Fukuoka 2023, North America Day 4: What Does Team USA Do For The Women’s Medley Relay?

2023 WORLD AQUATICS CHAMPIONSHIPS

Headed into the 2023 World Championships, the women’s 4×100 medley relay was one of the biggest gold locks for Team USA. If they didn’t win any other relay, at least they had the final race on the final day of the meet as a safety net.

However, that narrative changed significantly following the conclusion of the mixed medley relay.

During the mixed medley relay, the United States had been on pace with China for the first half of the race. However, Zhang Yufei then outsplit Torri Huske by over two seconds, and Australia’s Matt Temple had also caught up to Huske. Even though Kate Douglass anchored with the fastest relay split an American woman has ever produced (51.79), she wasn’t able to pass those in front of her and Team USA took bronze.

Huske’s relay split of 58.19 was considerably slower than her flat start time of 56.61 from earlier—had she replicated her flat start time on this relay, Team USA would have placed 0.04 seconds behind China instead of 1.62 seconds, increasing their chances of gold significantly in a real-time scenario.

Although Huske has a history of swimming the 100 fly slower on relays compared to her individual races, she’s been a mainstay on Team USA’s medley relays for the last two years because the gap between her relay and flat start times were never this large. However, after her swim on Wednesday, it’s very likely that she will not be retained for the women’s medley relay. So without her, what will Team USA do?

In this article, we will explore multiple lineups that the American women could go with and compare them to a best-case-scenario Australian lineup (Kaylee McKeown, Abbey Harkin, Emma McKeon, Mollie O’Callaghan), as the Aussies look to be their primary threat for gold in this relay.

Note: We used O’Callaghan for Australia’s free leg instead of Jack (despite Jack’s best 100 free split being faster than O’Callaghan’s flat start minus 0.5) because Jack has a conflict with the 50 free on the final day whereas O’Callaghan is fresh and is also on a massive upward trajectory after breaking the 200 free world record.

Option One: Walsh

For most countries, if their top performer in an event is underperforming, they will just go with their second-fastest performer. However, team USA opting with Gretchen Walsh, the second-place 100 fly finisher at trials, might not be ideal.

Walsh is having a relatively “off” meet at Worlds, having finished 8th in the 100 fly final with a time (57.58) that’s over a second slower than her personal best (56.31). She also didn’t have the best performance leading off the 4×100 free relay, clocking a 54.06 that was also considerably slower than her 53.11 from three weeks ago.

However, it is worth noting that Walsh swam a 57.14 in the 100 fly semifinals. If 0.5 seconds is taken off that time, it’s a 56.64, which is comparable to an Emma McKeon split and also significantly faster than what Huske split. Walsh is known to be a strong relay performer, but her only relay experience is from NCAAs and junior international meets from nearly four years ago—none of those meets are on the same level as Worlds.

If Walsh somehow bounces back in the 50 fly and 50 free later on in her meet, putting her on the medley relay could be a possibility. However, given her inexperience, it’s a risky move. It also puts them 0.69 seconds ahead of Australia on paper, and there’s much more certainty in the Aussies replicating their best-case-scenario splits than the United States. So the verdict here seems to be that even if Walsh bounces back, putting her on this relay is playing with fire.

Splits Comparison (-0.5 off flat start times for breast, fly, and Aussie free):

United States, Best Case Scenario With Walsh Australia, Best Case Scenario
Back Regan Smith – 57.78 Kaylee McKeown – 57.53
Breast Lilly King – 1:04.95 Abbey Harkin – 1:06.36
Fly Gretchen Walsh – 56.64 Emma McKeon –  56.38
Free Kate Douglass – 51.79 Mollie O’Callaghan – 51.58
Total 3:51.16 3:51.85

Option Two: Douglass On Fly, Weitzeil On Free

Putting Kate Douglass on fly and Abbey Weitzeil on free is the common consensus amongst our commenters right now, and there’s logic behind it. Both Douglass and Weitzeil are on form, Weitzeil is an experienced relay anchor, and Douglass has the fourth-fastest 100 fly time in the world this year.

However, there are a few bones to pick with this lineup.

First off, it’s important to note that Douglass didn’t qualify for the 100 fly individually at Worlds. She’s swimming freestyle, breaststroke and IM events and probably focused on those events in the leadup to the meet (though IM training *does* involve all four strokes). The last time Team USA opted to make swimmers race in strokes where they weren’t qualified f0r individually was at 2022 Worlds, when Natalie Hinds swam fly and Alex Walsh swam breast in the prelims of the medley relay (and ironically, Douglass didn’t swim fly on that relay despite having a season-best faster than Hinds). Hinds split 58.88 when she had a flat start season-best of 58.45, while Walsh split 1:07.60 with a flat start season-best of 1:07.59.

If Douglass pulls a Hinds or Walsh, she should be in the 56-mid range. However, she’s going to be in a different situation compared to them (prelims vs. finals), so she could have more momentum to go faster (she’s also a better 100 flyer than Hinds)—but you never know.

I also think it’s a mistake to make America’s fastest female relay swimmer ever in the 100 free swim another stroke, especially when she doesn’t have an individual 100 fly swim to use as a data point. Yes, Regan Smith swam the 100 back on the medley relay in 2019 and broke the World Record, but that came after she broke the 200 back world record. All of her preparation for that meet was toward backstroke, so I would be more confident in 2019 Smith dropping a fast 100 back than I would in 2023 Douglass dropping a fast 100 fly after qualifying for Worlds in freestyle, breaststroke, and IM.

Yes, Douglass clocked some fast sprint free and fly splits at short course worlds after not racing either stroke individually. However, that was short course and not long course (plus, it was during the middle of the NCAA season where the 100 fly was one of her primary events), so it’s not very comparable.

Not as significant but also of note is that Weitzeil has the 50 free prior to the medley relay, which might hamper her chances of replicating another 52.4 split that came when she was fresh (though she did split 52.49 after a 50 free during the Tokyo Olympics).

If Douglass drops her “best case scenario” fly split on the relay, Team USA would be 0.81 seconds away from Australia. However, given the lack of data points surrounding her 100 fly form right now, this lineup still feels like a gamble to me. Plus, if Douglass is around the 56-mid range rather than 55-high (which is very possible), Team USA will be in “Aussie female sprinter run-down” territory. Which is very dangerous.

Splits Comparison:

United States, Best Case Scenario With Douglass On Fly And Weitzeil On Free Australia, Best Case Scenario
Back Regan Smith – 57.78 Kaylee McKeown – 57.53
Breast Lydia Jacoby – 1:04.95 Abbey Harkin – 1:06.36
Fly Kate Douglass – 55.91 Emma McKeon –  56.38
Free Abbey Weitzeil – 52.40 Mollie O’Callaghan – 51.58
Total 3:51.04 3:51.85

Option Three: Smith On Fly, Berkoff On Back

Placing Regan Smith on fly and Katharine Berkoff on back is the lineup that I personally think is the best option. Although the aggregate time is slightly slower than the one with Douglass on fly and Weitzeil on free, I have greater confidence in this lineup actually working.

First off, Smith is swimming the 200 fly already at Worlds and has likely focused on the stroke for the last few weeks. Based on the way she’s been taking out her races, she could have a good 100 fly in her. I’d rather have her swim fly and Douglass swim free (where she’s already proved herself twice) than have Douglass take her chances on an event that she hasn’t trained for in the lead-up to Worlds.

Plus, the gap between Berkoff and Smith in the 100 back is 0.47 seconds, whereas the gap between Weitzeil and Douglass on free is 0.61 seconds and could be even larger with Weitzeil’s 50 free coming before the relay.

Splits Comparison:

United States, Best Case Scenario With Smith on Fly and Berkoff on Back Australia, Best Case Scenario
Back Katharine Berkoff – 58.25 Kaylee McKeown – 57.53
Breast Lilly King – 1:04.95 Abbey Harkin – 1:06.36
Fly Regan Smith – 56.10 Emma McKeon –  56.38
Free Kate Douglass – 51.79 Mollie O’Callaghan – 51.58
Total 3:51.09 3:51.85

Option Four: The Status Quo

This lineup will be included just so we can contextualize how fast Team USA will be compared to Australia if Huske replicates her mixed medley relay split. The result will be a relay that is nearly a second behind Australia’s relay.

If Huske replicates her flat start time though, Team USA’s add-up is a 3:51.13, which puts them in a much more favorable position but is still slower than options two and three listed above.

United States, With Huske’s MMR Split Australia, Best Case Scenario
Back Regan Smith – 57.78 Kaylee McKeown – 57.53
Breast Lilly King – 1:04.95 Abbey Harkin – 1:06.36
Fly Torri Huske – 58.19 Emma McKeon –  56.38
Free Kate Douglass – 51.79 Mollie O’Callaghan – 51.58
Total 3:52.71 3:51.85

Conclusion

We can speculate about relay lineups all we want, but the main conclusion that can be made is that the Team USA coaches will really need to put their thinking caps on to come up with the fastest possible relay. They might have to go with something out of their comfort zone and take risks—the last time they did this in 2019, it lead to a World record.

Although most of the speculation in this article surrounds the butterfly leg, there are other decisions that need to be made as well, such as breaststroke. Although Lilly King swam the fastest American 100 breast time at Worlds (1:05.45), Lydia Jacoby beat her in finals with a time of 1:05.94, so that’s also a dilemma that Team USA has to grapple with.

This relay was once Team USA’s best chance at winning relay gold. And they need to take advantage of this opportunity and make the right choices.

Other North American Highlights:

  • 16-year-old Summer McIntosh of Canada broke the World Junior Record in the 200 free with a time of 1:53.65 and picked up bronze. Meanwhile, America’s Bella Sims swam a 1:56.00 to take sixth place.
  • McIntosh also swam a time of 2:06.85 to qualify for the 200 fly final.
  • America’s Thomas Heilman and Canada’s Ilya Kharun tied for fourth place in the 200 fly final with a time of 1:53.85. Kharun broke his own Canadian record, while Heilman became the fastest 18-and-under American in the history of this event. America’s Carson Foster finished sixth with a time of 1:54.74.
  • Bobby Finke took bronze in the men’s 800 free with a new American record time of 7:38.67.
  • Smith broke the American record in the 50 back with a time of 27.10, qualifying as the top seed headed into finals. She also clocked a 2:06.86 to make the 200 fly final.
  • Berkoff, the former 50 back American record holder, swam a time of 27.49 to also make the 50 back final. Canadian teammates Ingrid Wilm and Kylie Masse also placed top eight. Meanwhile, Linsday Looney, Smith’s training partner at ASU, qualified for the 200 fly final in eighth.
  • America’s Jack Alexy set a best time of 47.68 in the 100 free prelims, but swam a 48.06 in semi-finals to barely qualify for finals in eighth. Meanwhile, reigning bronze medalist Josh Liendo of Canada finished 14th in semi-finals and didn’t qualify for finals. Trinidad and Tobago’s Dylan Carter also swam in the 100 free semis, finishing 16th.
  • Jordan Crooks of the Cayman Islands set two best times in the men’s 100 free, dropping over a second from his 2022 best of 48.79 to go 47.71 and make the final.
  • America’s Foster and Shaine Casas qualified for the men’s 200 IM final in third and eighth place respectively, while Canada’s Finlay Knox missed out.
  • Canada’s team of Masse (59.19), James Dergousoff (1:00.69), Maggie MacNeil (56.30), and Ruslan Gaziev (47.54) combined for a time of 3:43.72 to finish sixth in the mixed medley relay.
  • America’s Nic Fink finished second in the men’s 50 breast with a time of 26.59.

North America Medal Table:

GOLD SILVER BRONZE TOTAL
United States 3 7 7 17
Canada 0 1 1 2

 

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chickenlamp
4 months ago

I like the idea of putting Huske in prelims. Let’s her get some confidence back, and in the unlikely scenario she has another bad split they can choose another option for the final

Swimguy94
4 months ago

Love how the usa times are stretch targets while the aus times are basically with no stretch lol. Based on harkens 200 breast I think she’ll be at 1:05, mckeon can split 55 fly too

Fukuoka Gold
4 months ago

It’s good to support someone who’s on the down, but..

“I’m confident that you will be the greatest again..”

She was the greatest? 🤔

Fukuoka Gold
Reply to  Fukuoka Gold
4 months ago

No, she’s not “the greatest sprint 100 flyer in American histrory..” lol.

She has not even won 100 fly Olympics medal or broken 100 fly WR.

You must be extremely young to not even heard of Mary T. Meagher and Dana Vollmer.

Either that or you are trolling.

This site is lately full of trolls

Last edited 4 months ago by Fukuoka Gold
Fukuoka Gold
Reply to  Fukuoka Gold
4 months ago

By your logic, anytime a younger swimmer swim faster time than ever before, they’re the greatest of all time.

So, you must agree that Kaylee Mackeown is the greatest female backstroker in history, Ariarne Titmus is the greatest female mid-d in history, ZSC is the greatest male 200 breastroker in history… etc

Dai
4 months ago

Torri huske does not seem to have much in her tank. Gretchen is so nervous that she can’t balance the first and second half. Lily King is not on a good form probably because it is away from USA. So I would pick Reagan smith for 100 fly. Lydia Jacoby for breastroke

Cincokat
4 months ago

Berkoff/Jacoby/Smith/Douglas.

Dai
Reply to  Cincokat
4 months ago

Good idea

Dai
4 months ago

I don’t disagree with your arguement. But Huske is indeed not in a rising form, if you compare her results with last year generally, fly, free…Not to say the terrible results on the medley relay

Last edited 4 months ago by Dai
Steve Nolan
4 months ago

I bet they keep Huske on it.

Torchbearer
4 months ago

Who ever they pick, the US will be fine and win….and thats for an Aussie…

About Yanyan Li

Yanyan Li

Although Yanyan wasn't the greatest competitive swimmer, she learned more about the sport of swimming by being her high school swim team's manager for four years. She eventually ventured into the realm of writing and joined SwimSwam in January 2022, where she hopes to contribute to and learn more about …

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