Australia, Great Britain & Canada Benefit From Relay Initiatives In Tokyo

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 Results

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.

Dropping Individuals

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.

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Michael Lawrence
1 year ago

Between 2000-2004 we had a program of relay camps. It was a strategic initiative born of some relay problems in Sydney and seeing potential in the future for other countries to challenge our relay dominance. It was a bit awkward getting things working smoothly (not a good cultural fit) but they worked.

1 year ago

I see a lot of salty Americans criticising these relay camps which must of done something because Australia made the podium in all the relays but one so clearly something worked and I’m sure they practice more then just relay stuff there

1 year ago

How close was Dressel to earning a spot on the 800 free relay? And if he was on it, how fast of a split was he capable of? 1:45?

1 year ago

Up until the Talbot era starting @ 1990, there was no real “relay culture” in AUS swimming. Certainly the rare very competitive one but never across the board; with most relays at major events been cobbled together as somewhat of an after-thought. Even in the first “golden age” relays were not always as strong as they could be with certain big names sometimes less than fully commited (ie Fraser).

Arguably, much of this lay with the attitudes of coaches with many of the older school “personality” coaches not necessarily being great team players. What did change during the 90s was the “buy in” by leading swimmers; firstly on the womens side with the likes of O’Neill/Thomas and in the later… Read more »

Bobo Gigi
1 year ago

2 wins out of 7 relays, sorry but it’s a bad result for US swimming.
Yes the coaches have made at least 2 bad decisions and yes maybe there’s a lack of team building and relay work.
But the most important is to have very fast swimmers.
And the fact is that as long as USA doesn’t have at least 3 women close to 52 mid (flat start) then they will not beat Australia in 2024. There’s the same lack in both 4X200 free relays. Lack of 1.45 low men and 1.55 low women (flat start).

Reply to  Bobo Gigi
1 year ago

Canada was a 2018/19 version of Taylor Ruck away from giving the Aussies a run in the 4×1 and being completely in the mix of the 4×2 making it a 4 team race. The women in Tokyo swam extremely well including the 5th and 6th prelim swimmers. But this shows that the Canadians are very close to being not just a podium contender, but potential challenge for golds and WRs, but…with numbers they will need all firing on all cylinders as they don’t have the depth as US, Aus.

Reply to  njones
1 year ago

Ruck’s best ever split is 51.72. Canada’s slowest split was 53.63. Even replacing Canada’s slowest split with Ruck’s best ever split, they’re over 1.4 seconds away from Australia. I’m not sure if I would call that a realistic challenge.

However, I do agree that Canada is doing great in swimming and has some potential to threaten for multiple golds in Paris.

1 year ago

Seems to be a lot of Americans saying they don’t think the camps mattered. That’s fine, I’ll take a freebie gold in the women’s medley because of reaction time. 11/17 of Australia’s women are gold medalists, mostly due to relays. While they only represent 7 potential medals out of 35 events, I think they’re important for team culture and they “feel” more important because they rely more on depth than just one star.

1 year ago

Just a correction at the top- Australia won 6 total relay medals, not five …. in fact a relay results table would have been good a the top of this story for discussion.

One thing that seems to have changed are relay skills, like changeovers. The US was once the Gold standard, this seems to have slipped a little, enough to make a difference.

Last edited 1 year ago by torchbearer
Swimming before Goggles
1 year ago

This is article is spot on.

It isn’t so much the geography, age or college colors for US swimmers as it is diverse coaches and their megalomaniacal, Swengali control of individuals.

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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