The men’s 400 medley relay at the 2021 NCAA Championships was an epic event. The full story wasn’t obvious immediately, because the races were swum as timed finals with just four relays per heat because of COVID protocols, but when the dust settled, the results told a story of a crazy-competitive relay, even if not head-to-head.
The 2022 version of this race could be equally as good, if not better, for one big reason: the race will lose hardly any of the swimmers from the top teams, and even more big names will join the battle for gold in the race.
The top nine relays at last year’s NCAA Championships were as follows:
- Texas (Staka, Corbeau, Jiang, Krueger) – 3:00.23
- Cal (Lasco, Whitley, Hoffer, Seeliger) – 3:00.73
- Florida (Chaney, Hillis, Friese, Smith) – 3:01.51
- Louisville (Whyte, Somov, Albiero, Sameh) – 3:01.52
- Indiana (Burns, Backes, Frankel, Franzman) – 3:02.38
- Michigan (Davis, Chan, Wright, Borges) -3:04.00
- Missouri (Dahlgren, Patton, Kovac, Leach) – 3:04.34
- NC State (Stokowski, Kusto, Henderson, Tapp) – 3:04.47
- Virginia (Cole, Nichols, Edwards, Brownstead) – 3:04.52
The names in bold are seniors who won’t return next season. Chris Staka from Texas, Ryan Hoffer from Cal, and Gus Borges from Michigan have all confirmed that they won’t use a bonus 5th season of eligibility.
That’s just three out of the 36 swimmers from the top nine relays who won’t return.
There were other seniors on those relays, like Alvin Jiang at Texas and Evgenii Somov and Nic Albiero from Louisville, who are taking advantage of the NCAA waiver allowing athletes to use a fifth year of eligibility because of the disrupted COVID year (names in italics). But even those names, a list of just three, are very limited.
And those relays aren’t going to rest on their laurels, either. Between transfers and a very fast crop of incoming freshmen, this relay could get even tighter next season. Here’s a way in which each relay will replace a loss, or even get better, next season:
- Texas – Chris Staka is graduating, but with a 45.60 high school backstroker Anthony Grimm joining the team, he’s already only six-tenths of a second away from Staka’s split at NCAAs. Depending on development, they also have the option of shifting Jiang to backstroke (he was 44.6 in the NCAA final) and use Grimm (46.50) or incoming freshman Tim Connery (46.73) on the fly leg. The Longhorns always reload.
- Cal – Hoffer is not easy to replace, and there’s not an obvious 1-to-1 here, but they bring in Jack Alexy and Ziyad Saleem, who are possible fills for freestyle and backstroke legs. That gives Cal some options to try to migrate Destin Lasco and his great underwaters or Bjorn Seeliger and his pure speed to the butterfly leg. They also have Trenton Julian, who was 51.7 in meters this summer but who has only been 47.8 in yards. If he can translate his meters swim to short course, he’ll fill that gap quickly.
- Florida – The Gators’ incoming class is very distance-focused, but this relay, maybe the most surprising placement in this top nine, was very young. With Kieran Smith coming back from the Olympics, and a ton of momentum for the whole team, Florida could be an upset pick at NCAAs.
- Louisville – With a big incoming class and a whopping four seniors returning for their bonus fifth season of eligibility, this could be a perfect storm year for Louisville. They’re bringing in Denis Loktev, who could push Haridi Sameh for the freestyle anchor leg. That’s really the weakness here, in a relative sense: if they can get a 40-point split on the anchor leg, or at least a 41-very-low, they could challenge for the event title.
- Indiana – Bruno Blaskovic swam 41.88 in his last collegiate meet, the 2020 Big Ten Championships, in the 100 yard free. He was out for most of a year with a back injury and missed last season, but if he gets back to form, he gets Indiana at least half-a-second on this relay. That could help them bridge the gap to the top 4. If he doesn’t get there, the incumbent Jack Franzman, and Germany’s Rafael Miroslaw (49.5 LCM) are also candidates. While Zane Backes‘ 50.68 breaststroke leg was very good for the Hoosiers last season, incoming National Age Group Record breaking breaststroker Joshua Matheny will contend for that spot as well as part of the country’s most successful recent breaststroke group.
- Michigan – The Wolverines are the one relay in this group who will have an unclear route to improvement without Gus Borges. At least, though, they have some flexibility with River Wright able to fill the butterfly or freestyle legs, but the Wolverines will have to develop a replacement for either leg (Cam Peel is a good candidate on the freestyle leg after dropping six-tenths as a sophomore, and with a very good 50).
- Missouri – The Tigers will have three seniors on their relay next season. The Tiers’ strength lies in the middle two legs of Ben Patton and Danny Kovac. They bring in freshman Grant Bochenski next season – he doesn’t immediately supplant either the backstroke or freestyle legs, but with bests of 47.72 and 43.93 (versus relay legs of 46.02 and 42.47) he’ll at least provide some internal competition.
- NC State – The Wolfpack didn’t graduate anyone, but every leg could still see a new face next season with an incredible class of freshmen coming in. Aiden Hayes has a 46.3 backstroke, 45.4 fly, and 43.0 free. Arsenio Bustos has a 46.5 fly, 43.2 free, 47.9 backstroke, and 53.5 breaststroke. David Curtiss has a 42.80 100 free and a 50 showing that there’s room to grow there. Sam Hoover is a 43.10 freestyler and 54.1 breaststroker. Noe Ponti finished 3rd at the Olympics in the 100 fly in July with a 50.74 (long course). This is going to be a fun battle to watch develop.
- Virginia – The Virginia women have created incredible medley relay depth, and while the men aren’t quite there, they’re starting to look more and more like that. Last year’s 400 medley had three freshmen and a sophomore, and on top of that, they added Matt King on a transfer from Alabama — one of the fastest-ever freshmen 100 freestylers. Either Matt Brownstead, the ACC Champion, or Matt King, the SEC Champion, won’t be able to swim that leg at NCAAs. That’s going to be a battle. Incoming freshman Jack Aikins’ 100 back (46.05) is already faster than Will Cole’s 46.37 leadoff from NCAAs last season
This relay is a sign of what we’re lining up for next season at the NCAA Championships more broadly, too. The intersection of few star seniors, with many of those returning, but one of the best incoming freshmen classes in a generation, will line up for fast races come March.
Ryan Hoffer, who won the 50 free, 100 free, and 100 fly at NCAAs last season, is the only individual NCAA D1 champion to move on from collegiate competition in men’s swimming.