With all of the predicting done, we’ve still got almost a week before the actual swimming begins in Shanghai. In that time, we’re going to start breaking down each of the 6 relays more fully, and see what the numbers bear out in terms of who is or is not favored.
First up is the men’s 400 free relay. The American men definitely have history on their side here: in the 13 World Championships before this one, the USA has only lost this race twice: once to the Russians and Alexander Popov in 2003, and once in 2001 in Fukuoka, where the Americans were the top seed after Prelims but DQ’ed in the final.
The rest of the world has been gaining on the US rapidly in this event, however. After total domination to the tune of a three-second win in 2005, in 2007 the gap was narrowed to under 2, and in 2009 both France and Russia closed to within a second of the Americans.
Let’s break down the medal contenders. Best times are based on each swimmers best time from 2010 and 2011, combined, followed by each swimmer’s age. The first four are the likely finals swimmers, though obviously some countries have more flexibility here than others.
USA – Cumulative time: 3:13.58 – 27.25 years
Michael Phelps (48.13) – 26
Nathan Adrian (48.15) – 22
Jason Lezak (48.47) – 35
Ryan Lochte (48.83) – 26
Garrett Weber-Gale (48.73)
Dave Walters (49.01)
Notes: Ryan Lochte is probably faster than a 48.83, though he rarely swims this race at a full-taper. I’d expect his flat start, if done in Shanghai, to be somewhere around a 48.0.
France – Cumulative time: 3:13.94 – 24.5 years
Fabien Gilot (48.47) – 27
William Meynard (48.56) – 24
Yannick Agnel (48.59) – 19
Alain Bernard (48.32) – 28
Jeremy Stravius (48.82) – 23
Fred Bousquet (49.34) – 30
Notes: We don’t know for a fact that Agnel will swim this race in finals. He earned that right at French Nationals this year, but some indications are that he’s willing to give up that spot to focus on the individual 200 and 800 free relay, after an illness limited his peak training for about a week. The French relay is deep enough though that it won’t matter.
Russia – Cumulative time: 3:14.21 – 22.25 years
Nikita Lobintsev (48.62) – 22
Andrey Grechin (48.59) – 23
Danila Izotov (48.77) – 19
Evgeny Lagunov (48.23) – 25
Sergey Fesikov (48.88) – 22
Vlad Morozov (49.06) – 19
Notes: I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that Lagnuov’s 48.2 flat-start from 2010 won’t be left off of this relay, even though he finished 5th behind Fesikov at Nationals.
Australia – Cumulative time: 3:14.16 – 23.75 years
James Magnussen (48.29) – 20
Matthew Targett (48.66) – 25
Eamon Sullivan (48.52) – 25
Matthew Abood (48.69) – 25
James Roberts (48.72) – 20
Kyle Richardson (48.69) – 24
Notes: An injury kept Eamon Sullivan out of training in the leadup to Aussie Nationals, but he finished in the top 5 to lock in a spot on this relay. My feeling is that they’ll bump him up to the finals squad ahead of Roberts as the former World Record holder.
Great Britain – Cumulative time: 3:15.48 – 24.25 years
Adam Brown (48.84) – 22
Simon Burnett (48.54) – 28
Grant Turner (49.30) – 21
Liam Tancock (48.80) – 26
Robbie Renwick (49.53) – 22
James Disney-May (49.79) – 19
Ross Davenport (49.72) – 27
Notes: Tancock is the name that people forget about in this relay. He, Simon Burnett, and Adam Brown are all capable of 47’s off of a rolling start. This is a squad that will way outperform their cumulative time.
Brazil – Cumulative time: 3:15.42 – 22.25 years
Cesar Cielo (48.26) – 24
Bruno Fratus (48.72) – 22
Marcelo Chierighini (49.24) – 20
Nicholas Oliveira (49.20) – 23
Marcos Macedo (49.42) – 21
Note: This young relay has definitely proven that they are more than just Cielo, especially with the emergence of Fratus, but if the CAS decides to suspend him, they’re out of the running.
Sweden – Cumulative time: 3:19.18 – 29
Stefan Nystrand (47.37) – 29
Lars Frolander (50.60) – 37
Robin Andreasson (50.20) – 22
Peter Stymne (50.01) – 28
Note: Former Tennessee Volunteer Jonas Persson swam on this relay last year when they got 3rd at Euro’s, but appears to have retired with some lingering shoulder problems. Stymne should take his spot. This is another relay that definitely outshines their cumulative time — Frolander is still capable of busting out a 48-low in a relay
Italy – Cumulative time: 3:16.15 – 23 years
Luca Dotto (48.58) – 21
Filippo Magnini – (49.10) – 29
Marco Orsi – (49.09) – 20
Michele Santucci – (49.38) – 22
Note: Two of these swimmers (Dotto and Santucci) have already gone big best times in 2011, so there could be more big things to come in Shanghai from the Italians.
Germany – Cumulative time: 3:15.02 – 23.25 years
Marco di Carli (48.24) – 26
Paul Biedermann (48.66) – 24
Markus Deibler (48.97) – 21
Christoph Fildebrandt (49.15) – 22
Benjamin Starke (49.24) – 24
Steffen Deibler (49.13) – 24
Notes: These Germans have come out of nowhere a little bit this year, especially with di Carli’s world-leading time of 48.24. In 2010, he didn’t go faster than a 51.8. This suddenly makes the Germans contenders.
The young relays in the group are the Italians, Russians, and the Brazilians, whereas the veteran relays are the Swedes, the French and the Americans. Everyone else lies somewhere in the middle. In these sprint freestyles, veterans usually win out, because teenagers don’t always have that “old man strength” that it takes to release all of your energy over such a short period of time. For example, in the top 10 in last year’s World Rankings, the only “young” swimmer was almost -22-year old Nathan Adrian from the Pan Pac Games.
Most of the top 10 were more like Jason Lezak, Brent Hayden, and Alain Bernard, who were in their late 20’s or 30’s. In the era of the shoulder-driven freestyle, having those few extra years to build out the muscle mass is key in the sprints.
When looking through cumulative times, the Americans are the clear favorites still. Even without accounting for the fact that Lochte is one of the few swimmers in this race who doesn’t have a good tapered flat-start time, they’re four-tenths ahead of the field.
Add to that the fact that historically, the Americans have had much quicker reaction times on their relay exchanges than both the Russians and the French, and this race might not even be as close as the general public expects. These relay exchanges might be where the Italians can make up some ground to perhaps scare for a medal – in 2009, in Rome, they were nearly perfect on all three relay exchanges (.01, .03, amd .09 reaction times).
After looking at the breakdowns a little more closely, I’ll tweak my prediction. I think the French will be faster than the Russians in prelims, but I think the Russians will come into their own and grab silver in the final.