weitzeil, though Regan Smith isn’t swimming the 200 back and won’t have a double there.

China, meanwhile, might have four fresh legs in the optimal man/man/woman/woman order. That’s going to make China’s relay very hard to beat here, and it’s why we’re selecting them as the pre-meet favorites.

Place Nation
2019 Worlds Finish
1 China N/A
2 Australia 1st
3 USA 2nd
4 Great Britain 3rd
5 Russia 4th
6 Netherlands 8th
7 Italy 6th
8 Canada 5th

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Lex Soft
1 year ago

I am evaluating based on current individual records, doing raw math calculation, to analyze how much threat China will do :
Regan Smith vs Xu Jiayu : 57.92 vs 52.88 = -5.04
Michael Andrew vs Yan Zibei : 58.14 vs 59.21 = +1.07
Dressel vs Zhang Yufei :49.76 vs 55.73 = +5.97
Abbey Weitzel vs Yang Junxuan : 53.52 vs 53.21 = -0.31
In total, I obtain that USA are ahead of China by 1.69 sec.

MichaelTran
1 year ago

Gold: GBR
Dawson: 58.1
Peaty: 56.4
Guy: 50.5
Anderson/Hopkin: 52.5
3:37.5

MichaelTran
1 year ago

GBR is a Really BiG Favourite. The US team has no chance at all because of the power of Peaty. He will destroy Andrew 2s and King at least 8s. Dressel can’t save especially Smith & US sprinters look off

Troyy
1 year ago

What previews haven’t been done yet?

Old Man Chalmers
Reply to  Troyy
1 year ago

28 events

Xman
1 year ago

You forgot about Nick Fink 🤷‍♂️

NoFlyKick
1 year ago

Right, Dressel’s fly is just too much better than the field to justify using him anywhere else.
The woman backstroker drafting off a male backstroker might work for a few meters, but the gap will open, the pool will have whitecaps from all the waves and neutralize any benefit.

Jackman
1 year ago

As far as I can tell – Australia’s best combo is:
McKeown: 57.45
Wilson: 59.16
Temple: 50.45
Campbell: 51.10

3:38.16

Jackman
Reply to  Jackman
1 year ago

In other news – can the Aussie team please get some original surnames. We have a Wilson, Wilson, McKeown, McKeon, Campbell, Campbell, Cook, S-Cook

torchbearer
Reply to  Jackman
1 year ago

Thats funny- maybe use first names like Serena and Venus!…. Cate, Bronte, Kaylee, Emma that works!

Last edited 1 year ago by torchbearer
Lex Soft
Reply to  Jackman
1 year ago

I am not Aussie, but I can tell :
Kaylee McKeown – women’s backstroke, WR holder. But more likely, Australia will put Mitch Larkin in this leg
Mathew Wilson – men’s breaststroke. But he won’t take part, most likely be replaced by Zac S-Cook
Emma McKeon – women’s butterfly
Cate Campbell – their anchor in freestyle

Troyy
Reply to  Jackman
1 year ago

I thought this would be the best too but a weakness is that 3 of 4 have another race earlier in the session. The Larkin Wilson McKeon Campbell only has one double.

Jackman
Reply to  Troyy
1 year ago

Yep I see that. The one saving grace is that Temple will have plenty of time to recover and McKeown has historically been great at doubling up. Plus Larkin’s recent relay performances haven’t filled me with confidence.

Troyy
Reply to  Jackman
1 year ago

I think the most concerning double is Cate’s 50 immediately before the relay. She’s not exactly known for her ability to swim back to back races and to compete for gold the team really needs a big split from her. That particular part of the schedule is really stupid and could’ve been avoided by putting the 800 free there.

Last edited 1 year ago by Troyy
commonwombat
Reply to  Jackman
1 year ago

Where, pray tell, has McKeown ever doubled up in major meets ? 2019 Worlds is it, where she swam both backstroke events plus heats of 4XMED. Evidence that reads more inconclusive than supporting your statement.

Jackman
Reply to  commonwombat
1 year ago

I’m not only referring to major meets Mr Wombat. She’s young and improving so she doesn’t have the luxury of attending many major meets.

This season alone she swam a 57.9 100 Back and a 4:32 400 IM at Qld state with 39 minutes in between. She also was 27.16 Aus and Commonwealth record 50 Back, and 2.08 200 IM in the same session at the 2021 Sydney Open. These may not be major meets but those are all major (international medal-worthy) times.

Last edited 1 year ago by Jackman
dresselgoat
1 year ago

I would pick the Smith/King/Andrew/Dressel if Dressel was a backhalf 100 Free guy

About Jared Anderson

Jared Anderson

Jared Anderson swam for nearly twenty years. Then, Jared Anderson stopped swimming and started writing about swimming. He's not sick of swimming yet. Swimming might be sick of him, though. Jared was a YMCA and high school swimmer in northern Minnesota, and spent his college years swimming breaststroke and occasionally pretending …

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