Some relay decisions are straight-forward. Others require some outside-the-box thinking. With U.S. Olympic Trials in the rear-view and the Olympic team officially selected, it’s time to dig in to some of the tough relay decisions Team USA will face at next month’s Olympic Games in Tokyo.
The Easy Calls
Women’s 4×100 medley relay
This one feels pretty straightforward. You’ve got the world record-holders on backstroke (Regan Smith) and breaststroke (Lilly King). Torri Huske pretty definitively established herself as the best flyer in the U.S. at Trials, and could conceivably have one of the best relay splits in the world in that stroke. Abbey Weitzeil won the 100 free at Trials and should be on this relay. The medley does come at the end of the meet, though, so if someone were to swim really well – or really poorly – in their individual, there could be some wrinkles here. (We’ll address the Manuel Dilemma more later on).
Women’s 4×200 free relay
Katie Ledecky is a lock, and Team USA is going to need her to drop something ridiculous to keep this relay in the medal hunt. Allison Schmitt is the other individual entrant into the 200 free and probably a lock for the finals relay. Paige Madden and Katie McLaughlin are the other two likely finals relay members, with Bella Sims and Brooke Forde as prelims relay swimmers.
The only real intrigue here is whether head coach Greg Meehan gives his star pupil Simone Manuel a shot in prelims – but we’d probably expect Manuel to focus in on the 50 and only maybe take a shot at the 100 if she trains well over the next few weeks. The 200 is probably a stretch too far, given Manuel’s Overtraining Syndrome diagnosis and time out of the pool.
Men’s 4×100 free relay
Another one that’s pretty clear-cut. Caeleb Dressel will need to carry this relay just as much as Ledecky will need to carry the women’s 4×200. Zach Apple is a lock. Blake Pieroni and Brooks Curry should swim in finals, with Bowe Becker taking a prelims leg. With Ryan Held not making the team, Team USA could choose to use an outside-the-box swimmer in prelims if they wanted – but there aren’t many really great candidates.
Drew Kibler or Townley Haas could carry on the Texas tradition of having a Longhorn on this relay. But Haas will swim 200 free heats the same morning as these 4×100 free relay heats, so there’s really no reason to have him double up. Kibler was 14th in this event at Trials, so it’s pretty unlikely he’d earn a prelims spot.
Dressel will have a busy enough lineup to sit this one out in prelims, but Apple will only swim this and the 100 free (plus maybe a prelims spot in the 4×200) and Pieroni and Curry are in Tokyo for this event alone. That should set up Team USA to not wager much on the backs of alternates in the morning, probably sticking with Apple, Pieroni and Curry in heats and the final, and swapping out Becker for Dressel when the final rolls around.
The Medium Calls
Women’s 4×100 free relay
Without two-time World Champ Simone Manuel in the mix, this relay looks a lot less threatening. In fact, all four swimmers who qualified to this relay were 53.5 at best at Trials – that’s a composite time somewhere in the 3:34s. Even factoring in relay exchanges, that time isn’t going to scare Australia, and the quartet might even have a hard time overcoming Canada, the Netherlands or China.
Abbey Weitzeil is a lock. Erika Brown, the other individual 100 freestyler, likely is as well. This relay happens right away on Day 1, so there’s not a lot of opportunity for someone else to prove they deserve the spot more. Olivia Smoliga and Natalie Hinds would be the other two finals swimmers, with Allison Schmitt and Catie DeLoof likely swimming prelims.
Depending on the next few weeks of training, Coach Meehan could realistically give Manuel a shot in prelims. Schmitt doesn’t have to swim this relay, since she’s not a relay-only swimmer. DeLoof does have to compete at least once. One option would be to swim Manuel/DeLoof/Smoliga/Hinds in heats, and let those four battle it out for the two spots behind Weitzeil and Brown in the final. As the defending Olympic champ and two-time defending world champ, Manuel has earned enough credibility to justify that kind of second-chance swim. On the other hand, Meehan may be wary of piling too much on Manuel’s plate as she recovers from Overtraining Syndrome.
Smart money probably says Team USA plays it by the book and lets Manuel focus entirely on the 50, but we wouldn’t be shocked if they do something different.
Prelims: Olivia Smoliga/Natalie Hinds/Allison Schmitt/Catie DeLoof
Finals: Abbey Weitzeil/Erika Brown/Olivia Smoliga/Natalie Hinds
Men’s 4×200 free relay
Kieran Smith and Townley Haas are locks for the finals relay as the two individual entrants. In theory, Drew Kibler and Andrew Seliskar should swim the relay in prelims and finals, with Zach Apple (maybe, but probably not – more below) and Patrick Callan filling out the field in prelims.
The only real intrigue is whether the U.S. follows tradition of using its best all-around swimmer (previously Michael Phelps, now Caeleb Dressel) to buoy relays, regardless of the Trials results. Dressel did go 1:46.63 in heats of Trials, faster than everyone but Smith in that morning session. But all six Olympic qualifiers did go faster than Dressel’s time in the final (even Callan was 1:46.49), so it’s not a slam-dunk to get Dressel in the mix here.
Callan has to swim prelims – all relay-only swimmers must compete in at least one round of their relay. Apple could conceivably not swim this relay – he’s an individual 100 free entrant, and heats of the 100 free share a session with heats of this 4×200 free relay. There’s really no reason to gamble on that double. That could open up the door for Dressel… but he’s also got the 100 free heats and semis in the same sessions as heats and finals of this relay.
Our best guess is that Team USA swims Haas/Kibler/Seliskar/Callan in heats, then Haas/Kibler/Seliskar/Smith in the final. Throwing Dressel into the final instead of the slowest prelims split between Haas/Kibler/Seliskar would pretty much be a Hail Mary type gamble if the U.S. looks like it will miss the medals coming out of heats.
The Tough Calls
Men’s 4×100 medley relay
Here’s where it gets fun. Caeleb Dressel is the top U.S. man in both the 100 fly and 100 free – so that’s going to require one of the second-placers to step up for the finals medley relay.
Based on Trials results, the choice would be clear: Dressel won the 100 free by 0.33 seconds. He won the 100 fly by 1.32 seconds. It’s easy math to throw Dressel in the fly and trust Zach Apple to anchor the relay.
Dressel’s butterfly does tend to be better than his freestyle with less rest – he was 0.2 off his 100 fly best and 0.4 off his freestyle best at Trials. The main argument for using Dressel on freestyle is experience: Tom Shields is an Olympic veteran and someone head men’s coach Dave Durden probably trusts to swim well in the Olympic environment. Then you trust your best swimmer, Dressel, to get his hand on the wall if things get close with Great Britain, Russia, or Australia. (The prospect of Duncan Scott or Kyle Chalmers barrelling down on Apple while Dressel watches helplessly from the deck has to be somewhat of a fear). Shields will also be pretty much fully rested and primed for the 100 fly, while Apple will have one or two 4×100 free relay legs, up to three individual 100 freestyles, and perhaps one 4×200 free relay leg under his belt by the time this relay kicks off on day 7.
Then there’s the really outside-the-box theory: try breaststroker Michael Andrew on butterfly in prelims to see if he could put up a better leg than Shields. Andrew went 50.80 back in May, then looked like he leveled up in every event at Trials before scratching this 100 fly to focus on the 200 IM and 50 free. Andrew’s insane opening split from the 200 IM (23.7) probably suggests he could go 50-point-mid at worst. Shields was 51.1 to take second at U.S. Trials.
If Andrew could go fast enough on fly in prelims, the team could use Andrew Wilson on breaststroke (he was about four-tenths slower than Andrew at Trials), Andrew on butterfly and Dressel on free.
Again, the rest argument works in Shields’ favor, though. Andrew has a brutal Olympic schedule: 50 free, 100 breast, 200 IM, plus likely legs on the men’s medley and mixed medley relay.
Here’s a look (based on times from U.S. Olympic Trials) at the potential options for Team USA in this relay. Shameless plug: you can play around with your own outside-the-box theories with SwimSwam’s handy medley relay calculator tool here.
Mixed 4×100 medley relay
This is the relay that’s going to inspire the most speculation, as pretty much every nation has its own unique set of variables to consider.
Typically, the dominant strategy has been to use your two men’s legs first, when possible – that’s because you really can’t overstate the value of getting clean water out front of a heat, rather than swimming through everyone else’s chop. This is especially vital in breaststroke and butterfly, the short-axis strokes where hitting choppy water can stop your momentum cold.
(If you disagree with that strategy, take it up with every single mixed 4×100 free relay team at Worlds, because not a single one deviated from the man-man-woman-woman order).
The medley relay, though, adds a layer of complication to that. Some have suggested that it’s not the order that drives the choice to put men on back and breast, but the fact that back and breast are, on average, the slowest strokes over a 100 with the largest disparity between men’s times and women’s times.
For Team USA, that’s actually not entirely the case. The biggest time differences between the top man and top woman at Olympic Trials actually came in breaststroke and freestyle. Michael Andrew was 6.58 seconds faster than Lilly King in breaststroke and Caeleb Dressel was 6.29 seconds faster than Abbey Weitzeil on freestyle. That’s compared to a 5.7-second gap between Ryan Murphy and Regan Smith in back and a 5.9-second gap between Dressel and Torri Huske in fly.
Ok, that’s a lot of words. Let’s switch to numbers and lay out a few options for Team USA, once again using best times from Olympic Trials. (Of course, lifetime-bests change these numbers a bit, so a lot of the decision-making depends on how close you think all of these swimmers are to their career-best coming out of the pandemic year):