The American men have historically dominated relays at both the Olympics and World Championships. They have however, run into some trouble of late on the world stage. Not necessarily on the Olympic stage, where they have won seven of the last nine relays competed, but more so at the World Championships, particularly at last summers Championships in Kazan, Russia.
For the first time in 12 years the Americans failed to win a gold medal in one of the two freestyle relays, including a shocking disappointment in the 400 free relay that saw the team finish in a tie for 11th place, only their second time off the podium in history (the first they originally won bronze before being disqualified for illegally exchanging swimmers) and their first time out of the final. This huge disappointment began a massive discussion about the state of American sprinting, with blame being spread throughout the athletes, coaches, and the selection process for Kazan. The coaches were extra cautious in the 800 free relay, sitting Clay Youngquist out of his only swim for the World Championships to try and ensure a spot in the final. The U.S. easily qualified 2nd overall and had plenty of wiggle room (they went onto win silver in the final, their first loss in twelve years).
In January FINA announced a new rule that requires all relay-only swimmers to compete in their specific relay event. If a relay-only swimmer doesn’t swim in either the prelims and/or finals of the event, the team will be disqualified in the final. If this rule was put in place prior to the 2015 World Championships the United States would have been forced to use Youngquist in the prelims or would have faced a disqualification.
With the Americans traditionally selecting the top six finishers at Trials in the 100 and 200 freestyle for the Olympic team many wondered whether or not they would do the same in 2016 after the 400 free relay debacle of 2015. Team USA Swimming National Team Director Frank Busch has confirmed in January that they don’t anticipate changing the relay selection process, and it shouldn’t be an issue come Rio. They haven’t changed it, and here’s why it won’t be a problem:
1. The 2015 World Championship Selection Process Was Far From Ideal
No offence to the four men who swam that prelim relay in Kazan, all very accomplished swimmers in their own right, but the selection process to select the 2015 World Championship team was far from ideal. I believe it impacted how the swimmers prepared, and to find a clear cut example of that look no further than the men’s 400 free relay.
The United States selected the fastest two swimmers in each Olympic event from either the 2014 US Nationals or the 2014 Pan Pacific Championships (finals swims only) to represent them at the 2015 World Championships in Kazan. In the 100 freestyle Michael Phelps’ suspension (2nd fastest in 2014) and Ryan Lochte withdrawing the individual event (3rd fastest in 2014) moved Jimmy Feigen into an individual spot in the event, and Anthony Ervin , Matt Grevers and Conor Dwyer named to the relay as the next three fastest swimmers.
To say the American team as a whole had a poor performance in Kazan isn’t fair, as there were some successes, such as Kevin Cordes, Maya Dirado, and Connor Jaeger to name a few. But using those four prelim relay swimmers as an example shows how the majority of the American team fared compared to what they were expected of.
- Jimmy Feigen, 2013 World Silver Medalist in the 100 Free (47.82), Missed the 100 Free Semis (20th place)
- Anthony Ervin, 21.42 50 Free In 2013, Missed 50 Free Final (22.02)
- Matt Grevers, 2012 Olympic Champion and Defending World Champion in 100 back, 3rd place in 100 back (0.58 off best)
- Conor Dwyer, 2013 World Silver Medalist in 200 Free, Missed 200 Free Final (9th place)
The format the US uses in the Olympic year and the year after for the World Championships, a national trials meet to select the team for the upcoming major international event, is the best way to do it. With the athletes having already qualified for the team the year prior, the urgency and pressure in training is minimized quite a bit. Without those pressure packed national trials hanging over their head, a lot of athletes had a more relaxed training year (or at least that’s what the results showed). Of course, it works for some athletes, being able to zone in on one meet and their specific events, but the results show it didn’t work for the majority.
There is also the simple fact that choosing the 2015 World team in 2014 simply means their not sending their best athletes at the time, as a year is a long period of time for athletes to surpass others. If the team was selected a month or two prior to the main competition like it will be this year, the team would’ve looked very different.
For an example, Caeleb Dressel won the US National title in the 100 free in 48.78, and Jack Conger (who actually finished 2nd) had two sub-48 second relay splits at the World University Games. Say they took the first two places of that relay rather than Feigen and Ervin, and the US would’ve been around 3:13 and in a centre lane for the final. Instead they went 3:16 and finished 11th.
So reason #1 why the US shouldn’t be worried about taking six relay members to Rio: had the 2015 Worlds team been selected 1-2 months before the meet like it will be this year, the relay debacle essentially would’ve been avoided.
2. Young Stars Rising
I touched on it a bit above, but the US has a plethora of young swimmers who will be stars for years to come in the sprint free events. Dressel shattered both the 50 and 100 yard free American and NCAA records this past collegiate season, and has already proved he can perform in the big pool (21.53 at US Nationals).
Conger has proved himself as one of the most versatile swimmers in the NCAA, posting elite times in anything from the 50 free to the 200 back to the 100 fly. His two sub-48 second relay splits last summer makes him a premier contender to qualify for Rio in the relay.
There are plenty of other up and coming youngsters who will have a chance to crack the relay roster in Omaha. Michael Chadwick was a 48.87 at the Long Course Speedo Sectionals in Georgia last year, Maxime Rooney hit a 48.87 flat start and a 48.4 relay split at the Junior World Championships, and current and former NCAA stars Ryan Murphy and David Nolan are certainly capable of a breakout swim in this event.
3. It’s An Olympic Year
With three times the Olympic qualification spots up for grabs in the 100 and 200 freestyle many swimmers will have zeroed their focus in on these two events in particular, making the events incredibly competitive in Omaha. Past relay mainstays such as Michael Phelps, Ryan Lochte, Matt Grevers, etc.. are aware of this and will be forced to perform at the top of their game if they wish to swim the relay in Rio. The threat of the youngsters puts the veterans backs against the wall, as the fact they can no longer take a spot for granted will push them. On the other side of things all of the young swimmers will be looking to take the spots of those previously established swimmers. With so much on the line, the Trials will be intense and the chance of a repeat of Kazan in the 400 free relay is zero barring a DQ or another shocking disappointment.
4. The Michael Phelps Factor
Let’s not forget about what the GOAT has done for his team in the 400 free relay – especially at the Olympic Games. Phelps has been on three World Championship winning 400 free relays and one Olympic gold medal winning team. At the last two Olympics Phelps exceeded expectations in this race, leading off in an American record 47.51 in 2008 and posting the second fastest split of anyone in the field in 2012 (47.15). If he’s swimming in the final, and he should be, he’ll show up for his team. The younger swimmers swimming alongside the greatest Olympian of all-time would be a bit of extra motivation for them too, whether they were just racing in the prelims or the final with Phelps himself.