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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Caleb
1 month ago

This sounds silly to me. If countries and coaches want to prioritize relays by dropping individual events, sure, that’s a decision. Otherwise, what is there to do aside from spending some time practicing changeovers? You don’t need “relay camp” and a 7 year plan of changing the “culture.” That’s just bureaucrats trying to justify their salaries.

How much can CD bench???
Reply to  Caleb
1 month ago

Exactly. If the swimmers are consistently swimming slower in relays than individual events a relay camp isn’t going to fix this. The aussies and brits had great relays because they had great swimmers. They weren’t losing relays in the past because of slightly slower exchanges

swimapologist
Reply to  How much can CD bench???
1 month ago

But then again….

It worked.

Erik
Reply to  swimapologist
1 month ago

Correlation does not equal causation

Sub13
Reply to  Caleb
1 month ago

If the US women had “relay camp”, 9 of their women would probably have won a gold medal instead of only 2. Seems like a pretty big deal.

Wow
Reply to  Sub13
1 month ago

Haha exactly. It’s easy to call the camp silly but USA clearly would’ve benefited from this.

It’s also not that silly that they want to get laser focused on a pretty big component of the meet. This is the highest level of competition in the world after all.

Erik
Reply to  Sub13
1 month ago

When do you do the camp for the medley relay when 50% of that finals relay was not on the radar for the Olympic team until this Spring?

S M K
Reply to  Caleb
1 month ago

It’s worth noting only the UK and Canada dropped individual swims for relays

Bill G
Reply to  S M K
1 month ago

Emma McKeon withdrew from the 200m free entirely, though.

Troyy
Reply to  Bill G
1 month ago

That was to protect her chance of gold in the 100 free rather than for relays. If their order in the schedule was reversed maybe she would’ve still done the 200.

Jamie5678
1 month ago

Perhaps the camps cultivate an attitude where relays are not considered secondary to individual performance. Otherwise I doubt that relay camps can really be said to have had much impact.

In the men’s 800 free. The ‘worst’ performer really in the final -Apple included- was Tom Dean and Britain still won by a street. So any relay camp didn’t really work. Britain just had the best team on paper and in the water on the day. If Dean had been in the same postcode as his best they’d have smashed the WR.

In the women’s 400 and 800, the Australian women should have cleaned up on paper. Any training camp again didn’t really work in the 800. The US… Read more »

Last edited 1 month ago by Jamie5678
IRO
Reply to  Jamie5678
1 month ago

I think it could have a pretty profound psychological impact, though. Imagine you’re a promising 16/17-year old and you’re invited to a camp like this for a long weekend, where you train alongside some of the best pros in the nation and get to learn from them. That could have a huge boost in how a swimmer sees himself/herself in the grand scheme of USA swimming. Likewise for someone ending college and hoping to continue on in swimming, but who isn’t at the top of the top of American swimmers.

Reply to  Jamie5678
1 month ago

I have to disagree with your perspective on this matter. To say the camps “didn’t really work” based on one meet performance does not make sense to me. Because the camps ARE about building a team culture. And that’s not about the results at ONE meet, that’s about results over years of meets.

Of course there is no substitute for fast swimmers, but those swimmers still have to perform in the moment. And if they’re motivated to perform by something bigger than themselves, like their teammates and country, then it makes it a lot easier to swim those fast times.

We have seen all 3 of these countries take huge strides in relays over the past 5-6 years, with… Read more »

Caleb
Reply to  Coleman Hodges
1 month ago

Does anyone really think the U.S. had a relatively poor relay performance because the swimmers didn’t care about relays? Zack Apple died in the 200 because he was bored after the 100 free semi? I know you don’t think that… my point is that you don’t need to write a position paper and change the national strategy, just do a couple of little things. e.g. scratch the 100 semi so you can prioritize the 4 x 200. And spend a little more time practicing changeovers.

Spectatorn
Reply to  Coleman Hodges
1 month ago

I agree that for countries feel that they don’t have the team culture before, such camp could be very helpful and important in their success. Just not sure if US teams need that – even though it won’t hurt to have an extra camp. 😅

The pride of relay success is one unmistakable force by itself. Also, as mentioned, swimmers going through the successful NCAA programs value relay. I am a strong believer that if you have that mentality, identify with Team USA and transfer that team dedication is a lot easier.

2020 and 2021 are odd years due to pandemic. Otherwise there would have be camps for national team or future hopefuls at CO Spring.

Jamie5678
Reply to  Coleman Hodges
1 month ago

Thank you for the reply Coleman.

That’s not a contradiction though. If we think camps make a difference we would need to point to areas where teams with camps performed above expectations and above what their individual times would suggest. Britain in the 800 performed roughly according to expectations (except for Dean), Australia in the 800 performed below expectations. Logic would therefore suggest that, if anything, camps had a negative effect.

I don’t actually believe that. I’m not saying that camps don’t necessarily bring some advantage and team spirit and certainly Britain in particular have targeted relays sometimes above individual races (although they sacrificed the sprint relay for Dean and Scott’s individual chances). But Australian men’s relays weren’t great… Read more »

Justhereforfun
Reply to  Jamie5678
1 month ago

I see what you mean, but it seems to you that the only way that a training camp would “work” is if a relay team performed above expectations in their relays compared to their own individuals, but I disagree with that view.

All swimmers find it hard to perform at their very best in all events (Caeleb Dressel included), and swimmers often perform better in their individuals compared to relays. So in my opinion if swimmers are on par with their best in a relay, I’d say the relay camps worked because it teaches them psychologically not to treat the relay as a secondary event.

Not to say that the USA are bad at relays because they don’t have… Read more »

Jamie5678
Reply to  Justhereforfun
1 month ago

Hi Justhereforfun. Thanks for the reply.

My point is that camps are neither here nor there. I agree that they don’t do any harm and possibly help a bit.

All the same, the problems with the US chances of winning some relays were apparent at the US trials. Kieran Smith won the 200 in 1.45.29. That’s obviously very decent but he’d have been third in the British trials. I think the US were 4th best on paper and that’s where they finished. On individual times Britain had about a 2 second buffer. That’s why they won. They’re just faster this year.

Weitzeil swam 53 mid to win the 100 free at American trials. That again is very decent but… Read more »

Swimgeek
Reply to  Jamie5678
1 month ago

Your men’s 4×2 point is true…but kind of falls apart when u look at the actual Olympics race: Kieran 144.7, Kibler 145.5, Haas 144.high. All we needed was a 146.0 from a Seli or others and that relay is an easy silver. So you really can’t say “we didn’t medal bc our swimmers were bad and didn’t have anyone under 145 at trials”

Joel
Reply to  Jamie5678
1 month ago

Australia’s men’s relay win two bronze medals – the 4×100 free bronze was quite unexpected after the trial results. The mixed medley bronze was also unexpected. The men’s medley wasn’t great.

Spectatorn
1 month ago

Objectively speaking, US did okay in the relays – despite on paper that all the other teams look way stronger in almost every relay before the game. This truly showed that relays are about heart and competitive drive!

US teams turned out better than the two most anticipated wins by AUS Women’s 800 free relay and GB Men’s 400 medley. AUS’s 5th swimmer was faster than our second from trial, GB has otherworldly breast and free legs. We ended up with an AR, silver ahead of AUS in the W 800 Free relay; a WR and gold in M 400 Medley relay.

The Men’s 800 relay was unfortunately and I feel really bad for Zach that his eagerness to catch… Read more »

Last edited 1 month ago by Spectatorn
Meeeeeee
Reply to  Spectatorn
1 month ago

I felt the men’s 800 and mixed medley relays were arguably coaching related issues. The women’s 800 peformed fantastic as did both men’s 400 relays. For the women’s 400 relays, no way we were going to win the free and finished a close 2nd in medley. I would say if Simone was on her game they would have finished 2nd in the free and won the medley. So i don’t think the US could do anything really better….except their combined RT and relay takeovers were about 0.6 over what the Aussies did in the women’s medley so I think they could have won that with those improved which likely would have been better with more time together. However, Lydia Jacoby… Read more »

Swim nerd
Reply to  Spectatorn
1 month ago

The mixed medley relay has always been a problem for the US due to the relative strength of US women in breast and the lack there of of said strength on the men’s side, that’s all that needs to be said.

Wow
Reply to  Swim nerd
1 month ago

US had the fourth place finisher in the 100 breast. That’s good enough. He doesn’t have to beat peaty lol

Spectatorn
Reply to  Swim nerd
1 month ago

I may be too bias but I believe that the coaches (many college coaches) are taking some risk but thinking the benefits in terms beyond that race.

Both Lydia and Torri would benefit getting back to race mode after they were done with their individual events and had time to process the outcome, and really get a feel of being on a relay where you are part of a team, you feel the comfort of leaning on the others but know that your teammates deserve to lean on you too. Allow them to experience that from 2team captains who had done it before and doing it with them in a final, probably has bigger impact than practice run at… Read more »

Last edited 1 month ago by Spectatorn
Spectatorn
1 month ago

“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.”

is this true? I thought it would be hard because swimmers already have loaded schedule with school and dual meet etc. but not because the swimmers are “natural rivals”. I mean it is not like that it will make Cal swimmers worst if they have to do a training camp at Stanford pool (and vice versa); nor Cal is going to find out the secret of Stanford swimmers’ success (and… Read more »

Aquajosh
1 month ago

Sweden, are you listening? This might help you get that fourth swimmer.

fmku
Reply to  Aquajosh
1 month ago

They tried something similar before Rio. It made a few swimmers switch event focus to 100/200 free, and another swimmer to come out of retirement. The result was slower relay times and worse placement than during worlds 2015, and most likely worse results for Sarah in 50/100 free. Until they can rest Sarah in prelims, they should only participate in the medley relay.

Joel
1 month ago

Australia also has swimmers all over the country training in all different capacities. They still managed to get the swimmers together. They just made it a priority. Many swimmers missed a week of school or University and had to catch up.

NJones
1 month ago

I applaud 5 out of the 6 Canadian relays in every regard, the selection of prelim and finals swimmers, orders, the performance of all of them throughout. Coaching staff was right on the women’s 4×2 prelim team for example, knowing Kayla was on form, resting Penny and Summer, and having the right 4 perform well and good enough to final. 90+ % of the swims were great efforts, only a couple of slight minor misses.

My only wonder if the coaches selection of the prelim mixed medley. They dug themselves into a bit of a whole with Acevedo as a relay only swimmer, and having to find a spot for him. He and the rest, Gabe,v Katrine and was… Read more »

Bill G
Reply to  NJones
1 month ago

Honestly, I think Canada decided to “scratch the event (mixed medley relay) without scratching the event”. Not swimming Mac Neil in fly or Oleksiak/Sanchez in free in prelims doomed the team to not qualify.

I supsect they wanted to keep Mac Neil, Oleksiak, Masse rested for the medley relay and Masse’s 200m back (which conflicted with this event, if I’m not mistaken).

The inclusion of Acevedo at all is one of the mysteries of the Canadian swim team in Tokyo for me. They had Cole Pratt and Thormeyer as FINA-A backstrokers. And even with Acevedo 4th in prelims at Trials in the 100m free (with Hayden and Kisil out of the trials final), Canada had Finlay Knox and Cole Pratt… Read more »

Last edited 1 month ago by Bill G
njones
Reply to  Bill G
1 month ago

Acevedo – full props to him, I’m sure he ‘saw’ the #s after the trials and realized that he was somewhat of an emerg fill in. That must have been a bit difficult to navigate his way around the team, but he stepped in when asked for the mixed medley and swam reasonably well. I think he was named initially as the 4th 4×1 swimmer after Hayden and Kisil went on the limp a bit, and I’m not sure if SNC ‘legally’ had a way of excluding him as the 4th 100 Freestyler according to their guidelines. In fact their guidelines were put in place to have some extra options on qualifying to cover holes as needed (ie relay coverage),… Read more »

Swimming before Goggles
1 month 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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