Cracking the Relays: Women's 400 Free

Next up, we’ll take a look at the women’s 400 free relay

As a reminder, to see the full selections for all of the men’s and women’s races, click here:
(Women’s part 1 | Women’s part 2) (Men’s part 1 | Men’s part 2)

Unlike the men’s 400 free relay, the American women haven’t been nearly as dominant in this race.  In fact, they haven’t won a world title in the 400 free relay since 2003, when now-veteran Natalie Coughlin was a spritely 20-years old and had exactly zero Olympic medals to her name. Now, as one of the most decorated female swimmers in history, Coughlin will try and lead the Americans to another gold.

Standing in her way will be the Dutch women, who on paper are heavy favorites. Don’t be fooled by their World Ranking (11th) or finish at the European Championships (6th), their focus meet in 2010 was the Short Course World Championships in Dubai, where they swam a fantastic 3:28.54 and broke the Meet Record.

Let’s look at the medal contenders.

The Relays

The Netherlands – Cumulative: 3:36.47
Ranomi Kromowidjojo (53.44)
Femke Heemskerk (53.60)
Inge Dekker (54.70)
Marleen Veldhuis (54.73)
Maud van der Meer (55.20)
Ilse Kraaijeveld (55.33)
Notes: These women could legitimately come within a second or so of the World Record. The same finals foursome won the 2008 Olympic and 2009 World Championship gold medals. These swimmers are all swimming phenomenally. In 2011, for example, Heemskerk has swum her three career-best times. Hinkelien Schreuder was dropped as an alternate for this relay, a spot where she’s been very important for this relay, but the Dutch are deep enough and experienced enough to get past that.

The first four swimmers are the ones who are likely to swim in the final, followed by potential alternates.

USA – Cumulative: 3:36.08 – 22.75
Natalie Coughlin (53.67) – 28
Dana Vollmer (53.94) – 23
Jessica Hardy (54.14) – 24
Missy Franklin (54.33) – 16
Amanda Weir (54.50) – 25
Kara Lynn Joyce (54.59) – 25
Notes: The US could go a few different ways with this relay in finals. I’d expect Missy Franklin, Amanda Weir, and Kara Lynn Joyce to all swim in the prelim with a chance to earn their way into the last spot in finals. For what it’s worth, Weir got the nod at Pan Pac’s.

Australia – Cumulative: 3:37.25 -21.25
Alicia Coutts (53.80) – 23
Marieke Guehrer (54.29) – 25
Yolane Kukla (54.49) – 15
Bronte Barratt (54.67) – 22
Merindah Dingjan (54.85) – 20
Kelly Stubbins (54.87) – 27
Notes: It’s not clear how this relay will be decided after Guehrer earned her way into the meet only at the June relay trials (the first such trial Australia has ever held). It’s not an apples-to-apples comparison, but I imagine that Guehrer will at least be given the chance to swim her way onto a finals relay. Not having Seebohm on this relay will hurt.

Sweden – Cumulative: 3:38.07 – 25.25
Sarah Sjostrom (54.01) – 17
Ida Marko-Varga (54.63) – 26
Gabriella Fagundez (54.66) – 25
Therese Alshammar (54.77) – 33
Notes: This is an exciting relay, because aside from Alshammar the other three swimmers have all done career-bests in the 100 after the tech-suit era. Fagundez and Mark0-Vagra have both done them this season, despite being in their mid-20’s. That’s what makes this relay sort of odd (other than Sjostrom) is that they’re past the point of their careers where most swimmers are going career-bests in season, yet they continue to improve at a rapid clip. The knock on Fagundez has been that she’s not a very good relay swimmer, but with her career-best a full second faster now than it was this time last year, her relay abilities might change as well. This could be a surprise medalist.

China – Cumulative: 3:38.34 – 17
Yi Tang (54.08) – 18
Shija Wang (54.61) – 15
Zhesi Li  (54.69) – 15
Qianwei Zhu (54.76) – 20
Jiayang Pang (54.96) – 26
Junyao Wang (55.02) – 23
Notes: Pang was faster than Zhu at this year’s Nationals, so there’s a chance that she’ll get a spot in the relay. Zhu’s a bit of a mystery: in 2010, she was China’s best 200 freestyler and ranked 4th in the World as the Asian Games Champion. This year, however, she hasn’t swum all that well. The assumption is that she trained her way through Chinese Nationals with her spot in Shanghai already assured. Though there’s always a measure of mystery surrounding the Chinese. This relay is unbelievably young.

Germany – Cumulative: 3:38.63 – 21.5 years
Britta Steffen (54.14) – 27
Daniela Schreiber (54.56) – 22
Silke Lippok (54.74) – 17
Lisa Vitting (55.19) – 20
Dorothea Brandt (55.31) – 27
Notes: With the January retirement of Daniela Samulski, this German relay loses whatever semblance of depth they had in this race. With Samulski in the mix, they may have been able to sneak in an extra prelims-only swimmer, but now they’ll likely go with the same 4 for prelims/finals. Only two of the four swimmers from their silver-medal group in 2009 return, but Lippok could be as good or better than who she’s replacing (and she’s only 17). Plus, it always helps to have the World Record holder as your anchor.

Great Britain – Cumulative: 3:39.39 – 22 years
Fran Halsall (53.58) – 21
Amy Smith (54.48) – 23
Rebecca Turner (55.52) – 19
Caitlin McClatchey (55.81) – 25
Notes: Britain has a lot of different lineups they can go with here, and they get to see a lot of them in action thanks to the Commonwealth Games where they’re split into multiple teams, but this appears to be the foursome they’ll use. The only other option might by Joanne Jackson, who swam the relay at Euro’s last year. Disappointing that Jessica Lloyd wasn’t included on the roster; she has the same season-best time as McClatchey, but is a decade younger (Lloyd’s time was from a regional meet in January). Halsall is a potential World Champion in the individual race.

Canada – Cumulative:  3:39.78 – 22.75 years
Victoria Poon (54.44) – 26
Genevieve Saumur (55.26) – 24
Chantal vanlandeghem (55.15) – 17
Julia Wilkinson (54.93) – 24
Erica Morningstar (55.28) – 22
Notes: I really like the potential of this Canadian team. With the emergence of Van landeghem, supplanting Morningstar, the relay has a bit of a different look than it did last year, but this means that the Canadians might actually have the depth to rotate swimmers through a morning relay, which is a luxury they haven’t had in the past. If not for a DQ, they’re last year’s Commonwealth silver medalists, and they took bronze at Pan Pac’s (after letting a big lead slip away to the Australians). The key to their relay will be Wilkinson, who needs to get her relay split down to a 54.1 or 54.2, where her individual times indicates she should be (her best relay split is a 54.60).

Japan – Cumulative: 3:40.17 – 23 years
Haruka Ueda (54.52) – 23
Yayoi Matsumoto (54.78) – 20
Natsuki Hasegawa (55.58) – 23
Hanae Ito (55.29) – 26
Notes: Hasegawa has supplanted the retired Tomoko Hagiwara as the final leg of this relay, and based on her times so far this year that’s probably an upgrade. The Japanese was only  4th at Pan Pac’s, but they were much better at the Asian Games (3:37.90) (which was clearly the country’s big taper meet for the year). This is a team that will well outpace their cumulative time; probably by about three seconds.


In stark  contrast to the men’s relays, the women’s squads are incredibly young. Look at the Chinese relay that averages only 17 years old. One of the top 5 free relays in the world has two swimmers on it that are the equivalent of sophomores in high school. If they can keep that squad together and continue to develop them, they will be incredible in Rio in 2016.

The only “aging” relay really is the Swede’s, but even for them, three out of their four swimmers are swimming as fast as they ever have in their careers (and arguably, Alshammar makes four if you exclude textile times). The American relay is more veteran than their 22.75 average indicates: if KLJ or Weir replaces Franklin on the finals relay, they too fall into the older end of the spectrum.

On paper, this appears to be a relay where the Americans are the favorites. That, however would be misleading. As I mentioned above, most of the Dutch didn’t swim a long course taper relay in 2010, though at the same time the Americans weren’t at full-strength in Dubai in short course (Hardy didn’t have a great meet, and Katie Hoff swam a relay leg). So there’s no real fair comparison for these two relays. For what it’s worth, if the Dutch swim a watered-down prelims relay, they’ll probably be in an outer lane with the Americans in the middle of the pool.

Neither the Americans nor the Dutch have been historically all that swift on their relay exchanges. The young, risk-taking Chinese, however, fly off of the blocks. The Australians have been inconsistent in their relay exchanges, but the current group also tends towards faster exchanges.

It’s going to take four splits that start with a “53” to medal in this relay. The Americans are a little more balanced than the Dutch, but it’s hard to ignore the fact that the Netherlands will likely have two swimmers capable of 52’s off of rolling starts. With Kromowidjojo finally healthy, I think the Dutch women take it. Missy Franklin, if she swims finals, will be the key four the Americans, because with her boundless potential, three 53.0’s could trump two 52.8’s.

The bronze is a much tougher pick. I don’t quite trust Sweden’s past history in relays to allow them to come down on their time enough. The Australians have swum great this year, but those Chinese women have so much potential. Coutts pulling triple-duty on the day is a real concern for the Aussies though, and I’ll take the Chinese for bronze in front of a home crowd.


1. Netherlands
2. USA
3. China
4. Australia
5. Sweden

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9 years ago

at first, I thought you wrote Li Zhesi’s age wrong: 15 yo, because I remember she swam 52+ already in 2009 Rome to anchor China’s 400 MR to gold.
But then I checked again; you are correct: Li Zhesi was born in 7 Augiust 1995, so this means she was only 13 yo in 2009 Rome!!
I am truly shocked.
If she keeps her rate of improvement, she should be at 53 flat now (minus the suit).

9 years ago

Li Zhesi swam 24.9 & 55.8 in 2008 aged 12 and then 24.5 & 53.9 in 2009, since then her best times have been 24.9 & 54.6! i think she may be the prime example of the Chinese girls that swim very fast at a young age and dont really kick on, Shijia Wang looks the more likely to kick on on current rate of improvement (She has set PBs this year).

9 years ago

I would hope by now that no one counts out China in these relays. They always seem to find a way to put together otherworldly relay legs when a win is on the line. They got a 52.8 out of a 15 year old girl in Rome to win the 400 MR. Insane.

About Braden Keith

Braden Keith

Braden Keith is the Editor-in-Chief and a co-founder of 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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