The only bump on the road for the Australian women’s 400 free relay since the London Olympics has been their touch-out at the 2013 World Championships. Despite getting a stellar 52.33 lead off from Cate Campbell, the American team reeled them back in and got a huge 52.60 anchor from Megan Romano as she just eked out the win over Alicia Coutts.
Other than that, however, the Aussies have been deadly. They won in 2012 before the Campbell sisters rose to excellence (Cate didn’t even break 53 with a relay start, and Bronte wasn’t on the relay at all). After their setback in 2013, the Aussies roared back with a commanding win over the Americans at the 2014 Pan Pacific Championships, winning by nearly two full seconds.
2015 was an even bigger year for Aussie sprinting; individually, the Campbell sisters dominated the podium. While Cate had been the star of the last couple years, younger sister Bronte broke through for golds in both the 50 and 100 free. Cate followed up with a bronze in the 100. In the 400 free relay, while not getting off to the fastest start, Bronte (51.77) and Cate (52.22) certainly brought plenty of heat in the end to beat next-best Netherlands by more than two seconds. The Americans settled for bronze.
This year (excluding summer champs and earlier), Cate (52.84) and Bronte (52.98) have been the only two females under 53. The next best swimmer has been Femke Heemskerk (NED) at 53.68, quite a ways back. Melanie Wright (AUS) has been 53.79 for the 4th ranked time in the world. The Aussies have plenty of options in terms of finding two other relay legs with the Campbells, and perennial sprint powers like Alicia Coutts, Emma McKeon, and Brittany Elmslie are still relevant today. Whoever their four ends up being, it will be incredibly hard to try to knock off the Aussies in Rio. But who might have a shot?
THE DUTCH WILL TRY TO ALIGN YOUTH AND EXPERIENCE
Ranomi Kromowidjojo has been around for awhile, and she’s proven herself as one of the world’s best sprinters. While her 50 free has been more impressive of late, she did split a 51.15 SCM on the Euro 400 free relay at the Duel in the Pool, charging right on by Missy Franklin and reversing the early American lead. She wasn’t in top form at the 2015 World Championships, but she’s got a very strong resume and if she can put up a good split, the Dutch may be in business.
While Kromowidjojo wasn’t quite herself in 2015, Femke Heemskerk certainly delivered on the 400 free relay in Kazan. As the Dutch sat in 4th at the 300m mark, Heemskerk pulled out all the stops and blasted a 51.99 anchor leg to vault them to the silver medal. We’ve already noted that she’s the fastest 100 freestyler this season outside of the Campbell sisters, and this is a good sign for the Netherlands as we are now in the Olympic year.
Maud Van der Meer and Marrit Steenbergen will likely make up the rest of this relay. Van der Meer was just 54.50 with a flying start in 2015, yet she turned in a 54.44 at the Amsterdam Swim Cup with a flat start in December. It isn’t crazy to expect a sub-54 from her this summer, which would be a big improvement in a year’s time. Meanwhile, Steenbergen, who has yet to turn 16, won gold at the 2015 European Games in Baku (Euro Juniors) in the 100m free and then won bronze at the 2015 Euro SC Champs in the 100 IM. She was 53.88 with a flying start in finals last summer, and she’s only getting better.
The Dutch have the potential to pop all sub-54s, with Kromowidjojo and Heemskerk capable of at least sub 53s. Steenbergen is the young wild card here; if she continues to develop at a rapid rate, the Dutch can make this race very interesting.
EARTH TO THE AMERICANS; WHERE ARE YOUR SPRINTERS?
This is nothing new. The American women have been excellent in the 400 medley and 800 free relays in recent years, but despite having insane freestyle depth relative to the rest of the world (they could’ve fielded 3 and a half relays with all sub-55 splits based on 2012 Trials prelims results), the top-end talent is MIA in long course.
Simone Manuel and Missy Franklin can be expected to provide big splits for the Americans, but 53 is boring. And Manuel and Franklin are stuck at 53 mids. There is no possible way the Americans can compete with the Aussies and Dutch of the world without a dependable leg to pop a big split. So who can provide that?
Perhaps Natalie Coughlin. She had an excellent meet at the Pan Am Games last summer, and even beat Franklin in the 100 back (though it wasn’t head-to-head). Remember, while Romano had the huge anchor leg against the Aussies in 2013, Coughlin’s 52.97 was maybe just as important, as she helped bring the Americans right up on the Aussies’ hips and keep things close. Romano, meanwhile, hasn’t been on anyone’s radar since.
Coughlin’s only swimming the 50 and 100 free and the 100 back at Trials– this sharp focus only further illustrates that she’s going all in on the sprints, and no other American sprinter right now has the same kind of Olympic experience as Coughlin. This will be her fourth Games, and she could have the magic to keep the Americans in contention.
It’s finally possible to say this safely: CALL IN KATIE LEDECKY! After the 400, 800, and 1500 free WR holder dropped a 53.75 at the Austin Pro Swim Series last month in her 100 free, it all becomes very realistic. Ledecky went faster in Austin than both Franklin’s and Manuel’s 100 free times at the 2015 World Championships, AND she would’ve ranked 10th in the world for 2015 as a whole with her January time. She has no 1500 to train for in 2016, and with her big 200 free best time in Austin, too, her sprinting stock has risen remarkably. She could feasibly knock, at the least, a few tenths off of her 53.75, making a sub-53 split with a flying start very possible. That would be big.
Other than Ledecky, the youth sprint ranks don’t have an answer for the women, it seems. Abbey Weitzeil, despite pulling off the 100y free American record, has yet to break 54 in long course. A little older are Lia Neal and Margo Geer, though they have yet to cash in any sub-53 splits in their careers. The Americans have only been able to muster bronze in 2012, 2013, and 2015, and Rio is looking like it’ll be the same if there is no large-scale improvement from this team.
Sweden comes to mind– they finished 4th at Worlds last year, and Sarah Sjostrom is capable of a big split. USC-bound Louise Hansson put up a 53.84 split last year, and the Swedes will get a solid split from Michelle Coleman to go along with that. The problem is finding a fourth leg, which showed in the 800 free relay last summer, too. After Sjostrom’s impressive lead off, Sweden held onto the lead until the last 200. The nation is certainly growing as a swimming power, with Sjostrom no longer being the only name to watch out for. In addition to their 4th place finishes in both free relays in 2015, Jennie Johannson upended a very talented field to win gold in the 50m breast at Worlds. Sweden has this momentum to work off of, in addition to the near-guaranteed stellar split from Sjostrom. They could wind up on the podium if they find that fourth relay member.
The Canadians had a great 2015, highlighted in part by a gold medal over the Americans in the 400 free relay at the Pan Am Games in Toronto. Granted, this wasn’t the U.S. ‘A’ team (though some swims done there were far more impressive than some performances at Worlds in 2015), but the Canadians had two 53-low splits. Like Sweden, they’ve got some momentum going as they head into Rio, and the young talent is starting to develop into a stronger international presence for them. They might not win a medal, but don’t be surprised if they put down a very impressive performance.
A few of these relays have one or two key pieces, or a solid, consistent quartet right now. But the Aussies have two deadly sprint weapons in addition to 3 or 4 more than capable options to make them just out of reach for the rest of the world. Keep an eye on the Aussies’ 2014 WR, which sits at 3:30.98.