As the dust settles on U.S., Australian, Canadian, and French Olympic Trials, we’re taking a bird’s-eye view of how the relay battles are shaping up.
The top 12 relays at 2019 World Championships earned Olympic berths for their nations. Four more nations earned berths by putting up the fastest times among unqualified nations over a 15-month period leading up to the Olympics.
|7||2019 Worlds||Great Britain|
|15||Wild Card||Hong Kong|
|16||Wild Card||South Africa|
Aggregate times below are based on season-bests from September 2020 through June 2021. Lifetime-bests or time drops can obviously change the picture significantly. We’ll do a more in-depth preview of each relay event in the coming weeks, but this first-look projection is aimed at specifically seeing the impacts of recent Olympic Trials meets on the Olympic relay picture.
When the U.S. broke the world record with four relatively young swimmers (17/22/24/22) in 2019, it looked like we could be seeing a potential dynasty for a nation that won Olympic gold in 2016, then Worlds gold in both 2017 and 2019. But the world is closing in fast, and we’ve got three true gold medal contenders up in this top category.
For the U.S., Smith has the potential to be faster – she was 57.5 when setting the world record back in 2019. King has never been significantly faster on relays, but is the world record-holder at 1:04.1. The 18-year-old Huske is an Olympic rookie. Weitzeil has split 52 plenty of times before. The wild card is Simone Manuel, a potential 51-second split for Team USA who missed the Olympic team in the 100 free. She’s on the team as a 50 freestyler and could be a coach’s decision to join this relay at the end of the meet if she recovers well from three weeks away from training this spring.
Australia has the new world record-holder in backstroke with McKeown. They’ve also got McKeon, one of the top fly legs in the field, and one of the most dangerous anchors in Campbell. Breaststroke is really the only hurdle for Australia – they lost 1.2 seconds to the U.S. on that leg in 2019.
All of these teams have the ability to get out front, or at least stay with the lead pack, on backstroke. That’s an absolutely key element to getting your breaststrokers and butterflyers clean water. Canada also has a bit of a breaststroke issue, but they’ve got the defending world champ in butterfly, plus the defending Olympic champ in the 100 free.
The most likely scenario is a dead heat through backstroke, with the U.S. pulling out to a breaststroke lead. Then the run-down will begin, with MacNeil, McKeon, Campbell and Oleksiak trying to run down the less-experienced U.S. back half.
These two are probably outside of medal contention unless something wonky happens with one of the top three. China should have an excellent back half – Zhang Yufei might wind up with the best fly split of the field. But they’ll need more out of the front half to stay in the race.
The British team won Euros by two full seconds, going 3:54.0 – so don’t put too much stock in this aggregate time exactly. Dawson should stick with the top backstrokers out of the gate. Anderson is a relay machine on the anchor leg. Laura Stephens swam the final of this relay at Euros and split 57.5. She could be an option over Jones.
Japan has a really high ceiling… but they’ve got a real puzzle to solve. Rikako Ikee could swim fly or free, depending on her status coming off of a battle with leukemia. Natsumi Sakai is the top backstroker this year, but also the top 100 freestyler after Ikee. Here are two potential lineup options based on season-bests:
Italy could take advantage of the breaststroke weakness across almost all of these contenders. Martina Carraro is the new national record-holder and a strong breaststroker. Italy was third at Euros in 3:56.3, with Arianna Castiglioni taking the breaststroke leg.
|Elena di Liddo||57.85|
Sweden has all the pieces to be elite here… but their best swimmer is coming off of a broken elbow that might blow the whole operation. Sweden was fourth at Euros without Sarah Sjostrom. Current projections (with season-bests) would have them back in the 3:57s, but if Sjostrom can come anywhere near her world-record-level 51.7 speed, they rise to just outside the top three in a hurry.