Tokyo 2020 Olympic Swimming Previews: New Cast of Characters In Men’s 400 Free

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Men’s 400 Freestyle

  • World Record: Paul Biedermann (GER) – 3:40.07 (2009)
  • Olympic Record: Sun Yang (CHN) – 3:40.14 (2012)
  • World Junior Record: Mack Horton (AUS) – 3:44.60 (2014)
  • 2016 Olympic Champion: Mack Horton (AUS) – 3:41.55

For the better part of the last decade, the men’s 400 freestyle has had two men in starring roles: Sun Yang and Mack Horton.

But, for the first time since 2013, the field won’t feature the forever-rivals at an Olympics or World Championships this summer in Tokyo. It will also be the first time Sun is absent from the event in major international competition (Olympics or LC Worlds) since 2005.

The antagonistic lead, Sun saw any hopes of competing slashed with his CAS hearing in June, when his eight-year suspension was cut in half, but kept him ineligible to vie for Olympic glory.

Horton, the protagonist who has long taken a strong stance against Sun and his doping history, fell victim to the talented field at the Australian Olympic Trials, placing third in a time that could easily be good enough for a spot on the podium at the Games.

Sun has been an absolute force in this event over the last two quads, winning Olympic gold in London, silver in Rio, and four straight World Championship titles. Horton upset Sun to win that Olympic final in 2016, and has also won consecutive silvers at Worlds ,along with the Commonwealth title in 2018.

Now, as the two have been written out of the script, at least for the time being, it’s time for a new crop of swimmers to step into the spotlight and get some eyes on them in primetime.

Aussie Gold Hunters

What better place to start than with the two men who unseated the incumbent Horton?

Elijah Winnington has been knocking on the door for some time now, and at 21, is now set for a major breakout.

In 2019, Winnington cracked the 3:45-barrier for the first time at the Australian Championships in April (3:44.68), but was unable to replicate that swim two months later at the World Championship Trials, failing to make the Australian team in 3:48.45.

A similar trend arose the year prior, when the Gold Coast native added nearly three seconds from the Pan Pac Trials (3:45.98) to the championships (3:48.83) one month later in 2018.

While it remains to be seen how he’ll perform in Rio, Winnington’s experiences the last few years should give him a solid base of knowledge in order to execute an optimal performance in Tokyo. He dropped a PB of 3:43.90 at the Queensland Championships this past December, won the Aussie Championships in April in 3:45.69, and then unloaded a massive 3:42.65 to win the Olympic Trials in an incredibly competitive battle with Jack McLoughlin (3:43.27) and Horton (3:43.92).

Entering the Olympics as the only man in the field to have cracked 3:43, Winnington appears poised to take over the post long held by Sun and become the star of the men’s 400 free.

McLoughlin, 26, has shown flashes of brilliance in his career, and truly performed at his best when it mattered most at Trials, as his time was almost a second under his previous best of 3:44.20 set at the 2018 Pan Pacs. With one LC World, Commonwealth and Pan Pac gold medal to his name, “Jacky Boy” has put himself in position to complete his trophy case with an Olympic title.

European Vacation

Italian Gabriele Detti has led the European charge in the men’s 400 free as of late, rattling off three consecutive bronze medals in the event at the 2016 Olympics, 2017 Worlds and 2019 Worlds—all behind Sun and Horton.

Detti has been incredibly consistent in hitting 3:43s, having done so eight times, with the most recent one coming in August of 2020. The only years since 2016 in which he hasn’t gone 3:43 are 2018, when he was battling a shoulder injury, and 2021. Having been 3:44.65 at the Italian Olympic Trials, the 26-year-old seems poised to return in his recurring role of clocking 3:43, if not quicker, based on what he was able to produce last year under difficult training conditions.

Nazionale Marco De Tullio

Gabriele Detti and Marco De Tullio. Photo: Giorgio Scala/DBM/Insidefoto

His Italian countryman Marco De Tullio often flies under the radar due to the presence of Detti and Gregorio Paltrinieri on the country’s distance freestyle scene, but De Tullio has quietly been an elite 400 freestyler recently, cracking 3:45 each of the last three years.

At the 2019 World Championships, De Tullio placed fifth in 3:44.86, and pushed his best time down to 3:44.74 at the Italian Championships in April in a head-to-head clash with Detti.

Then we have Danas Rapsys, who may be a bit of a wildcard. The Lithuanian lightning bolt holds a best time of 3:43.36, and has been sub-3:44 on two other occasions, but all three came in 2019. Since that breakout year, which also saw him touch first in the World Championship 200 free final before being disqualified for a false start, Rapsys has “only” been 3:45.39. That came at May’s European Championships, and it’s also worth noting he didn’t have to go as fast to qualify for Lithuania’s Olympic team as some others have had to do at their ultra-competitive trials meets.

But Rapsys’ ultimate result in Tokyo will largely depend on his tactics.

danas rapsys

Danas Rapsys. Photo: Mine Kasapoglu

Rapsys has great front-end and closing ability, but the question is whether or not he can put the middle portion of the race together while still taking advantage of his natural speed. When going his best time in May 2019, Rapsys was out in 1:50.2 at the 200. Two months later at Worlds, he flipped in 1:51.8, biding his time in the pack, and couldn’t overcome the other great closers and ended up outside of the medals.

With so many strong back-enders, Rapsys’ best bet to win a medal is to take it out fast. If he’s hanging around the bulk of the field the whole race, and tries to leave a huge push for the last 50, he hasn’t utilized his best weapon.

Russia’s Martin Malyutin is arguably the best closer in the entire field, with the ability to seemingly turn his tempo on a dime and post blazing-fast back-end splits. Coming off a best time of 3:44.18 at Euros, winning the gold, he’ll likely need to be out faster than he was there (1:52.8) if he wants to land on the podium. On the flip side, if he’s with the leaders with 100 to go, no one is safe.

Among the other Europeans who should factor in the final include former NCAA star Felix Auboeck, who has produced three of the four-fastest 400s of his career over the last year, including a 3:44.51 at the Swim Open Stockholm in April and a silver-medal showing at Euros behind Malyutin.

For Germany, their top challenger will be 19-year-old Lukas Märtens after Florian Wellbrock dropped the event. Märtens was just 15th at the 2019 World Juniors two years ago in 3:54.22, but dropped a scorching 3:44.86 to take second to Wellbrock at the German Trials in April.

Märtens’ time to push for a podium spot may not come until Paris, but with nothing to lose he could be dangerous.

Aleksandr Egorov (Russia), Henrik Christiansen (Norway), Antonio Djakovic (Switzerland), Henning Mühlleitner (Germany) and Kieran Bird (Great Britain) are some other Europeans who appear to be on the outside looking in for now, but a best time from any of them could land them in the top eight.

American Hustle

The lone swimmer yet to be mentioned who has broken 3:45 since the beginning of 2019 is U.S. Trials winner Kieran Smith, who followed through on the promise he’s shown the past few years in the NCAA by posting a three-second best of 3:44.86.

Like Rapsys, the name of the game for Smith will be speed, as it’s too risky to rely on your last 50 when numerous men in the field can close in 26-plus. Smith was forced to swim his own race in Omaha, winning by almost three and a half seconds, and would benefit from following a similar strategy in Tokyo.

Landing on the first session of the meet, the men’s 400 free prelims are usually ultra-competitive, and it’s going to be a dogfight to claim spots in the final. Pacing off your heat, and then finding yourself in the mad-dash for the wall in the last 15 meters, is not something Smith will want to get caught up in.

His teammate Jake Mitchell, who qualified for the team via a time trial, would have to be considered a long shot to final. But if he can go 3:45.8 swimming on his own, he should be able to put together something similar in the prelims, which should put him in the fight.


Some of the other names that have been in the 3:45-46 range and will vie for a spot in the final include China’s Ji Xinjie, Brazil’s Guilherme Costa and Tunisia’s Ahmed Hafnaoui.

Hafnaoui, just 18, entered 2021 with a best of 3:49.90, and has brought that all the way down to 3:46.16, done at the French Elite Championships in June. Following in the footsteps of Tunisian legend Ous Mellouli, Hafnaoui is certainly someone to watch for in the coming years.

Top 8 Picks

Place Swimmer Country Best Time Since 2016 Olympics
1 Elijah Winnington Australia 3:42.65 – 2021
2 Gabriele Detti Italy 3:43.23 – 2019
3 Martin Malyutin Russia 3:44.18 – 2021
4 Jack McLoughlin Australia 3:43.27 – 2021
5 Danas Rapsys Lithuania 3:43.36 – 2019
6 Marco De Tullio Italy 3:44.74 – 2021
7 Lukas Märtens Germany 3:44.86 – 2021
8 Kieran Smith United States 3:44.86 – 2021

Dark Horse: Gabor Zombori, Hungary

Zombori wowed us by winning the 2019 World Junior title in a time of 3:46.06 at just 16 years of age. Now 18, he hasn’t approached that time since, with his next-fastest coming at May’s European Championships in 3:48.88. We know the talent is there—was 2019 simply a cameo, or can he orchestrate a triumphant return?

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Not Tapered
1 year ago

That 3:40.14 textile still amazing. Damn near had that super suit record.

Gogo bibi
1 year ago

Podium: rapsys lijah detti

Last edited 1 year ago by Gogo bibi
1 year ago

I think there is a good chance that Märtens will go at least 3:43, especially if decided to drop the 1500 free and focused on the 200/400 free in training. Not sure if he can contend for a medal, but i would be shocked if he wouldn’t make the final (comfortably).

Last edited 1 year ago by AnEn
Gogo bibi
Reply to  AnEn
1 year ago

Who the hell is martens?

1 year ago

Does anyone know the relative splits of Winnington and Malyutin in the last 50m coming home at aussie trials and at euros ?

Reply to  Verram
1 year ago

Their last 100:

Winnington 27.89 + 27.34 = 55.23
Malyutin 27.52 + 26.60 = 54.12

Reply to  Troyy
1 year ago

Wow thanks Troy .. so winnington needs to be at least 1.5 seconds ahead of malyutin after 300m to hold him off or increase his closing speed in that last lap

Reply to  Verram
1 year ago

Malyutin was @ 2.50.06 at 300 metres mark
Winnington was @2.47.42 at 300 mark.

So he 2.5 second lead & was ahead i time by 1.5 seconds at end of race.

Reply to  Robbos
1 year ago

I really wish Prime had uploaded the men’s 400 free from trials to Youtube.

Reply to  Robbos
1 year ago

Yeah so more than likely malyutin will try to sit on winnington and try to pass him in last lap

Reply to  Robbos
1 year ago

EW just needs to swim 3:42
Game over

1 year ago

This my hottest and most ridiculous take of the meet: Kieran smith Gold 4:40.99

Reply to  Yabo
1 year ago

He may need to be a little faster than 4.40……

Reply to  Joel
1 year ago


1 year ago

Completely unrelated, but I think it would be really cool to see an article on relay anchor splits, to get a better idea of how relays might shape up

1 year ago

Arnie’s training partner
I’d suspect something special from EW

Last edited 1 year ago by Stephen
1 year ago

Such an open event. I get the feeling this is Detti’s time to shine after collecting numerous silver and bronze medals throughout his career.

1. Detti
2. Winnington
3. Rapsys

About James Sutherland

James Sutherland

James swam five years at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario, specializing in the 200 free, back and IM. He finished up his collegiate swimming career in 2018, graduating with a bachelor's degree in economics. In 2019 he completed his graduate degree in sports journalism. Prior to going to Laurentian, James swam …

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