Swimming is A Team Sport: Why USA Always Wins the Duel in the Pool

With this past weekend’s throttling of the European All-Stars, Team USA moves to 7-0 all time in the international dual meet extravaganza. The first three victories came against Australia, who briefly challenged the US around the Sydney Olympics for world dominance.

The next four victories have come against a team from Europe, and given the bounty of talent in European swimming at the moment, it’s somewhat unbelievable that they haven’t won a single time. To be fair, they brought the meet down to the wire in 2013, where a 200 medley relay tie-breaker was used to decide the final outcome.

In 2015, it was back to business as usual, with team USA bruising Europe once again to the tune of 155-107 score. While there were highlights for Europe here and there, I can’t help but be struck by the amount of races Europe should have won but didn’t.

The key to understanding this, especially for American audiences, is to realize that America is the country in the world where swimming is least individual. Nearly every swimmer on the American squad has a lot of experience swimming dual meets, stepping up and competing as a team.

In fact, the exceptional performers on the European squad in this meet can be traced back to some good old American team swimming. It’s easy to forget as she’s criss-crossing the globe and hoovering up prize money, but Katinka Hosszu swam at USC and continues to be trained by an American coach.

Let’s look at a few examples from the first day of the competition:

  • Ryan Lochte‘s 400 IM- You could argue it takes little courage to win an event you are the world record holder in, on the other hand he has basically abandoned this event internationally at 31 years old. Had Hungarian David Verraszto been able to match his time from Netanya (4:02.43), he could have won the race.
  • Simone Manuel‘s 100 Free- Yes, Simone Manuel swam great in this race, but frankly Ranomi Kromowidjojo choked under pressure. She would go on to tie her own world record later in the meet, after the meet was a foregone conclusion, so you would think she could have easily come closer to her best in the 100 and outlasted the big swim from Manuel.
  • Melanie Margalis‘ 200 breast- If you were setting odds for Melanie Margalis to beat Yuliya Efimova heads up in a 200 breaststroke race, how much of an underdog would Margalis be? 5-1? 10-1? Coming into this race Efimova had a PB of 2:18 and Margalis sat at 2:23.
  • Cody Miller‘s 200 breast- Once again, non-Hosszu Hungarians were awful in this meet, and a hungry American swimmer was happy to seize the day. Daniel Gyurta is the world record holder and although he appeared a bit off in Netanya, still should have dispatched a swimmer like Miller easily. Instead, Miller stepped up and Gyurta stepped down and the rest was history.

Folks, that’s four great examples in just the first handful of events. Look at this meet’s results and you’ll find plenty more. It should hearten fans of American swimming to see this as we approach Rio.

It can be easy at this point in the Olympic cycle to get nervous about Team USA. After a lackluster performance in Kazan, with the Chinese surging, Australia seems to be gaining momentum at the same time.

I’ve given in to this panic before, but this time I’m staying faithful in the Stars and Stripes. The team we will send to Rio will have a huge advantage over every other country, the same advantage they’ve had for years. They will be a TEAM.

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5 years ago


Steve-O Nolan
5 years ago

I dunno, man. I’d just chalk it up to being an exhibition meet where maybe the American team takes it more seriously. Tryna make it seem like we’ve just got some “killer instinct!” or “team mentality!” seems tough. Maybe we just swim faster because we’ve got faster swimmers.

The Grand Inquisitor
Reply to  Steve-O Nolan
5 years ago

This article is inane or delusional, not sure which.

You completely lost me with gems like “Ranomi Kromowidjojo choked under pressure.” Do you mean the Olympic Champion in the 50 Free and 100 Free Ranomi Kromowidjojo? What we should possibly know about performing under real pressure? Please just stop.

Reply to  The Grand Inquisitor
5 years ago

She said in her post swim interview that she was suffering from jet lag on the first day when she swam the 100m free. Why is that not in the article…….it’s right there on the SS website. She felt better the next day and swam a WR. That doesn’t look like a choke.

5 years ago

.. or maybe because in that same weekend there was the Amsterdam Swim Cup where many good European swimmers were participating to qualify for Rio? Just a thought.

Reply to  Sasz
5 years ago

The same could be said for the best USA swimmers not at the Duel in the Pool?

Reply to  Sasz
5 years ago

It’s still one country versus an entire continent, not really a valid excuse

Reply to  Sasz
5 years ago

It’s not as though the Americans weren’t missing anyone (*cough* Ledecky *cough* Phelps. Yes Phelps. He might not be Tom Shields, but if Missy can score points in short course with her turns, than Phelps can score points in short course).

And besides, if you want to really compare the United States and Europe, you can look at Olympic Results:
US: 9 Golds / 25 medals (excluding relays & open water)
Euros: 6 / 24 medals
US: 12 / 24
Euros: 7 / 20

And I do point out that Europeans can enter a dozen competitors in each event, while the United States is limited to only two. If the US… Read more »

Reply to  mcgillrocks
5 years ago

If Europe was allowed to compete as one country in Olympics, they would win more golds than USA.
1. They would still retain the same number of individual golds
2. They would sweep all relay golds, thus increasing their total golds while reducing USA’s gold tally. The only relay gold they might not win is w4x100 free

Just imagine these relay compositions:

W4x100 free: Sjostrom – Kromowidjojo – Heemskerk – SMOC (there’s a chance they’d lose to Australia)
w4x200 free: Sjostrom – Heemskerk – Pellegrini – Hosszu (This relay would destroy the mighty USA)
w4x100 medley: Hosszu/Nielsen – Efimova – Sjostrom – Kromowidjojo/Heemskerk

m4x100 free: Morozov – Gilot – Magnini – Sukhorukov/Gilot/Orsi/Stravius
m4x200… Read more »

Reply to  BeeGees
5 years ago

You realize there are relays at Duel in the pool?

And the United States tends to win a lot of them. Of course, we get back to the old problem of who is bringing the better squad, but the fact is neither side is at full strength. Still, I don’t see why you would assume that Europe would suddenly smash the United States as a continent at the Olympics.

Wouldn’t such an advantage show up either a) at the duel in the pool, where the US swims relays against Europe or b) if Europe is so dominating at the Olympic Games, then why doesn’t it show up in their inferior medal counts?

Reply to  BeeGees
5 years ago

To prove my point, consider 2012.

Europe obviously gets the two 400 free relays, because European countries won them. However, this is how is stacks up if you take the best European in each leg to make the hypothetical Euro-Stars relays.

Women’s 800 free
USA- 7:42.92 (TWR, OR)
1:55.51 (Muffat, fastest leadoff)
1:56.15 (Balmy)
1:57.39 (Turner)
1:57.61 (Pellegrini)
Total: 7:46.66
*Sjostrom probably could have helped, but she would have had to be 1:53 something, which we just can’t assume, especially given her shape at the time*
Winner: United States of America (Europe would have finished just behind Australia for bronze)

Women’s 400 medley
USA- 3:52.05 (WR)
… Read more »

5 years ago

Great points! I’ll throw in my two cents: based on our comments sections during any major short course yards event, most of the world generally places a lower importance on SCY swimming, as it’s not the Olympic format. But the culture of American swimming puts a lot of clout in college and even high school swimming, where the idea of swimming as a team is really at its peak importance.

Almost every member of Team USA already has vast experience competing in high-pressure team v. team events in high school and/or NCAA swimming. In a lot of ways, that gives Team USA a distinct advantage in very intense team swimming situations like the Duel in the Pool.

5 years ago

Chris, I don’t think Efimova is going to lose any sleep over losing to Margalis in the 200 br and at 5 or 10 to 1 odds I’d still take Efimova head to head in an important race. Same for Kromowidjojo and Gyerta. This meet is a wonderful made for TV in-season get together, and I hope it continues because it brings swimming to the masses, but I wouldn’t go planning any parade routes.

Steve-O Nolan
Reply to  Chris DeSantis
5 years ago

Ryan Lochte’s a good swimmer, right? Over his career, where has he generally placed at Grand Prix meets?

Most swimmers probably don’t care about this meet.

5 years ago

This argument is neatly destroyed by the lethargy on display in Kazan.

Reply to  Dave
5 years ago

USA made a big mistake an experimented with trying to create their 2015 Kazan roster in 2014. That was hardly a representation. Example? I love watching Ervin swim, but replace his 49.6 relay split with Conger’s 47.75 that he dropped at WUGs. Another example? Summer of 2014 was prior to Clark Smith’s breakout season, and this year, he has done even more damage (negative splitting a 2000 yard freestyle at practice, both 1000s under 8:45). Chuck Katis has dropped some bombs since transferring from Harvard to Cal, Prenot hit 2:08 in the 200 breast this summer, and is far from being out of the running for medals at the olympics. Licon is not exactly a far-fetched 2016 candidate, yet he… Read more »

5 years ago

I agree with the commenters that this wasn’t some sort of “killer instinct” or special quality the USA swimmers had that intimidated the Europeans and made them swim poorly. I think many of the Europeans were jet lagged and had just come off of Euros, a meet they likely put more of an emphasis on. Additionally, the Europeans didn’t have any group pride because they were on a team with people who are usually their competitors. They weren’t representing their country, they were representing a continent which is much less exciting. I’m not knocking the event format–I think it’s a lot of fun–but I don’t think we can read into results too much. I think the USA put up a… Read more »

Reply to  dmswim
5 years ago

When you talk about group pride arent you just affirming the article? They lost because they didnt have team spirit is basically what you said in that part of your comment which is the same point beimg made in the article. A race is a race. Give the winners fair credit instead of giving excuses to take away from all the hard work and fast racing

Martin McEvoy
Reply to  Rick
5 years ago

No ones arguing the ‘Muricans don’t have bags of team pride. What we are suggesting is that reading across from that pride to Rio is pretty wishful thinking. Kromowidjojo is probably not much bothered with Team Europe. You can be damn sure she cares about Oranje.

The truth is, the format seems to suit, and interest, Americans more than Europeans.No one in europe, except the most hardcore fan really cared; it’s not the Ryder Cup, or Davis/Fed Cup and it shows no sign of becoming so.

I fully expect USA to do very well in Rio, especially at Relays. I just happen to think results in the ‘Duel’ will have really very little to do with it.

5 years ago

Team USA as a whole was pretty good this past weekend. It is easy to point out the various WRs and ARs that were set. However, the write needs a small dose of reality. The irony is that the performance of Team USA in the big events has been buoyed by just a few swimmers: Phelps, Ledecky, Franklin, Lochte. I do not deny that there is depth in Team USA (and that Team USA will probably come up top in Rio) but do you really think Team USA always wins because it is a team sport?

About Chris DeSantis

Chris DeSantis

Chris DeSantis is a swim coach, writer and swimming enthusiast. Chris does private consulting and coaching with teams and individuals. You can find him at www.facebook.com/cdswimcoach. Chris is a 2009 Graduate from the Masters of Applied Positive Psychology program at the University of Pennsylvania. He was the first professional athletic coach …

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