Coming into 2016, the American women looked unstoppable in the 800 free relay. They won last year’s World Championship by 3 seconds ahead of the underheralded Italians, were four seconds better than the Chinese, and were 6 seconds better than the Australians.
What’s more, the swimmers on that relay were aged 20 (Missy Franklin), 20 (Leah Smith), 18 (Katie McLaughlin), and 18 (Katie Ledecky) at the time they won the gold last year, and the three prelims swimmers who were dropped for finals were aged 19, 21, and 24, and are still in the primes of their careers.
That youth is without factoring in a resurgent Allison Schmitt, the defending Olympic Champion, who has already been a 1:56.77 this season and if she continues her rebound will surely take at least one of those spots on the 800 free relay in Rio – and that’s something the Americans need with Katie McLaughlin’s status uncertain after her neck injury.
Everything was breaking for a dominant American performance to build off of their 800 free relay victories at the last four global long course championships: Worlds in 2011, 2013, and 2015, and the Olympics in 2012.
That was until Wednesday, however, when the Chinese women asserted their authority in the final at their National Championship meet in Foshan.
There, the Chinese women had three swimmers goes 1:56.4-or-better on flat-starts, which the American women didn’t match in their finals 800 free relay last year on relay-starts.
China’s weak leg right now, based on results of the Olympic Trials, is Zhang Yuhan, who swam 1:57.06. While that’s still comparable to the Americans’ fourth-best leg from Worlds (McLaughlin in 1:56.92 on a relay start), the Chinese will probably still need to find some upside if they want to upend the Americans for gold like they did at the 2009 World Championships.
The Americans’ upside comes in almost every leg. Schmitt, as mentioned, has looked better every time she’s raced this year. After Franklin’s performance at the PSS-Orlando meet, she’s on pace to be back to 1:54 this year, at least. Ledecky has already been 1:54 in 2016 and leads the world in the event. And between Smith, Runge, Margalis, Vreeland, and maybe McLaughlin, the Americans will have a lot of options to play with for that final spot in the relay. If the Americans hit on all-cylinders, they could even challenge the World Record.
The point is, though, that while the Americans are still favored, their margin for error has gotten slimmer. The Chinese took bronze at Worlds last year, but overall had a dreadful World Championships. If they hit all of their exchanges just-right, and their youth continues to improve as well, then they could challenge the Americans for gold. At least the Chinese should be competitive enough to force the Americans to go all-out for gold.
We suspect that the Australians will also creep into this conversation beginning Thursday morning when they start their 2016 Olympic Trials, as they’ve already had two swimmers go 1:55s this year without a serious taper meet as well.