Exploring Team USA’s Olympic Relay Options: How To Puzzle Out the Medleys

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).

Prelims: White/Jacoby/Curzan/Brown

Finals: Smith/King/Huske/Weitzeil

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.

Prelims: Sims/Forde/Madden/McLaughlin

Finals: Ledecky/Schmitt/Madden/McLaughlin

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.

Prelims: Becker/Curry/Pieroni/Apple

Finals: Dressel/Curry/Pieroni/Apple

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.

Prelims: Callan/Kibler/Seliskar/Haas

Finals: Smith/Kibler/Seliskar/Haas

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.

Operation Do-The-Math:

Swimmer Time
Ryan Murphy 52.22
Michael Andrew 58.14
Caeleb Dressel 49.76
Zach Apple 47.72
TOTAL: 3:27.84

Operation Trust-Experience:

Swimmer Time
Ryan Murphy 52.22
Michael Andrew 58.14
Tom Shields 51.19
Caeleb Dressel 47.39
TOTAL: 3:28.94

Operation Let’s-Get-Weird-With-It:

Swimmer Time
Ryan Murphy 52.22
Andrew Wilson 58.74
Michael Andrew 50.80
Caeleb Dressel 47.39
TOTAL: 3:29.15

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):

Operation Follow-Tradition:

Swimmer Time
Ryan Murphy 52.22
Michael Andrew 58.14
Torri Huske 55.66
Abbey Weitzeil 53.52
TOTAL: 3:39.54

Operation Do-The-Math:

Swimmer Time
Regan Smith 57.92
Michael Andrew 58.14
Torri Huske 55.66
Caeleb Dressel 47.23
TOTAL: 3:38.95

Operation Use-The-Three-World-Record-Holders:

Swimmer Time
Ryan Murphy 52.22
Lilly King 1:04.72
Caeleb Dressel 49.76
Abbey Weitzeil 53.52
TOTAL: 3:40.22

Operation Use-The-Other-Three-World-Record-Holders-(Including-200s):

Swimmer Time
Regan Smith 57.92
Lilly King 1:04.72
Caeleb Dressel 49.76
Zach Apple 47.72
TOTAL: 3:40.12

Operation Clone-Caeleb-Dressel:

Swimmer Time
Regan Smith 57.92
Lilly King 1:04.72
Caeleb Dressel 49.76
Caeleb Dressel 47.23
TOTAL: 3:39.63

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Horninco
1 month ago

“Operation Clone Caeleb Dressel”

OK, that’s pretty funny. You buried the lede!

oxyswim
Reply to  Horninco
1 month ago

If there’s anyone I have confidence to have more in the tank for Tokyo it’s Dressel and Dressel’s clone. I don’t see any route to take down the UK in the 4×2, but if they want a shot a Russia for silver or to stay ahead of Australia for bronze he’s should be on it if he’s up for it. He’ll have the 100 FR semi that morning as well, but plenty of time in between.

DCSwim
Reply to  Horninco
1 month ago

It’s simply preposterous… no way you’d get a clone ready up to speed in five weeks time, even if you started at the beginning of trials that would’ve been pushing it

There's no doubt that he's tightening up
Reply to  Horninco
1 month ago

200,000 units are ready, with a million more well on the way

Wave 1.5 Qualifier
1 month ago

Even if the event schedule is not perfect, if I was Schmitt or Apple I would not be so quick to relinquish my earned relay spot to swim even just the prelims on a relay for a country that traditionally almost always takes home a medal whenever it throws 4 swimmers on the blocks.

Joe
Reply to  Wave 1.5 Qualifier
1 month ago

yes. I think that any projections of relays needs to take that into account. I’m not Schmitt or Apple but I would tell the coaches they can take my hard earned relay swim over my dead body

Coach
Reply to  Joe
1 month ago

They both have coaches on staff that I’m sure will find a way to keep their swimmers on relays.

tea rex
Reply to  Joe
1 month ago

Ultimately, I think it’s the coaches’ call, but I doubt either swimmer would protest.
Schmitt, at this point in her career, doesn’t need a charity medal. Apple would have to swim the 4×200 the same session as the 100 free. If I were him, I’d focus on the 100 free – a weak showing there and you could get bumped from the medley.

Smith-King-Huske-Manuel
Reply to  Wave 1.5 Qualifier
1 month ago

Allison Schmitt was pulled from the final of the women’s 4 x 200 meter freestyle relay at the 2019 FINA World Aquatics Championships after posting a time of 1:59.37 to lead off the heats.

Swimfan
Reply to  Smith-King-Huske-Manuel
1 month ago

then a week later at summer nationals she went 1:56

Smith-King-Huske-Manuel
Reply to  Swimfan
1 month ago

Who cares?

Dressel_42.8
1 month ago

Ohhhhhh so SwimSwam is still sleeping on Hunter the magic man Armstrong. That’s fine that’s fine. Let’s just wait and watch.

dresselgoat
1 month ago

Wait, why Fink on the breast in the medley over Andrew Wilson who qualified in the 100 breast?

Idk
Reply to  dresselgoat
1 month ago

Fink swam a faster time with in semis.

SwimSam
Reply to  Jared Anderson
1 month ago

I really hope they go with Wilson, medley prelims are a formality for the US and Wilson earned the spot. Also Wilson hit 58 3(?) times in 2019 and then twice again at Trials, man is consistent

Rafael
Reply to  SwimSam
1 month ago

Unless they get DQ..

dresselgoat
Reply to  Rafael
1 month ago

I don’t think Wilson has DQ’d a international relay. I think it was Cordes

Ol' Longhorn
Reply to  dresselgoat
1 month ago

Cordes twice — once a false start, the other trying to remove his goggles screwing something up.

Rafael
Reply to  dresselgoat
1 month ago

Did not wilson got his fair share of NCAA DQ? or was Fink?

Daaaave
Reply to  Rafael
1 month ago

No NCAA DQs for Wilson at major meets (can’t find 2014 Emory / SCAD / Millsaps tri-meet results though so who’s to say for sure)

SwimSam
Reply to  Rafael
1 month ago

true, but I hope no one would try to be a hero on the prelims squad

Jeffery
Reply to  SwimSam
1 month ago

Yeah facts, he deserves a shot at a gold medal.

Deep End
1 month ago

If MA were to time trial a… let’s say 48.4-48.6 at training camp, does he get a prelims shot? If anyone else is getting on this one its him right? He made a 50, 100, and 200 individual spot.

Ignoring his technical freestyle issues, he’s in a Phelps like role on the team in terms of multiple distances and strokes with 3 legit ind. medal opportunities… 6 medals would be really cool for the resume. He’s been a 49.0 right? Is a 48.5 flying-start split enough for the US to make finals? 47.9 flying-start is doable in my opinion even though it’d prolly look ugly.

Horninco
Reply to  Deep End
1 month ago

You already have three relay only swimmers that need to swim, then you have to make sure the relay gets an inside lane. Even without those considerations, you want to make the final, the US got too cute in 2015……

The unoriginal Tim
Reply to  Deep End
1 month ago

Absolutely not. Phelps didn’t just get those relay slots thrown his way. He was one of the fastest splits everty time. His 100 Free was actually very good. He had 47.1 splits in London and Rio and a 47.5 lead off in Beijing.

Andrew on the otherhand can’t really get home in a 100 Free. I see no reason to suspect that has changed since his 49.0 given the 2IM free leg.

Mean Dean
Reply to  The unoriginal Tim
1 month ago

Disagree. Mandrew will go out in a 19-point And come back in a 29 to break 49

NoFlyKick
Reply to  Mean Dean
1 month ago

So, every swimmer that qualified for the M 4×100 FR will break 49. Why use MA?

Akos
Reply to  NoFlyKick
1 month ago

Right, possibly breaking 49 is no reason to give him a slot. He could have done that in trials instead of the 100BK or something. He definitely didn’t plan to swim that event.

Deep End
Reply to  The unoriginal Tim
1 month ago

What had he done in 04 prior to being slotted into finals? This is MA’s 04

Yabo
Reply to  Deep End
1 month ago

A dirty 200 free at trials

Ol' Longhorn
Reply to  Yabo
1 month ago

And how did that translate — 48.74 with a rolling start with PVDH going 2 seconds faster.

Ol' Longhorn
Reply to  The unoriginal Tim
1 month ago

He got his first relay thrown his way in 2004 as a gift (Gary Hall, Jr. was relegated to prelims only) and bombed while eating wake after Crocker’s dismal leadoff.

NoFlyKick
Reply to  Deep End
1 month ago

‘just can’t see any justification for using MA in FR on a relay. His 100 just isn’t as good as the other options, and he has a very full schedule already. He is going to need all the rest he can get. Don’t sabotage the man with the wild hope of improving a relay.

There is a slightly stronger (very slightly) argument for using MA in fly on a relay. It is very likely he can up a 50.-low. Nobody else other than Dressel can do that, not even close, and Dressel can bring serious heat in the FR. Worries about tiring MA still apply though.

Overall, I’m in favor of using the swimmers that earned their way onto the… Read more »

Deep End
Reply to  NoFlyKick
1 month ago

I do agree about fatigue we had so many examples of that last week. I am only on about medal count and legacy. I’m almost as bad as NBC or my grandma lol

Dressel will come 3rd in 100 free
1 month ago

I know it would cause a bloodbath in the comments, but could you perhaps do an article comparing top aggregate times from trials for top3, maybe top 5 countries in each relay event heading into Tokyo? That would be really fun for speculating. Thanks!

Troyy
Reply to  Jared Anderson
1 month ago

Is there also an article projecting medal winners and medal tally in progress?

Torchbearer
Reply to  Troyy
1 month ago

I presume when all the trials are over…BTW what is the deadline for submission of the swimming team to the IOC…must be very soon…

Robbos
Reply to  Jared Anderson
1 month ago

Great thanks.

Torchbearer

This is getting like planning DDay! 🙂

Last edited 1 month ago by Torchbearer
Smith-King-Huske-Manuel
Reply to  Torchbearer
1 month ago

In some cases, it feels more like Pearl Harbor.

Eddie Reese
1 month ago

People forget Apple has swum multiple 46 point relay splits. If he can replicate those, i don’t know how you look past a 48. fly and a 46. free finish to that medley

Unknown Swimmer
Reply to  Eddie Reese
1 month ago

Exactly! Also curious what Perioni could do in training camps to get his name in the 4 x 200 discussion – was only 7th at trials, if you take Apple off I think that’d be a pretty logical replacement at least for a prelim spot

Horninco
Reply to  Unknown Swimmer
1 month ago

This would depend on how he’s swimming, He has 1 :44 split to his name in 2019. If he looks like that guy again I’d say put him in prelims and see what he does.

Wave 1.5 Qualifier
Reply to  Eddie Reese
1 month ago

Agree. How ZApple is still getting ignored by the masses right now is puzzling. He was the unsung hero on one of those Worlds relays.

frug
Reply to  Wave 1.5 Qualifier
1 month ago

Yeah, he swam 6 times at 2019 WCs only two weeks after a 6 event lineup at the WUGs and he was lights out. True he didn’t have any doubles at the 2019 Worlds, but I think he has shown he can shoulder a decent sized workload.

Horninco
Reply to  Eddie Reese
1 month ago

It’s the most logical solution by far. Consider not just the time, but pacing.

If you swap Dressel for Sheilds it might be the difference between having a 1-second lead (or more) versus being tied. Even with Dressel on the end, would you rather have a 1-second lead and FORCE the other squad(s) to have a 46.0 free spit, or go in tied and roll the dice? Even with Dressel?

MA 100 breaststroke gold medal
Reply to  Horninco
1 month ago

I’d rather go in with a lead

Horninco
Reply to  MA 100 breaststroke gold medal
1 month ago

I think 52.2, 58.0, 49.0 give you about a second lead

Unknown Swimmer
Reply to  Horninco
1 month ago

Zapple holds that lead for sure! I think we’re over thinking this too much – let Dressel do what he does best relative to everyone else – swim fly – and it’s not all that close!

Akos
Reply to  Unknown Swimmer
1 month ago

I also think that with Nathan Adrian’s massive size, he created a wake that was easier for Duncan Scott to ride than Apple with make. I don’t see him getting chased down with 1+ seconds lead

Ol' Longhorn
Reply to  MA 100 breaststroke gold medal
1 month ago

Not with Duncan Scott surfing your wake.

Max Hardie
Reply to  Horninco
1 month ago

1.5 sec lead!

Max Hardie
Reply to  Eddie Reese
1 month ago

Fully agree, it’s a no brainer

CACrushers
1 month ago

I think the point about clear water in the mixed medley makes sense for putting men on the back leg instead of fly. But i think the men do breast and women do free has more to do with the difference between men and women in those events

About Jared Anderson

Jared Anderson

Jared Anderson swam for nearly twenty years. Then, Jared Anderson stopped swimming and started writing about swimming. He's not sick of swimming yet. Swimming might be sick of him, though. Jared was a YMCA and high school swimmer in northern Minnesota, and spent his college years swimming breaststroke and occasionally pretending …

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