Three of the top-performing nations at the 2020 Olympic Games put an increased emphasis on preparing their relays for success in the run up to Tokyo, and it clearly showed in the pool.
Australia, Great Britain and Canada have all launched relay initiatives over the last few years, making the team events a top priority with an eye towards Tokyo.
The Relay Initiatives
Each country’s initiatives consist of one or more camps a year, zeroing in on the relays by practicing exchanges, figuring out the optimal race strategy (swimmer order) and just pushing one another in regular practice.
The Australians took second to the Americans on the overall medal table in swimming, winning nine gold and 20 total medals, which includes two gold and five total relay medals.
The Aussies have been running a “relay project,” led by Swimming Australia Performance Solutions Manager Jessica Corones, with four key factors in mind: relay-focused training camps, relay technique (exchanges, perfecting finishes), research (perfecting the order, how to manage rookies, etc.) and the intangibles—that is, bonding as a team.
The Aussie relay camp initiative was first launched by former national team head coach Jacco Verhaeren.
“We’re built along relays – there’s where our depth is,” Australian coach Dean Boxall, who led the relay coaching in Tokyo, told The Guardian. “We’re really trying to build that team unity.”
This year the Australians converged on the Gold Coast in February, which Kyle Chalmers said was “even more special” than previous years after the team had a year apart due to the pandemic.
For the Canadians, Swimming Canada first launched a men’s relay initiative in 2014, and has followed through with a long-term plan to have its swimmers fully embrace the relays. A female initiative was developed in 2015, and they’ve carried things forward with multiple camps per year following a similar format to the Aussies.
“The concept is to identify our future national team members from a range of age groups in both males and females,” Swimming Canada High Performance Director John Atkinson said back in 2017. “We see who has the capacity to swim both the 100 and the 200-m freestyle, and then we bring them in, we educate them and their coaches, find out what their strengths and weaknesses are, and educate them about relay swimming for Canada.”
British Swimming has followed a similar course, holding relay camps at the Loughborough National Centre, including a men’s medley specific camp in November 2019.
The proof is in the pudding for these countries, as all made tangible progress from Rio to Tokyo in the relays, despite the Aussies, British men and Canadian women having already performed at a high-level in 2016.
Australia nearly went seven-for-seven in relay medals last week, only failing to reach the podium in the men’s 4×100 medley, where the team took fifth in a time that would’ve won a medal at every previous Olympics (3:29.60).
The women stormed to a repeat gold in the 4×100 free, setting a new world record in the process, and overcame the United States in the 4×100 medley for their first win since 2008. The 4×200 free was a rare misstep, with the team’s decision to switch out all four swimmers from prelims backfiring, as the gold medal favorites fell to bronze. Despite that, the country’s development of women’s 200 freestylers has been incredible over the last few years, evidenced by 17-year-old Mollie O’Callaghan dropping a surprise World Junior Record in the lead-off leg of the prelim relay.
The men added a pair of bronzes in the free relays, equalling Rio’s result (where they missed the podium in the 4×200 free but earned bronze in the medley), while the coaches seemed to get the order right en route to snagging a bronze medal in the inaugural mixed medley relay.
The Brits improved from two silvers in Rio to two gold and one silver in Tokyo, all medals coming from the men’s side, plus a win in the mixed relay.
The men’s 4×200 free narrowly missed the world record, the men’s medley swam the third-fastest time ever to win silver, and although they didn’t medal, the women showed great progression. The British females finished fifth in the 4×100 free after failing to qualify a team in Rio, but had a poor prelim swim and missed the medley final after taking seventh in 2016.
The Canadian women picked up a pair of bronzes in Rio on the free relays and took fifth in the medley, and improved in Tokyo with a silver in the 4×100 free (beating the U.S.), winning bronze in the medley and finishing a close fourth in the 4×200 free.
Canada actually got on the podium in all three women’s relays at the 2019 World Championships, but the Chinese women’s breakout gold-medal performance in the 4×200 free deterred them from doing that, though not for a lack of performance.
Add in the fact that one of Canada’s relay aces in recent years, Taylor Ruck, was off form in Tokyo. They were still able to seamlessly contend at the top-level, having developed depth in the relay events.
The Canadian men were consistently nailing their relay exchanges, and stunned everyone by challenging Australia for a medal on the 4×100 free relay, setting a National Record in fourth. The medley benefitted from a few DQs to take seventh after 16th in Rio. The 4×200 free is still a weak spot, and the mixed medley could’ve been in the medal hunt, but the prelims team was far from optimal and they missed the final.
But overall, it’s fair to say all three countries showed progression from Rio to Tokyo, and in many cases, were able to perform greater than the sum of their parts in the relays.
We saw several swimmers from these countries drop individual events in order to focus on relays, showing just how dedicated the teams are to the team events, and how the swimmers have bought in.
Some notable examples include James Guy dropping the men’s 100 fly for Great Britain’s mixed medley relay, where he easily could’ve landed a bronze medal based on the form he showed (50.00 fly split on the mixed relay, it took 50.74 to win bronze).
Matt Richards also dropped the men’s 100 free for the 4×200, Canada’s Kayla Sanchez scratched the 100 free semis for the women’s 4×200, and Joe Litchfield didn’t race the individual 100 back to swim on the British men’s 4×100 free relay in the heats (a move that didn’t pay off, as they missed the final).
Whether the withdrawals were beneficial for the relays in the end or not, the fact that the coaches and swimmers are willing to drop out of an Olympic event in order to potentially push their relay team over the top to a medal, shows a high level of commitment.
Why It’s Hard For The U.S. To Follow
While Swimming Australia, British Swimming and Swimming Canada have been able to implement these initiatives, run camps and put a greater emphasis on relays, it’s not as easy to do for the United States.
The decentralized American training system sees athletes training all over the country in a variety of capacities. Some in post-grad groups at college, some still in school with their university teams, some still in club, others with smaller pro teams, etc.
Add in the fact that, whether they’re still competing in the NCAA or training as post-grads, many of the top U.S. swimmers are natural rivals. For example, it’s hard to imagine a group of Stanford swimmers showing up at Cal for a training camp, or vice-versa, especially during college season.
Furthermore, Australia, Great Britain and Canada all have established National Centres where several of their top-level swimmers train full-time, and others will come and go for brief stints, making it relatively simple to gather a bigger group for a relay camp.
Without that in the U.S., it becomes incredibly difficult to do any real work like the other countries have done until they have their planned pre-Olympic, or pre-World Championship training camp.
With that being said, it’s not like the U.S. is struggling on relays, but their performance in Tokyo was far from their best. The Americans only won two of seven relays, missed a medal in two of them, and the women failed to win gold. The men’s 4×200 free failing to finish in the top three marked the first time an American men’s relay didn’t reach the podium at the Olympics.
These performances aren’t solely to blame for any one thing—coaching lineup/order decisions, swimmers underperforming and a lack of preparation were all at play. But it’s fair to say that if they were able to have relay initiatives like the other countries, some of these issues would’ve been ironed out beforehand.