2024 Olympics Previews: Is There Another Surprise Loading In The Men’s 400 Freestyle?

2024 PARIS SUMMER OLYMPIC GAMES

By The Numbers — Men’s 400 Freestyle

    • World Record: 3:40.07 — Paul Biedermann, Germany (2009)
    • World Junior Record: 3:44.31 — Petar Mitsin, Bulgaria (2023)
    • Olympic Record: 3:40.14 — Sun Yang, China (2012)
    • 2020 Olympic Champion: Ahmed Hafnaoui, Tunisia — 3:43.36

The men’s 400 freestyle will be the first final of the 2024 Olympics. Typically finding its place somewhere in that first finals session on the Olympic and World Championship schedule, it’s a race that has consistently treated us to surprising champions over the last quad.

Coming into Tokyo, there was a bevy of new contenders hoping to write a new chapter in event history without Sun Yang or Mack Horton in the race for the first time since 2013. In an unexpected twist, Tunisia’s Ahmed Hafnaoui claimed the Olympic gold out of lane 8.

Hafnaoui electrified this race again alongside Sam Short at the 2023 World Championships and they looked set to do battle again in Paris. But Hafnaoui’s presence at the Olympics is now a question mark—there are varying reports about whether he will race at all or will only miss part of the Games.

It’s a hit to this race certainly as another head-to-head between him and Short would’ve been must watch TV, but even if Hafnaoui isn’t in the race we should still have a barnburner on our hands as familiar faces have found new heights in the run up to the Games.

Update July 14th, 2:45pm ET: It is now confirmed that Ahmed Hafnaoui is out of the 2024 Olympics and will not defend his 400 free Olympic Title

The Hot Hands

At the untraditional 2024 World Championships in Doha, the men’s 400 freestyle final treated us to our first upset of the meet. Kim Woo-min jumped jumped out to an early lead and held on for the win and his first world championship title in 3:42.71. The swim also gave South Korea their first Worlds medallist in the 400 free since Park Tae-Hwan in 2011.

But Kim hasn’t stopped there. At the Monaco stop of this year’s Mare Nostrum tour, the 22-year-old bettered his time from Doha with a 3:42.42, a .29 second drop which marks the 12th fastest performance all-time.

Kim Woo-min, courtesy Fabio Cetti

In Doha, Kim jumped on the race from the start. He took over at the 100m mark, flipped at the halfway point in 1:49.17 and held on against late charges from the likes of Elijah Winnington, Lukas Märtens, and Guilherme Costa. He altered his strategy a bit in Monaco, flipping at 200m in 1:49.94. This strategy may be what helps him follow up with an Olympic podium finish because in Paris not only will there be swimmers who can go out as fast or faster than a 1:49, but they can also close hard.

Kim’s riding the wave of a new best time and the title of reigning world champion, but it’s Märtens’ who’s got the fastest time of the season. At the German National Championships in April, Märtens put together the fastest 400 freestyle since 2012, crushing 3:40.33 and coming within .26 seconds of Paul Biedermann’s super-suited world record. He’s been strong all season; he swam 3:41.98 at the Gothaer and Friends meet the week before German Nationals which just .38 seconds off his then-personal best.

Märtens broke out in the spring of 2022 at the Stockholm Open and though he didn’t replicate his in-season time at the 2022 World Championships, he did still earn silver in this race. Since then, he’s been a consistent medalist, earning bronze in 2023 and again in 2024. Last year, he didn’t put up as big times in the spring; he went on to earn bronze behind Short and Hafnaoui in a season-best 3:42.20 that was off his then lifetime best (3:41.60).

But now, he’s put up a big time again in the spring that will have everyone chasing him in Paris. His 3:40.33 is the fastest in the world this year by over a second. He’s become the gold medal favorite (or at the very least co-favorite) but will need to finally put all the pieces together again on the sport’s biggest stage.

Australia’s Answer

Short and Elijah Winnington have picked up the Australian mid-distance mantle and run with it. Both have won a world championship title in the last quad and together, they form a legitimate two-pronged attack for Australia to put two swimmers on the podium.

Sam Short and Elijah Winnington, with permission, Stephen Thomas
sharpfocuspics.com

Let’s start with their most recent world champion. Short won a thrilling race with Hafnaoui in Fukuoka, edging out the Tunisian by .02 seconds for the gold. After a breakthrough spring, Short followed up by dropping even more time at 2023 Worlds, posting a 3:40.68 for the win—a personal best that is now the 5th fastest time in history.

Meanwhile, Winnington won the 2022 world title in 3:41.22, which now stands as the 8th fastest mark all-time. He finished a disappointing 7th place in 2023, swimming a 3:44.26 which was slower than he was at Australian Trials. But he got back on the podium in Doha, earning silver in 3:42.86.

He improved that season-best at the Australian Open, out-dueling Short and clocking 3:41.41. That was an encouraging swim for Winnginton as it’s just .19 seconds from his personal best. Short took second in 3:41.64 and for both of them, those marks are faster than what they went during June’s Australian Olympic Trials.

Short was sick during the meet and was also slower at 2023 World Trials than he had been in-season before he exploded in Fukuoka. He should be right up there battling with Martens for gold. Winnginton’s capable of joining that race as well, but like Martens, will need to put it all together at the right time, which he has struggled with in the past, like in Tokyo and Fukuoka.

More Medal Threats 

The Australians have a tough 1-2 punch in this race but Germany’s duo stacks up well against them. Germany’s mid-distance/distance scene has become quite cutthroat and it’s Oliver Klemet who joins Martens here in the 400 free.

At the Gothaer and Friends meet in April, Klemet, 22, swam a new personal best 3:42.81, which checks in as the 5th fastest time in the world this season. Klemet is slated to race both pool and open water events in Paris—he dropped the 800 free to focus on open water—but the pool events come first on the schedule.

Austria’s Felix Auboeck has also been on form this season. At the 2024 European Championship, he broke his own Austrian record in 3:43.24. The time ranks him 6th fastest time season, just behind Klemet.

Auboeck has been a consistent presence in the 400 freestyle final on the senior international stage recently, though it’s been a challenge for him to be as consistently a medal threat in the final. He did get out-touched for bronze by Guilherme Costa in 2022, but followed that up with 8th in 2023 and again in 2024. His personal best from Euros should be a confidence boost for him, though he’ll likely need another drop to get back into the top half of the final.

That 2022 Worlds bronze is Costa’s only hardware from this race on the Olympic and World Championship stage. But that stat is a little deceiving—over the past quad Costa has proven himself to be a serious factor in these finals.

He’s been 4th at the last two World Championships, clocking 3:43.58 in 2023 and 3:44.22 in 2024. The former was just off his personal best and South American record of 3:43.31, set at those 2022 Worlds.

So, while he doesn’t have a personal best that ranks him in the top 10 all time like his biggest competition, Costa has shown that he knows how to show up at his best at the right moment. In particular, he has killer closing speed, which he most recently used to propel himself from 6th to 4th over the last 100 meters in Doha.

Pushing Into Contention

At the 2023 World Championships, it took a 3:45.43 to make the final. Ten men have already been faster than that mark this year and there’s another six swimmers that we expect in the field who have been in the 3:45 range.

Lucas Henveaux, Danas Rapsys, and Zhang Zhanshou join the Germans, Australians, Kim, and Costa under the 3:45.43 cut off from Fukuoka. Henveaux leads that trio with the 3:44.61 he swam at 2024 Worlds for a new Belgian record. He’s had a sharp improvement curve in the last 12 months, first putting up 3:46.59 for a huge PB in April 2023 then dropping almost another two seconds with that 5th place swim in Doha.

Rapsys, 29, showed a flash of his old form on the 2023 World Cup. At the Berlin stop, Rapsys threw down a 3:44.86 for his fastest performance since 2019. He was way off that time in Doha, finishing 20th in 3:48.72, though he did win his first LCM Worlds medal with a silver in the 200 free later in the meet. He improved at Euros with a 3:47.87 for 4th, just getting out-touched by 2023 Worlds finalist Antonio Djakovic. Rapsys hasn’t found consistency in this event in the last several years. So while at his best he can make the final, it’s hard to pencil him in considering both his inconsistency and the tight field.

Recently turned 17, Zhang Zhanshou turned heads at 2024 Worlds. After collecting five medals at the 2023 World Juniors, Zhang contributed to two gold medal winning relays in Doha: the 4×100 free and 4×200 free relay. Now Zhang arrives in Paris looking to carve out space for himself in the individual events.  In December 2023, he swam a new personal best of 3:45.11, which ranks him 10th in the world this season and puts him in the mix for the final.

Zhang sits just three places ahead of his countryman Pan Zhanle on the season world rankings. At Chinese Nationals in April, the 100 freestyle world record holder clocked a 3:45.58 for the win, nearing Zhang’s time. The time means Pan will have to consider whether he will race the 400 free in Paris. It certainly puts him in the heart of the fight for the final. But it’s not a lock and Pan will certainly have other goals in mind for this meet, not to mention the fact that his schedule is sure to be filled with relays.

And of course, there’s the world junior record holder. Petar Mitstin broke Horton’s nine-year-old mark at 2023 European Juniors, ripping 3:44.31. Mitsin didn’t race at 2023 Worlds after that swim, even though it ranked him 4th in the world in the lead up to the championships. He did race in Doha but was off the pace, finishing 23rd (3:49.43). He should be much closer to his 2023 form this summer, which could propel him into his first senior international final. Mitsin was originally tapped to be a flagbearer for Bulgaria at the opening ceremonies, but Bulgarian National Radio reported that given the time commitment and the fact that the 400 freestyle is the next day, Lyubomir Epitropov will take over so Mitsin can prepare.

The Americans in Paris

Speaking of the surprises in this race, we got another one at the U.S. Olympic Trials. Aaron Shackell upset a more experienced field for the win, earning his first Olympic berth and easily clearing the Olympic Qualifying Time for the first time in his career in a 3:45.46. It was a 1.54 second drop for Shackell, who is now 11th in the world this season.

The drop puts him squarely in the hunt for a finals lane. But of course, the big question is will he be able to match that time in Paris?

Shackell’s also got the now two-time Olympian Kieran Smith by his side. It’s no secret that the 400 freestyle has been one of the American men’s weakest events for years, but amid ‘A’ cut struggles, Smith has been a solid presence for the U.S. in this event. Since qualifying for Tokyo and winning a surprising bronze there, Smith represented the U.S. at the 2022 and 2023 World Championships in this race.

He’s been all but a lock to qualify to represent in the U.S but has struggled to replicate his Tokyo performance on the international stage in the years since. He won bronze in Tokyo with a 3:43.94 lifetime best, but has not been under 3:45 since that swim. At 2022 Worlds, he finished 7th and then missed the final in 2023 by a tenth and took 9th.

Smith now holds a season-best of 3:45.71 from his 2nd place finish at Trials. That ranks him 15th in the world; the time puts him right there with Shackell in the hunt for a finals lane, but both have work to do. He hasn’t been under 3:45 since those Tokyo Olympics, and it is definitely going to take under 3:45 to make the Olympic final.

The Verdict

After a few surprising winners taking advantage of wide open fields, it seems like some order has been established in the men’s 400 freestyle. It’s hard to see anyone breaking into the upper echelon of talent that Märtens, Short, Winnginton, and Kim have established (plus Hafnaoui if he’s there). But then again, that’s the point of an upset, right?

But even if there isn’t an upset, there’s still plenty of room for surprise in this race. It should certainly be an exciting race between the top four, with other swimmers like Costa, Klemet, and Auboeck looking to break up the party. And given the times that we’ve seen in the last year, maybe the surprise won’t be the podium but the times that they throw down–do we need to be on world record watch for the very first final of the meet?

SwimSwam’s Picks

Place Name Nation Season Best Lifetime Best
1 Sam Short Australia 3:41.64 3:40.68
2 Lukas Märtens Germany 3:40.33 3:40.33
3 Kim Woo-min South Korea 3:42.42 3:42.42
4 Elijah Winnington Australia 3:41.41 3:41.22
5 Guilherme Costa Brazil 3:44.22 3:43.31
6 Oliver Klemet Germany 3:42.81 3:42.81
7 Felix Auboeck Austria 3:43.24 3:43.24
8 Lucas Henveaux Belgium 3:44.61 3:44.61

Dark Horse: Ahmed Jaouadi (Tunisia) — Could Tunisia pull off the upset in the men’s 400 freestyle twice? With Hafnaoui’s participation uncertain at best, it looked like Tunisia would be without a finalist in this race. But Ahmed Jaouadi may be their answer. In March, he swam a two second personal best 3:45.95 that now ranks him as the third-fastest Tunisian in history. He’s a bigger medal threat in the distance races, but could throw down something here at the short end of his range that lands him a spot in the final.

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Misty Hyman
8 days ago

Odds are now available…

Martens +125
Short +190
Winnington +250
Kim +850
Klemet +1200
Aubock +2000
Da Costa +2500
Wiffen +3300
Henveaux +3300
Smith +4000
Zhang +4000
Rapsys +5000
Shackell +5000
Pan +5000
Bird +6000
Djackovic +6600
Johannson +6600
Jaoaudi +6600
Mitstin +10000

Weinstein-Smith-Ledecky-Sims
11 days ago

Anyone but an Australian!

Guantanamo Bay
Reply to  Weinstein-Smith-Ledecky-Sims
14 hours ago

UPVOTE!

swimfast
12 days ago

As always, they’ll all be bunched up at the 300, 2 seconds under world record pace; then one or two will split off and it’ll be a race, but will turn at the 350 +0.5 behind WR pace, and the winner will go 3:41-high.

PFA
12 days ago

Ngl I think there is a few names in here that have faster seed times that will miss the final altogether. I somewhat have an idea but if it happens it’s only going to be 1-2 names for that.

Rafael
13 days ago

First time that swimswam is not saying Costa will miss final

Sub13
13 days ago

I would like Short to win and I think he would be significant favourite if he was healthy. However, I’m not sure if he’ll be at his best.

If he somehow is at his top I have him taking the 400/800 but I fear he won’t win either and that will be a real shame.

commonwombat
Reply to  Sub13
12 days ago

Read this one similarly; frankly its a (select the expletive of your choice) of a race to pick out of the big 4 (Maertens/Short/Woomin & Winnington). Each with very solid cases but all with valid questionmarks.

Like you, if we were talking 2023 Short, then I’d tip this one his way (not sure about the 800) but hasn’t looked to be on that level.

Peter
13 days ago

Short was so sick at Aussie trials he could barely get in the pool. He will take gold.

Hunting 3:39
13 days ago

Pricing this race seems to be a little tougher than others.

I guess the top-tier has to be the big 4 of Kim,Martens,Short and Winnington. Setting odds for each seems discretionary. My guess is Martens is the default favorite with the fastest PB. I suspect Kim will be overvalued as reigning World Champ and Winnington will be favored over Short because of Aussie Trials. My play would be on Short.

Martens +300
Winnington +350
Kim +400
Short +450
Field +650

Last edited 13 days ago by Hunting 3:39

About Sophie Kaufman

Sophie Kaufman

Sophie grew up in Boston, Massachusetts, which means yes, she does root for the Bruins, but try not to hold that against her. At 9, she joined her local club team because her best friend convinced her it would be fun. Shoulder surgery ended her competitive swimming days long ago, …

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