On Tuesday, USA Swimming announced a new program that would award prize money to all swimming team members (pool and open water) at the 2023 World Championships and 2024 Olympic Games.
The prize money on offer is as follows:
2023 World Championships Bonus Money
- Sweep the seven Olympic relays – $500,000
- Win a medal in the seven Olympic relays – $150,000
2024 Olympics Bonus Money
- Sweep the seven Olympic relays – $1,000,000
- Win a medal in the seven Olympic relays – $250,000
Widely, the two reactions to the program have been this: one is that the sweep is highly unlikely (more on that later), and the other is the intrigue behind why the program rewards all swimmers, and not just those who participate in the relay (who already receive prize money from FINA and from the USOPC’s Operation Gold program).
The US roster, including open water swimmers, usually runs between 50 and 55. So that means at Worlds, the bonuses would be about $10,000 per swimmer for the sweep and $3,000 per swimmer for 7 podiums.
At the Olympics, those numbers escalate to about $20,000 per swimmer for the gold medal sweep and about $5,000 per swimmer for 7 medals.
What are the chances of success?
How often has a full-medal sweep happened in history? A few times. The US went 4/4 in 1960, when two new relays (the men’s and women’s 400 medley relays) were added, and 5/5 at the next three Olympics.
After boycotting the 1980 Olympics, the Americans won all 5 relays at the counter-boycotted 1984 Games.
The best performances was a 6-for-6 result at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, the first year when a women’s 800 free relay was added to the schedule.
|Men’s 400 free relay||800 free relay||400 medley relay||Women’s 400 free relay||800 free relay||400 medley relay||
Mixed medley relay
Note: table excludes the men’s 200 yard freestyle relay at the 1904 Olympics, where the U.S. won gold, silver, and bronze medals; and the 200 metre team race in 1900, which wasn’t really a relay, but was won by Germany anyway.
Since 1996, the US has had mixed results in relays at the Olympics. In Rio in 2016, the Americans went 5/6. At the 2020 Olympics, held in 2021 in Tokyo, the Americans famously went just 2-for-7 in relays, which percentage-wise was the worst result since 1956 (when there were only 2 relays).
The last World Championship relay sweep came in 1978, before the 800 free relay was added to the program.
There were a few reasons for that. A big part of it was just not having the depth that the US has had in the past. In the men’s 800 free relay, for example, Great Britain was winning, and there wasn’t really much the US could do about it (though the Americans had the pieces to medal, at their best). The same was true in the women’s 400 free relay.
But this will also ramp up the pressure on coaches to make the right decision – and perhaps give them the leverage to make the right decision, even if it breaks with tradition, dogma, or the politically more-salient choices.
The US did still medal in 5 out of 7 relays, missing the men’s 800 free relay and mixed 400 medley relay podiums.
Those two relays are, interestingly, two where the US maybe has the best chance of getting back on top, and where they won World Championships in both races last summer.
The American men look better than they have in a generation in the 800 free relay, including a World Championship-winning 7:00.24 last summer, and the defending Olympic Champions from Great Britain have struggled since to hit their peaks together. Team USA won 3.26 seconds ahead of the runners-up from Australia and 3.76 seconds ahead of Great Britain at Worlds last year (though both nations had more championship meets to come that summer).
The Americans won the mixed medley relay in 3:38.79 later in the meet, which was 2.45 seconds ahead of Australia. Australia was without two superstars in Emma McKeon and Kyle Chalmers, but the Americans were without Caeleb Dressel (though, they were almost two seconds better than they swam with Dressel at the Olympics, so maybe that doesn’t matter much).
The Americans’ biggest deficit, the breaststroke leg, is looking better with Nic Fink‘s second wind and Adam Peaty and Arno Kamminga struggling to get back to their bests since Tokyo. So the Americans aren’t a lock there yet, but with proper lineup selection and a little more development especially from the young back-half of Torri Huske and Claire Curzan, they’re in the mix.
But even on the best day for the USA, with Dressel back in form and development of the young female core and Nic Fink holding on through Paris, there’s still one gigantic hurdle for the Americans: the women’s 400 free relay.
The Australian women are doing to the 400 free relay what Katie Ledecky did to distance free. Even when they’re not at their best, they still win, by significant margins. At Worlds last year, with another taper meet still to come, with no Emma McKeon or Cate Campbell or Bronte Campbell, they still won by more than a second.
While the American core of that relay is still very young – Torri Huske and Claire Curzan are 20 and 18, respectively; Kate Douglass is 21, Erika Brown was the veteran at Worlds at 24, and with Abbey Weitzeil seeming to catch a groove under new coaching, the Americans are on the upward swing here.
But the Australian 400 free relay machine shows no signs of slowing down. Mollie O’Callaghan, the defending World Champion, is the next-up at only 18, Meg Harris is only 21, and Shayna Jack has returned with a vengeance since her doping saga.
That’s the one relay that would be really tough for the Americans to win, even on their best day.
Maybe Gretchen Walsh will turn her short course success into an electric long course 100. Maybe Huske and Curzan will push each other faster-and-faster. But maybe that’s still not enough.
So that’s the perfect scenario, and it’s been a while since the Americans have had the perfect scenario.
But as National Team Director Lindsay Mintenko said in an interview about the topic with Sports Illustrated, this is as much about the culture and the team bonding. USA Swimming has long billed its national team culture, as compared to the huge talent pool or massive public investment in swimming pools, as the key to its international success.
And while we could debate if that’s always true, I think that maybe that element of spark, of camaraderie, of that real passion for team culture, is what has been missing from the National Team in recent years.
This could be that spark. Whether the bonuses are paid out or not, if that spark motivates swimmers to better relay performances, then that’s a winning formula for everyone involved – both financially and culturally.
If USA swimming has this much money to throw around, maybe they could start using it to partner with the NCAA and subsidize some of the men’s programs that have been cut.
I maintain that for the US to have even a shot at the sweep, they need to have the relay lineup deciding coaches either do a mixed relay seeding clinic with a USMS coach beforehand, or have a USMS coach on retainer at the meet.
Utterly boneheaded mixed relay lineup decisions a la Tokyo will not allow sweeps.
It was too nice to last. Being a sport purist, or a purist in any endeavor or field of pursuit is like… asking for complete disappointment and disillusionment. Too good to last. What would have been nice would have been the Broadway ‘angels’ of yore, who backed, financially, plays that they believed in. For swimming, I mean, and proper remuneration of swimmers. God forbid we let Las Vegas, the betting hegemony and The Draft Kings in the door, but mates…it’s headed that way, along with all of the underhandedness and foul characters attendant to such milieus.
It all goes the way of rot and rotters in these blinkered times. Hands off our swimming… let’s find an above-table method of economic… Read more »
i’d argue the sports purist position should be in favor of all of this. why else would college-educated people continue to swim (not to mention that in the US, many of the best swim programs are also offer prestigious academic accolades) if they couldn’t make money and were actively hurting their career prospects the longer they remain training/competing full-time?
Realistically they have only officially budgeted $400k into this. The rest is like climbing a tree to reach the moon.
They would need DQ’s to pull it off, as long as they pick their best teams they should finish top 3 in every relay.
Im sure USAS has an insurance policy on these deals.
I don’t think they need one. One of the deals is very likely, the other one is extremely unlikely.
They could just bet like $20k on a multi bet for all 7 relays and win their money back plus more if USA actually pulls it off.
Nic Fink does not simply “hold on”. One holds on to Nic Fink and is carried to victory.
That’s the attitude, Nic!
Unless the AUS women DQ both relays they realistically don’t have a chance. They have a good chance of medaling in everything though.
“Both”? I agree the 4 x 100 is the Aussie’s to lose, but what’s the other you think they have locked up? Certainly not the medley, which leaves the 4 x 200. The US now has a resurgent Ledecky, two fast improving teens that have already split 1:54, another that has already been 1:56 flat start, and a host of other possibilities in the form of veterans, other youngsters, and NCAA stars. AND the US beat the Aussies last summer by 2.4 seconds to win gold. Yes, Titmus was missing, but so was the other 1:54 for the USA. Honestly, the 4 x 200 should be a good race.
I want to see Ledecky vs Titmus on anchor but I think the US will deprive us of that match up by giving Ledecky one of the middle legs again.
In my opinion and I’m not an expert or anything I just think the 4×200 is Australias to lose. It looks like in in order for anyone else to win it will require a big lift for the whole team. Without any miracles I see it going Aus, Usa, Can. I do think any of the top 3 can win though.
People keep forgetting about China probably because their 2022 was wrecked by covid.
I agree that the 4×200 is far from a sure thing. It honestly could go to any of AUS/US/CHN/CAN (not all necessarily with the same likelihood of winning).
However, if you’re looking at it purely on paper then Aus does have the clear advantage.
Taking best times and splits from the past few years:
AUS: 1:54.01 (MOC flat start 2022) + 1:54.90 (McKeon 2019) + 1:55.27 (Neale 2022) + 1:52.82 (Titmus 2022) = 7:37.00
If you want to keep it at 2022 only then swap McKeon for Melverton’s 1:55.40 = 7:37.50
USA: 1:56.01 (Schmitt 2020, fastest flat start outside of Ledecky since 2019) + 1:54.60 (Sims) + 1:54.86 (Gemmel) + 1:53.67 (Ledecky) = 7:39.14
MOC choked in a big way on that relay last summer. She can’t be counted on to step up, or even to match her flat start.
It was already lost before MOC dived in. She blew up because she threw her normal race plan out the window trying to chase Sims down. I think they’ll probably use her on lead off going forward.
Yes. That’s pretty much the definition of a choke. Sims, an unproven relay only swimmer, totally psyched MOC out by taking it out fast. It was in no way lost before MOC dove in. Sims stepped up to split 3 seconds faster than she’d ever been flat start, while MOC was 1.9 seconds slower than her best, almost a 5 second difference. Had Sims only swum equal to her PB and MOC hers, the Aussies would have won easily.
This is false. MOC’s PB at the time of that race was a 1:54.9. Her flat time from earlier that week as a 1:55.2 and she split a 1:55.9. If MOC swam 0.5 faster than her flat start PB then Australia still loses.
The rest of the Aussie team underperforming expectations and then Sims swimming an unexpected fantastic leg doesn’t equal her “psyching” MOC out.
You sound ridiculous.
Mollie would’ve needed to split 1:53.5 to win and her PB at that time was 1:54.9. You’re basically rewarding Sims for her poor performance at trials and if she’d performed properly at trials she’d have got an individual swim and her split wouldn’t have been so surprising.
We’ve been through this. Since myself and others have explained it far enough, I’ll say something for everyone to heed.
Don’t use a swimmer to diminish another swimmer. It is flawed logic and simply rude.
Replace MOC’s 1:54 flat with a 1:55.5 and Australia still wins.
It’s interesting that you are basically certain MOC will perform badly but have absolute faith in Sims and Gemmel who have never been anywhere near their splits before or after.
I just said it will be a race, AUS is not guaranteed a win. Sims and Gemmell have shown repeatedly they can step up on relays. Sims split 1:55 in the morning last summer and Gemmell has been 1:56.1 twice with a flat start in addition to the incredible anchor at Jr Pan Pacs. Sims also set a World Junior record SCM in the 200 last fall and Gemmell‘s split in Melbourne was not only the fastest for Team USA, it was faster than anyone including MOC on the winning AUS relay. And extra turns don’t do Gemmell any favors.
I agree that it will be a race. I literally said that in my response. But then you started talking rubbish.
Lol Sims split a 1:55.9 once and you’re suggesting that is the equivalent of her 1:54.6 split. Babe come on lol.
Gemmel was slower than Rebecca Smith’s flat start and 0.01 faster than Australia’s fastest split lol. Wow give her a crown already.
MOC just swam a 1:55.2 while in heavy training. That’s a full second faster than Sims or Gemmel have ever been. Talk all the smack you want about her but that won’t make her go away.
As I said, I think it’ll be a good race and anything could happen but at least use some logic.
“Babe”? What gives you the right to call anyone “babe”?
Hey babe 😘
Hey hon, or should I call you Tootsie?
You can call me whatever you want babe. 💅
The same thing that gives you the right to insult people who are more successful than you will ever be?
“she can’t be counted on to step up, or even to match her flat start” is an odd thing to say about someone who broke 5 relay WR’s last year
Nice incentive, but you’re right, no chance of this happening.
USA swimming has resulted to extrinsic motivation? Maybe now they’ll get coaches who can actually pick out good relay teams
USA swimming has resulted to extrinsic motivation?