2020 TOKYO SUMMER OLYMPIC GAMES
- When: Pool swimming: Saturday, July 24 – Sunday, August 1, 2021
- Open Water swimming: Wednesday, August 4 – Thursday, August 5, 2021
- Where: Olympic Aquatics Centre / Tokyo, Japan
- Heats: 7 PM / Semifinals & Finals: 10:30 AM (Local time)
- Full aquatics schedule
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Saturday morning at the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics saw the debut of the mixed 400 medley relay, and personally, I loved it.
The drama of the wild swings, the atmosphere of each country’s stars-among-stars on the same relay, the intense analysis of each team’s lineup – every bit of it was great.
There are some who will always poo-poo the race as a “sideshow” event, but based on social media reaction, an exciting first edition of the race won some people over. Based on the way Great Britain celebrated their win, I think it’s safe to say that the athletes loved it, too.
Like all new events, this one will continue to develop as coaches and athletes get more experience in it. Coaches will get better at making lineups, teams will get faster, and engagement will rise.
Here are the 5 takeaways I had from the first-ever edition.
It’s on the Wrong Day
There were too many doubles impacting this race, as was evidenced by the number of swimmers using the diving well to cool down versus retreating to the actual warmup pool behind the curtains.
FINA so far has tried to wedge the 3 new Olympic events in without disrupting or substantially altering the rest of the schedule. Perhaps it’s time to re-evaluate the whole schedule from scratch. If we continue to try to fit it around other things, then one proposal could be to run it on day 4, where the men’s 100 free semifinal would be the most obvious conflict – and most countries shouldn’t be using men on their mixed medley finals (more on that later). But at least you’d avoid triples like Caeleb Dressel had.
Basically, you could swap it with the men’s 800 free relay, if you wanted.
There’s Some Flexibility, But There’s Definitely a Wrong Order
Every relay but one, the United States, used a male swimmer on the breaststroke leg. Every relay but one, the United States, used a female swimmer on the freestyle leg.
The gaps are too big there to matter, and the US coaches erred in their lineup. We don’t know if they would have medaled anyway, but they could have been faster. Even an on fire Jacoby (let’s say she goes 1:04.6) and a less-than-his-best Michael Andrew (let’s say he goes 59.0, slower than his flat starts at this meet) still leaves too big of a gap for this to make sense. The US didn’t get an on-fire Jacoby (she wasn’t bad, but at 1:05.0 was slower than her flat-start time), which exacerbates the comparison.
Further emphasizing this is how much the Brits, with Adam Peaty on their breaststroke leg, pulled ahead of the Americans after two splits. Their leadoff Kathleen Dawson split 58.8 – slower than she’s been all week – but they still had a 1.4 second lead over the Americans at that point of the race with each country using 1 male and 1 female.
There is some flexibility in the other legs, but the one inconvertible truth is that the breaststroke leg for any top-level swimming nation should be male.
Relay Lineups, Olympic final, mixed medley relay:
The US Coaches Made Mistakes on Their Lineup
We’ve talked about this before, but there are some inconvenient truths for the US at this meet with regards to relay selection. Generational dogma will have to be reconsidered, perhaps going all the way back to the selection procedures. Do you consider bringing a 3rd male butterflier, if it’s close, to avoid the triple here, for example?
There are many, many ways that this relay could have been better:
- If you insist that you must have Dressel on the relay (fly/free), then swap the front-half and go Regan Smith-(any of your male breaststrokers)
- If you don’t trust Michael Andrew’s form, then use Andrew Wilson (his 59.0 in prelims still would have improved this relay)
- If you insist on having a female butterflier and male freestyler, then let a fresh Zach Apple swim over a triple-event Dressel (Apple’s free relay anchor was better than Dressel’s mixed medley anchor)
- If you think Abbey Weitzeil will be too tired after the double, then use Erika Brown. She’s been good enough on medley relays.
Here are the best on-paper lineups for the medley relays, as calculated by InsightLane. This doesn’t account for doubles, triples, washout, drafting, or any of those other variables. Note that the 5 best US combinations all include male breaststrokers. One of them doesn’t include Dressel, and that’s even without considering his triple.
— InsightLane (@insightlane) July 31, 2021
And to be clear, the U.S. swimmers performed well. Ryan Murphy was right on his individual time, Lydia Jacoby was right on her individual time even with her goggles in her mouth, Torri Huske was right on her individual time, and Dressel was 46.99 on his 3rd race in 90 minutes. That’s a good effort, and no medley relay will ever have all four swimmers go best time -.4, especially at the end of the meet. But, they weren’t set up with the best lineup.
And the result was a 5th place finish: the worst Olympic finish by an American relay team in history.
“Fifth place is unacceptable for USA Swimming and we’re aware of that,” Dressel acknowledged. “The standard is gold.”
But with the 9 or 10 coaches the US has on staff, someone should have stepped in, slowed down the analysis, and said “we can’t go against the numbers here,” no matter what the guts said.
And the really concerning part is that the U.S. has made errors on this relay before, and don’t seem to be learning. Murphy-King at Worlds in 2019 instead of Smith-Wilson cost them gold. At Pan Pacs in 2018, the US went Baker-Andrew-Dressel instead of Murphy-Andrew-Dahlia, and that cost them silver. There almost needs to be a pre-Olympic mixed medley summit where coaches develop ‘the book’ on how they’re going to choose the lineup in order to stop making the same errors over-and-over again.
In the past, the National Team Director was a coach who ultimately oversaw these whole proceedings at more of a 10,000-foot level. Since Rio, though, that position has been reimagined, leaving more control in the hands of the named staff. Maybe it’s time to go back to the more traditional National Team Director role, but ultimately something needs to change.
James Guy is a Relay Animal
British swimmer James Guy, who split 50.00 on Britain’s World Record setting mixed medley, is becoming one of those rare swimmers who consistently crushes their individual performances with relay swims. He actually scratched his lone individual event, the 100 fly, to focus on relays this week, and he was huge all week. He split 1:44.40 – a better swim than 200 free godl medalist Tom Dean – on the 800 free relay. He was 50.00 on the fly leg of the mixed medley. And if he can come close to that again on the men’s medley, that relay will be uncontested as well.
We’ve seen this from him before. At 2019 Worlds, he was 51.62 in the 100 fly final and split 50.81 on the 400 medley relay final. He was 1:45.95 in the 200 free and split 1:45.45 on the relay.
There’s this belief that everyone is going to swim .5-.7 faster on a relay than their individual, and then there’s the reality: it very rarely happens, especially at long meets. James Guy consistently does that, or better.
It’s Hard to Tell How Teams Are Doing
NBC, ISL, FINA, EuroSport, or maybe even Amazon needs to fine-tune the way the relay is presented. In a normal race, we know about what it means when an athlete is a body length, two body lengths, three body lengths ahead of another. We know what overcoming those gaps has to look like.
In this relay, because you have men racing women and women racing men, these gaps can be misleading and, frankly, a little disorienting. So figuring out some way to help us understand if the gap is too big for Dressel to close, or if Peaty has put things out of reach, or if McKeon can hold on. Not so much that you destroy the mystery and thrill of the finish, but enough to give us an idea of what a 5 or 6 second gap (which is about the M-F gap in each stroke) looks like.