While we here at SwimSwam realize that much of our reader base consists of swimming enthusiasts, we’re also delighted to help acquaint newer fans with the sport. One question we’ve been getting consistently is, “do swimmers who compete only in the preliminary heats and get swapped out for finals still get a medal if their team medals?”
The answer to that question is yes. Preliminary swimmers have earned medals for their team’s final’s performance since 1984. Our very own Gold Medal Mel Stewart earned one of his two Olympic gold medals by swimming the butterfly leg in the preliminaries of the medley relay at the 1992 Games in Barcelona. Pablo Morales, who won the individual gold medal in the 100 butterfly in those Games, took over fly duties for the finals of that relay, but Mel still got a gold for doing his part in helping Team USA make the finals.
You’ll see this far more with larger and deeper teams like the USA, which typically will save its two 100/200 freestyle swimmers for the final of the free relays, and allowing the four prelim swimmers to compete for spots in the evening. Typically, the USA has the depth to be able to get away with leaving its best swimmers off the morning relays and still qualifying for the finals.
In fact, in 2008, the USA men broke the world record for the 4×100 free relay in prelims. That evening, the fastest leg from that morning joined three other swimmers in one of most epic swims of all-time, where Jason Lezak chased down France’s Alain Bernard in the final meters to give the US a gold medal and the world record. Interestingly enough, both of those swimmers were prelims-only swimmers in the same event at London.
Since countries can bring up to two swimmers per individual event, many teams will use their 2nd-best swimmer in each stroke in the preliminary heat of the 4×100 medley relay, and then use all of their best swimmers for each stroke in the medley that evening, potentially doubling the number of swimmers who earn medals.
Just to give you an idea of how prevalent this is, here is a year-by-year list of the number of medals earned by prelims-only swimmers at each Olympic since 1992. We’ve also included a sampling of some of the bigger names who have earned medals through swimming only in the preliminaries of relays. Some of these swimmers were former gold medalists or world record holders who were a little past their prime; others were younger swimmers who gained valuable Olympic experience this way before capturing golds of their own.
1984 – 20 – notable names include: Tom Jager and Jil Sterkl
1988 – 28 – notable names include: Mary Meagher
1992 – 31 – notable names include: Mel Stewart, David Berkoff, and Matt Biondi.
1996 – 30 – notable names include: Josh Davis and Jenny Thompson
2000 – 34 – notable names include: Grant Hackett, Ian Thorpe, Britta Steffen, and Amy Van Dyken
2004 – 34 – notable names include: Lenny Krayzelburg and Michael Phelps
2008 – 42 – notable names include: Klete Keller, Nathan Adrian, Matt Greves,and Ian Crocker
2012 – 38 – notable include: Libby Trickett, Natalie Coughlin, Alain Bernard, and Jason Lezak
Hilary Evans contributed to this report. Follow him on Twitter at @olympicstatman for a plethora of Olympic-related statistics.