How an Olympic Champion Takes Getting Cut from the Relay

by Olivier Poirier-Leroy. Join his weekly motivational newsletter for competitive swimmers by clicking here.

The relays are one of the most anticipated events on the Olympic swimming program. A lot of the biggest moments in the history of our sport have come during these races.

Who can forget Bruce Hayes storming back to defeat Michael Gross and the West Germans in 1984? Shirley Babashoff and the American women defeating the unstoppable East Germans in Montreal? And of course, Jason Lezak and his otherworldly final split in Beijing to defeat the highly favored French team.

The relays produce some of the biggest moments at the Olympics, and the men’s 4x100m freestyle relay in Rio was no exception.

Heading into Rio that summer there was no clear favorite to win gold.

The French team were fielding sprint champ Florent Manaudou, Metella and Stravius. The Russians had the speedy Vlad Morozov. The hometown Brazilians had Marcelo Chierighini leading off.

If there was a favorite, the Australians looked like a reasonable bet. They walked onto the pool deck for the final with a line-up of sprint heavyweights: James Magnussen, Cam McEvoy and Rio champion in the 100m freestyle, Kyle Chalmers.

And of course, you had the Americans.

But when the four American swimmers walked out for the final there was a notable change to the line-up.

They hadn’t fielded their fastest swimmer from the prelims.

Anthony Ervin.

Return of the King

The year following the London Olympics Michael Phelps was in full retirement mode. After hanging up his racing suit he’d been traveling, playing lots of golf and fulfilling obligations to his sponsors. This was part of the reason he went to the FINA World Championships in 2013—to represent sponsors Speedo and Omega—but also to take in the events. Worlds would be the first major swimming event in the post-Phelps era and he would be in the stands as a fan.

The races didn’t leave a good taste in his mouth.

He watched from the stands as the American men lost the 4x100m free relay by two tenths of a second.

“I was so fired up,” Phelps said afterward [1]. “We have enough guys on that team who can swim faster than that, and that was just frustrating for me to watch.”

Within a few weeks Phelps was back in the water, setting up the showdown to come in Rio.

“What do we need to do to make the most of this?”

In Rio there was no doubt Phelps would be on the relay that would swim at night. He had a long history of throwing down when it mattered most. Phelps had also cracked the American record in the 100m freestyle at the Beijing Olympics, so he had the speed.

Defending Olympic champion in the 100m free, Nathan Adrian, would anchor the Americans. Caeleb Dressel, a relative unknown on the international stage, would lead things off with his explosive start.

Leaving one spot on the relay to be determined.

The swimmers who raced in the prelims of the 4×100 free relay weren’t just trying to make sure the US advanced to the final; they were also racing for that final spot on the relay.

Jimmy Feigen, Ervin and NC State sprinter Ryan Held would be competing to see who swam at night. Coaches will typically select the “hot” swimmer who races fastest in the prelims. The idea is that a swimmer peaking at the right time trumps personal best times.

Ervin dropped the quickest time (splitting a 47.65) with Held just a couple tenths back. Additionally, when the two swimmers went head to head during training camp a few weeks earlier Ervin had prevailed there too.

Ervin looked like the go-to pick.

The coaches ended up choosing Held.

Why?

Held was fourteen years Ervin’s junior, (i.e. he’d recover faster from the morning swim), the relay was his only event at the Olympics, and Ervin still had the 50 later in the week.

Bob Bowman, the American men’s head coach, broke the news to Ervin.

Ervin took a big breath and thought for a couple moments. Finally, he nodded, sensing an opportunity.

“What do we need to do to make the most of this?”

Ervin’s coach, David Marsh, suggested to Ervin—also a team captain—that he be the one to tell Held that he’d be swimming that night at finals.

Ervin agreed.

“Anthony got to go give the blessing of the relay position to Ryan Held,” Marsh said [2].

When team first is more than just a motto

The decision turned out to be the best one for the team.

The American men won the race.

Dressel got them off to a good start in 48.10, handing to Phelps, who lived up to GOAT status by pulling out to nearly a body length lead on the strength of an unreal turn and breakout.

Held, swimming the third leg, kept the lead and handed off to the ever-consistent Adrian, who brought it home with the fastest split of anyone in the water for a convincing win and American gold.

Later in the week Ervin would fly down the length of the pool to win gold in the 50m freestyle, making his comeback after a decade out of the sport complete. 16 years after his first Olympic gold medal he had another in the same event, setting a personal best time of 21.40.

Ervin could have fought the decision. He had the experience and he had the faster split. Ervin also had unfinished business on his mind—he’d been a member of the Sydney Games team that lost gold in the 4×100—the first time the US men had lost the relay in 36 years of Olympic competition. He’d also been in the water for the relay back in 2013 in Barcelona that placed second behind the French.

His decision to honor the decision by the coaches couldn’t have been easy. But it was a symptom of the “team first” culture that had grown around the American swimmers during training camp and the Games.

Ervin gave up his relay leg and looked for a way to make the most of it, demonstrating mental toughness and how to be an exceptional teammate.

ABOUT OLIVIER POIRIER-LEROY

Olivier Poirier-Leroy is a former national level swimmer. He’s the publisher of YourSwimBook, a ten-month log book for competitive swimmers.

Conquer the PoolHe’s also the author of the recently published mental training workbook for competitive swimmers, Conquer the Pool: The Swimmer’s Ultimate Guide to a High Performance Mindset.

It combines sport psychology research, worksheets, and anecdotes and examples of Olympians past and present to give swimmers everything they need to conquer the mental side of the sport.

Ready to take your mindset to the next level?

Click here to learn more about Conquer the Pool.

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Mikeh

They still should have put Ervin on the relay. He earned it. #sour grapes

Eagleswim

I’m glad it worked out the way it did… watching him gold was a serious highlight of the games, and it’s totally plausible that he wouldn’t have been able to do that with an extra 100 final

Swimmer

No swimming Ervin was absolutely the right decision. The coaches looked at more than just the splits. In prelims Ervin had good clean water whereas Held had to fight thru rough water to put USA back in the lead. After prelims they looked at lactic levels. Held was recovered Ervin was not. Given Ervin’s inconsistency and Helds consistency the correct decision was made. Held was 2nd after prelims and 2nd after semis and finished only 0.03 behind Dressel at finals Trials. There was too much at stake to gamble on Ervin. Held earned his spot and delivered. The other not so well known fact about that relay was that the exchange between Dressel and Phelps was 0.06. Can you imagine… Read more »

sven

Can you give a source for the lactate levels comment? I hadn’t heard that and am curious about it.

Gorb

Agreed. No way Ervin would have split slower than his prelims time in finals.

Joel Lin

In this instance it was a win win for all – Ervin was a member of the relay & he also had 3 heats of the 50 coming next for his shot at individual gold.

In other past cycles the coaches’ choices have been spurious at best. Scott Jaffe, Melanie Valerio are two examples of past Olympians who didn’t have an individual swim & were passed over for the podium swim by coaches who had political reasons to favor their own college/club athletes.

I think it speaks volumes about Ervin’s class & self assurance that he handled this so well. But I think it’s a mistake to forget the ones who were caught in worse situations that were far less defensible.

LovethisSport

Great back story on a tough call. Hopefully, Ervin realizes his contribution as a team leader and prelim swimmer … as well as an eventual gold medalist later in the meet. While he certainly earned the right to be on the finals relay, it’s still a coaching decision based on many factors, including those stated in the article. Also, I don’t know how swimming another all out 100 might have affected Ervin’s 50 Free later in the meet as recovery takes longer as you get older (and did he swim the 50 three times?). I really respect his attitude and actions after being told he wasn’t on the relay for finals. He still got a Gold Medal as a member… Read more »

About Olivier Poirier-Leroy

Olivier Poirier-Leroy

Olivier Poirier-Leroy has been involved in competitive swimming for most of his life. Starting off at the age of 6 he was thrown in the water at the local pool for swim lessons and since then has never wanted to get out. A nationally top ranked age grouper as both a …

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