5 Takeaways from the Inaugural Olympic Mixed Medley Relay

2020 TOKYO SUMMER OLYMPIC GAMES

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:

Back Breast Fly Free
Great Britain F M M F
China M M F F
Australia F M M F
Italy M M F F
USA M F F M
Netherlands F M M F
Russia M M F F
Israel F M M F
4 F/4M 7M/1F 4M/4F 7F/1M

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.

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.

After the race, American coaches Dave Durden and Greg Meehan admitted that they “overanalyzed” the race in using a flawed lineup. They said that they did the math and then went on “gut feeling.”

“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.

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PhillyMark
1 month ago

What’s the point of over-analyzing your lineup if you go with your gut feeling in the end?

T S
1 month ago

Y’all did James dirty with that pic.

James Guy-Cry
Reply to  T S
1 month ago

Yep

Wave 1.5 Qualifier
1 month ago

Bummed USA came in 5th? Bummed that this event will ultimately favor some nations over other equally-qualified nations based simply on the gender of their stars in each stroke? Sure.

But I’m keeping the glass half full. I think this gives us fans and the athletes/coaches a unique chess match each and every Worlds and Olympics moving forward. I’ve reminded myself to quit stressing about this.

Jabroni Pepperoni
Reply to  Wave 1.5 Qualifier
1 month ago

Yeah, every swimming event favors the nations that have swimmers elligible to compete in that event. Thats kinda how the whole sport works.

Wave 1.5 Qualifier
Reply to  Jabroni Pepperoni
1 month ago

This isn’t even worth dignifying with a response.

Last edited 1 month ago by Wave 1.5 Qualifier
Oof
Reply to  Wave 1.5 Qualifier
1 month ago

I respect the mental gymnastics you went through to simply avoid admitting US isn’t the best at this event. Truly impressive, albeit kinda pathetic too

Definitely Not Sun Yang
1 month ago

If brits win tonight, Jame Guy will be the second most decorated male swimmer (in gold medals) behind dressel and he really deserves all the respect in the world. He’s the common denominator of all the brit’s sucess. he heralded an era of british freestyle excellence with his performances in 2015 and then expanded his game to be world class in butterfly, making their relays threatening across the board. Team first kind of guy.

DCSwim
Reply to  Definitely Not Sun Yang
1 month ago

“What’s your best event?” “Relays.”

Definitely Not Sun Yang
Reply to  DCSwim
1 month ago

James Guy knows where and when to devote his energy. we’ll see if a less conservative approach works with michael andrews tonight…

Martin McEvoy
Reply to  Definitely Not Sun Yang
1 month ago

There is a specialism to being a relay animal – and having a proper one on your team is golddust – GBR have THREE such animals – Peaty, Guy and Scott, all amazing individual swimmers, but absolute murderers in relays, and possibly the making of a few in Hopkin, Abbie Wood (a real swiss army knife of a relay swimmer) and Freya Anderson (though she was hampered by injury this meet)

Martin McEvoy
Reply to  DCSwim
1 month ago

“Have you won much in those?” “Three Olympic Golds, 2 Olympic silvers, you know, just the usual”

Jamie5678
Reply to  DCSwim
1 month ago

It ought to be remembered that Britain’s system is probably different to other countries. Their funding model is generated by the national lottery and performance based. And by-and-large as far as I’m aware, the model is pretty brutal. It rewards medals and especially golds. I personally don’t agree with this model as it means you end up chasing low hanging fruit and, worse, Olympic events where it’s financially prohibitive for most countries to enter. Britain are brilliant at the sailing and dressage where it’s basically Britain’s funded athletes and European royalty (I’m exaggerating there of course a bit).

Anyhow James Guy winning golds in the relay rather than coming 4th in the fly has probably bankrolled a number of young… Read more »

Martin McEvoy
Reply to  Jamie5678
1 month ago

The Brits win relays rarely enough that they treasure them as ‘real’ medals. This year, they’ve knocked it out of the park in general – Triathlon mixed relay, swimming mixed relay, though they were also rans in the most boring one, the Athletics mixed relay – watch out for a Road Relay time trial in the cycling soon, and if there was a modern pentathlon mixed relay as UIPM wanted, they’d win that too…They are a legitimate test of a nations depth, and rest assured, the medals are the same colours and weight as the individual ones…

LBSWIM
Reply to  DCSwim
1 month ago

#JennyThompson

Oof
Reply to  Definitely Not Sun Yang
1 month ago

Wouldn’t he be tied with Peaty?

Dressel will come 3rd in 100 free in Paris
Reply to  Oof
1 month ago

Yes you’re right.

Last edited 1 month ago by Dressel will come 3rd in 100 free in Paris
Shadia
Reply to  Definitely Not Sun Yang
1 month ago

After a terrible home London Olympics for us what Peaty and Guy did rejuvenate the team after is unmatched best friends winning gold together just wonderful

Sub13
1 month ago

Wait, Dressel said that the standard for team USA is gold! Isn’t that the opposite of what commenters have been saying this whole week: that all medals are equal?

Are we going to accuse Dressel of disrespecting silver and bronze medalists?

Swim nerd
Reply to  Sub13
1 month ago

The US expects gold from it’s swimmers

Rob
1 month ago

Excellent points Braden, my stomach dropped as I watched the race unfold. We use hard data all the time in this sport: qualification times, what it takes to get from semis to finals, national records, etc. Use the hard data here. I liked how Ryan Murphy recognized/comforted the women on the relay behind the blocks after the race. My gut says the race is still relatively so new that mistakes are still being made. Let’s not make these lineup errors going forward if possible. Love our athletes !! Very comprehensive article Braden, thank you !!

DCSwim
Reply to  Rob
1 month ago

I thought that was really sweet of Murphy, what a captain should be like. Also, how the Brits were the first to come of to the US after it was over that was classy

Hannover
1 month ago

Some thoughts from the old world here in Germany: As our own swimmers didn’t qualify , one can have a look at this relay without patriotism or something like that – and so it was really thrilling to see the different orders and the changes within the race. Maybe in a few years we are all familiar with the mixed relays, but just in 2021: Amazing!
During the race I really have no idea if Adam Peaty or Caeleb Dressel or someone else could handle the difference to the other nations, but it was only very, very interesting to wait and see.
Maybe we can ask the swimmers (like judoka or archers with new team competitions), women and… Read more »

Boknows34
Reply to  Hannover
1 month ago

Your English is great. I also enjoyed watching the mixed relay in triathlon.

Shadia
Reply to  Hannover
1 month ago

honestly the race is one of my favourites is just so entertaining regardless of patriotism

Martin McEvoy
Reply to  Shadia
1 month ago

It’s the one swimming race with a hint of chess. Personally, I’d really like to see a 4 x 200 mixed medley relay, to give the 200 breast, back and fly guys and gals at least one relay to aim at

DrSwimPhil
Reply to  Hannover
1 month ago

Is there another mixed-gender team event in the Olympics that actually pits women vs men directly?

Martin McEvoy
Reply to  Braden Keith
1 month ago

The key is to have equal numbers of men and women so that it all ‘evens out’ – but within that, it can be very cool when you get man v woman in particular legs or arenas. Personally, the Athletics mixed relay bores me – its predictable and the order is now very fixed – I’d much prefer a mixed middle-distance medley – 2 800 + 2 1500, one man, one woman at each distance, and apart from the the opening leg having to be 800 to make the distance calculation work (though it could be either gender) I think that might be much more fun, and would give the 800-5000 runners something fun to aim at

Comet
1 month ago

Keep it in the worlds but remove it from the Olympics.

Bevo
Reply to  Comet
1 month ago

Agree! With Prelims, Semi’s, and Finals in the 100’s and 200’s, this is an unnecessary relay for everyone.

PhillyMark
Reply to  Bevo
1 month ago

I’d be fine w ditching any mixed relay event, making 200’s of stroke prelim/finals and adding 50’s of strokes

Oof
Reply to  PhillyMark
1 month ago

I don’t think we need more individual events. Especially not 50s of strokes

TheSwan
Reply to  Comet
1 month ago

Why? Because you didn’t win it.

Texas Tap Water
Reply to  Comet
1 month ago

No.

I LOVED IT

It was entertaining.

Gfus
Reply to  Comet
1 month ago

I agree with Comet and Bevo. Love watching US swimming but mixed relay I was confused, like when did this happen?😱 No like!

About Braden Keith

Braden Keith

Braden Keith is the Editor-in-Chief and a co-founder/co-owner of SwimSwam.com. He first got his feet wet by building The Swimmers' Circle beginning in January 2010, and now comes to SwimSwam to use that experience and help build a new leader in the sport of swimming. Aside from his life on the InterWet, …

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