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

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2020 TOKYO SUMMER OLYMPIC GAMES

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.

THE OTHER GUYS

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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Hswimmer
2 months ago

Kieran only 8th?? No way.

Virtus
Reply to  Hswimmer
2 months ago

What did u expect them to predict?

Hswimmer
Reply to  Virtus
2 months ago

He didn’t have a race at trials, I think he could drop another second or 2

Casas 100 back gold in Fukuoka
Reply to  Hswimmer
2 months ago

Why do you think others won’t drop?

Texas Tap Water
Reply to  Hswimmer
2 months ago

LMFAO

Coach Rob
2 months ago

On my team, we focus on the 50s and 100s. Maybe the 200s if you’re a stud. But the 400s? No thanks. I’m here to coach, not babysit people while they swim hundreds and hundreds of laps. Any real coach would agree with me. All of the downvoters on this comment? They don’t know how to coach.

The Michael Phelps Caterpillar
Reply to  Coach Rob
2 months ago

I have never seen a more disrespectful comment. 50s are fake. Real coaches would force their swimmers to do 10k (meters) workouts at least 3 times a week to build character, endurance, and mental fortitude. Anyone who can’t make the 500 Jr. National cut by 16 years old is cut from my team!

Cate
Reply to  Coach Rob
2 months ago

Neither do you.

Awsi Dooger
Reply to  Coach Rob
2 months ago

Bragging about being lazy and limited. Congratulations

Troyy
Reply to  Awsi Dooger
2 months ago

It’s a joke.

Not Tapered
Reply to  Awsi Dooger
2 months ago

He was also a hot shot golf prodigy growing up, but injury derailed what could have been a PGA run. ⛳🏌️

Khachaturian
Reply to  Coach Rob
2 months ago

What if it was a broken 400?

John
Reply to  Coach Rob
2 months ago

No real coach would agree with except for the USRPT purists maybe

M d e
Reply to  John
2 months ago

USRPT purists wouldn’t agree with this.

They would believe their training model is the best way to approach the challenges presented by that race, so they would approach it differently, but they would be eager to take the challenge on.

From my experiences coaches that by USRPT wholesale definitely don’t lack enthusiasm.

Li Shu
Reply to  Coach Rob
2 months ago

Coach Rob, you continually brighten my day.

Bobo Gigi
2 months ago

Last US gold in that event back in 1984.
Maybe a structural problem?

BadShoulder
Reply to  Bobo Gigi
2 months ago

Natural 500 freestylers being shoehorned into the 100/200 for relays at the club and NCAA levels, perhaps.

Horninco
Reply to  Bobo Gigi
2 months ago

American males hate mid-distance swimming. It’s obvious, right?

Last edited 2 months ago by Horninco
thezwimmer
Reply to  Bobo Gigi
2 months ago

200 free and medley relays were introduced to NCAA in 1989… I have my own theories, but I still can’t explain why we’ve had exceptional distance women since then but never a standout a male

Last edited 2 months ago by thezwimmer
Togger
Reply to  thezwimmer
2 months ago

Perhaps that many of the exceptional distance women are high schoolers?

Distance guys tend to be world class in their late teens, around the time many American studs are undergoing the massive swimming and life upheaval of moving away to swim (for a new coach) in college). Probably compounded by said college coaches then being keen to get their stud freestylers on as many relays as possible.

Awsi Dooger
Reply to  thezwimmer
2 months ago

Women’s distance swimming is always weak internationally. A top dedicated athlete there can rise fast and legitimately aspire to medals. Men’s distance swimming always has more top guys internationally plus the careers are longer than the women. Any American aspiring to top level has a more difficult route while understanding he won’t receive the attention or accolades anyway. NBC does not cut away for a commercial break during Dressel’s races. It might change somewhat now that 800 and 1500 are available.

Last edited 2 months ago by Awsi Dooger
rice
Reply to  Bobo Gigi
2 months ago

It’s hard to figure out what the problem is with US men and this event. I’m reluctant to say its purely a structural problem since the US women have done pretty well in the event over the years. My gut feeling says its more a cultural problem. The US men haven’t had a world beater in the event in many years and because of this fewer age groupers are interested in the event. What age grouper wouldn’t want to swim fly/im/free like MP or sprint like Dressel. I think this also contributes to why US has done so well in backstroke. Each champion inspires the next generation in a sort of virtuous cycle.

Scotty P
Reply to  rice
2 months ago

I would agree. We tend to like fast over here. Probably also correlates with the fact that we’ve haven’t had a Superman of a breaststroker in awhile too. Of course, Peaty is going to make everyone look like an 8&under then proceed to go bench 300 lbs, fly home and put his kid to bed so I digress.

Might be overthinking here but can’t help but wonder.

Jamie5678
Reply to  rice
2 months ago

The key consideration however is surely that it only appears to be effecting men and not women. The US women are very competitive in the distance events. And this isn’t just a Ledecky phenomenon.

It does appear therefore to be a cultural preference rather than some form of structural or institutional bias.

I’d guess – and whilst this is probably true everywhere it’s perhaps more evident in the US – but young women take up swimming for different reasons in comparison to young men in the US and this seemingly steers young men towards sprints and young women more across the programme.

This said, I’m not American so I’d be interested if anyone has an alternative better explanation.

Taa
Reply to  Bobo Gigi
2 months ago

It’s purely a numbers thing. Not many choose to get trained in distance free.

Virtus
2 months ago

Feel like this is rapsys time, maybe 341

Robbos
Reply to  Virtus
2 months ago

Win for Winnington, is my tip. He will go 3.41 minimum.

Troyy
Reply to  Robbos
2 months ago

I think he’ll be 3:41 high at best.

Notanyswimmer
2 months ago

Not a good look for the USA. Time to get rid of SCY – too many NCAA studs that just end up flopping.

Eras
2 months ago

Winnington 3.42.0
McLoughlin 3.42.8
Malyutin 3.43.5
Smith 3.43.8
De Tullio 3.44.0
Rapsys 3.44.5
Detti 3.44.8
Auboeck 3.45.0

Expecting the Aussies to get this. Not a very fast time though.

Eras
2 months ago

After years and years of Sun – Horton – Detti, the youngsters are here

Troyy
Reply to  Eras
2 months ago

Detti will probably win gold now.

Hoosier Daddy
2 months ago

Oh my goodness!!! In lane 9 is the GOAT, the best coach and swimmer ever, RAY LOOZE OF THE USA!!! Everybody thought he was attending Tokyo as only a coach, but no, he is swimming the 400 freestyle!! He swims an astonishing 3:29 and takes gold, silver, and bronze in every single olympic event (not just swimming) for his breathtaking performance!!!!

That is my prediction!

Sighs
Reply to  Hoosier Daddy
2 months ago

Why are you everywhere

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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