We all like to reminisce back to 2008, when the high-stakes 400 free relay spun gold for the Americans on the churning arms of veteran Jason Lezak. It was one of Michael Phelps‘ eight legendary golds, and it was arguably the most exciting relay race in recent history, perhaps in the entire history of the sport. While the Americans got their win right in the faces of Alain Bernard and the rest of the French squad, France stormed back in 2012, as Yannick Agnel ripped a 46.74 to out-split Ryan Lochte by exactly one second and give France the gold.
It was France again in 2013 at the Barcelona World Championships, then at the 2014 Pan Pacific Champs, a very old U.S. squad got beat by the Aussies, with Phelps’ freestyle prowess not shining through as he barely broke 49 in the lead-off leg and Nathan Adrian was the only sub-48 split on the relay. And then 2015 happened. The 2015 American squad for Worlds was chosen in 2014, and the mediocre showing from the American team was highlighted by the men not even making the 400 free relay final in an event in which they are consistently fighting for golds. So what needs to happen for the U.S. to muscle their way back to the top?
ADRIAN NEEDS TO STAY HOT
Nathan Adrian had a huge one-hundredth of a second touch out over the favorite James Magnussen in the individual 100 free in London, in addition to splitting a wild 46.85 on the end of the American gold medal 400 medley relay. But he’s declined slowly since then. Magnussen knocked him off in 2013, and Adrian wasn’t even under 48 seconds in the 2014 Pan Pacs final. At this summer’s World Champs, he tied for 7th in the 100 free final with a 48.31.
Yet, there are signs of life. He blasted a new American record in the 50 free (21.37) at the World Champs. And he’s been 48-mid twice since early November, at the Minnesota Pro Swim Series as well as at U.S. Winter Nationals, in addition to throwing down a 21.57 at the Minnesota meet. He’s shown more grit in the 50 than in the 100, which may be worrying, but he’s the United States’ fastest sprint freestyler in recent history. He’s always been dependable on relays, so the American squad is going to have to rely on him to put forth a big swim. Let’s not forget that he split sub-47’s in back-to-back years, in 2012 and 2013.
PHELPS NEEDS TO BE THE PHELPS WE SAW THIS SUMMER
MP dominated Summer Nationals this year, rounding out the season with world top times in the 100 fly and the 200 fly. He was powerful, incredibly fit, and swam like a champion. He was swimming like the Phelps we think about when we hear his name; the Phelps who won 8 golds in Beijing, who won races where it looked impossible that he would win, who elevated the sport of swimming to what it is today. He needs to be that Phelps next summer.
And why should we doubt him? We can’t really doubt the GOAT, and he hasn’t given us much reason to worry. Yes, we’ve seen more promise in his butterfly this year, but it’s the Olympic year. Relays matter, and Phelps’ middle name is Clutch.
IT’S REALLY TIME FOR THE YOUNG GUNS TO STEP UP
Caeleb Dressel had a huge 50 free this summer, and he finally made some more headway towards the 48.00 barrier with a 48.78 that was his first best time since 2013. But 48.78 simply won’t cut it. The Aussies, French, Brazilians, etc., aren’t going to have any 48-highs on their relay, and neither can the Americans. Jack Conger had a fantastic relay split at the World University Games, but despite his 47.75 split he has yet to break 49 with a flat start. AKA, even if we were to bank on him putting down another magical split like that, he won’t even make the Olympic team (at least in the 100 free) if he can’t put together the 48 low/mid that he should, hypothetically, be capable of, based on his relay split.
This isn’t terribly realistic, but Maxime Rooney, Ryan Hoffer, Michael Chadwick are still young (especially the first two) and have been very impressive in 2015. Rooney is better at the 200, and Hoffer has yet to prove himself in long course, but Chadwick could very well find himself on this relay and has picked up some more experience after competing in the Duel in the Pool.
Whoever it is, there needs to be some new blood in this relay. Guys like Anthony Ervin, Jimmy Feigen, and Ryan Lochte are not the same swimmers they used to be. While it is interesting that Feigen’s been training at SwimMAC, the U.S. men still need to reload their armory going into Rio and find some explosive talent to compete with the world’s best.
POSSIBLE DREAM 2016 RELAY (AND ALTERNATES)
Here, we’re going off of the fastest swims of 2015 to pick our team, and then use their lifetime bests (and subtracting six tenths for flying starts). To avoid getting way too invested in what “could be” or who “might show up next year” or what have you, we’re going to stick with who’s been fastest most recently.*
*Michael Chadwick would technically make this relay as the fourth fastest, but we’ve gotta go with Phelps. Phelps overrides any precautions we have because he is Phelps.
400 FREE RELAY
Nathan Adrian – 47.52
Caeleb Dressel – 48.18
Josh Schneider – 48.16
Michael Phelps – 47.15
POSSIBLE ALTERNATES (with their best flat start time from 2015 [the next best four])
Michael Chadwick – 48.87
Maxime Rooney – 48.87
Jack Conger – 49.02*
William Copeland – 49.09
*Conger may not compete in the 100 free at trials, seeing as the 100 free semifinal and the 200 fly final are only separated by one event.
OTHER CONTENDERS (with post-supersuit best and year they did that best vs. 2015 best)
Ryan Lochte – 48.58 (2013), 49.64 (2015)
Anthony Ervin – 48.49 (2013), 49.91 (2015)
Matt Grevers – 48.55 (2012), 49.70 (2015)
Jimmy Feigen – 47.82 (2013), 49.12 (2015)
For Phelps, his best textile time is a 48.08 from 2011, but he went a 47.15 on the 400 free relay in London. For some context: Phelps was faster in his 100 and 200 butterfly in 2015, at U.S. Nationals with nowhere near the same level of competition as the Olympics, than he was in 2012 in London. Of course, we haven’t seen his freestyle come back like his fly has, but he’s the GOAT. He can replicate a 47 low. That order with Adrian leading off may not be what the U.S. coaches go with come Rio, but it’s a fun scenario to imagine Phelps anchoring.
A 3:11.01 is good. It’s a solid two seconds faster than what the Americans went at the 2014 Pan Pacs, a touch faster than what they went in 2013, and about 100 body lengths ahead of the mess that was the 2015 relay. But it’s only good. It wouldn’t have won in 2012 (France was way ahead, in 3:09.93), nor in 2015 (again, France was 3:10.74). In 2014, this time would’ve beaten the French team by a few tenths, though France was winning gold at Euros while the U.S. lost to the Aussies at Pan Pacs. And we don’t know what would’ve happened if they had gone head-to-head.
The French team is going to be great again. Florent Manadou has announced his focus on both the 50 and 100 free for Rio, while Jérémy Stravius and Mehdy Metella are still thriving. Agnel is back, and he has the potential to make that team seriously unbeatable. The Brazilians are locked and loaded with talent young and old. James Magnussen is back, though it’s unclear if he can return to his pre-injury form. The Aussies might not need him to be stellar, though, after Cameron McEvoy dropped a 47.56 in his 100 free, which was “untapered,” according to coach Richard Scarce . Add young rising star Kyle Chalmers to the mix, and the Australians look capable of putting together something big.
Adrian and Phelps will need to be on fire. 48-mids are no longer “fast” relay splits; the Americans need young guys like Dressel or Conger to step up and blast 47s. A veteran’s going to have to swim like they did in London or earlier, or a late bloomer like Schneider is going to take their place. 2015 was pretty disastrous, but there’s hope for the Americans to do a 180 degree turn and challenge for their first 400 free relay gold since 2008.