The mixed relays are a relatively new addition to the sport of swimming, meaning that every time we have a best-on-best competition, the world records in these events are in serious jeopardy.
Since the mixed relays debuted at the Long Course World Championships in 2015, the world record has been lowered four consecutive times in the mixed 400 freestyle relay. The mixed medley has seen its record lowered three times, the last of which came at the Tokyo 2020 Games, as it was added to the Olympic program and saw countries zero in their focus on it a bit more.
But the mixed free relay, not currently on the Olympic program, is an ever-evolving event that doesn’t seem to be anywhere near its peak in terms of what the world record could theoretically get down to.
The U.S. won the inaugural world title in 3:23.05, and since then we’ve seen 3:19-something win gold and break the world record three straight times at Worlds, most recently last month in Budapest.
Despite missing 100 free Olympic champion Emma McKeon, Olympic 100 free bronze medalist and the owner of the fastest relay split in history Cate Campbell, the #2 ranked 100 freestyler in the world this year Shayna Jack, and their star male, Kyle Chalmers, not operating at his peak, the Australian team managed to lower the world record in Budapest in a time of 3:19.38.
Australia’s World Record, 2022 World Championships
|Kyle Chalmers||46.98 (1:35.10)|
|Madi Wilson||52.25 (2:27.35)|
|Mollie O’Callaghan||52.03 (3:19.38)|
Given that the Aussies broke the world record while seemingly leaving some time on the table, it begs the question: using swimmers who competed during the same era, which country could put together the fastest mixed free relay?
To keep things straightforward, the teams have been broken down by Olympic quad. That is, the fastest male flat-start swimmer from the Olympic quad (e.g. 2009-12), plus the top male flying split and the two fastest female legs.
Due to the unmatched depth in the U.S. and Australia, it boils down to these two nations.
We begin in the Olympic quad between Athens 2004 and Beijing 2008. This was an obvious place to start because it had the fastest male split in history, Jason Lezak‘s 46.06 from 2008.
|Michael Phelps – 47.51||Eamon Sullivan – 47.05|
|Jason Lezak – 46.06||Matt Targett – 47.25|
|Dara Torres – 52.27||Libby Trickett – 52.34|
|Natalie Coughlin – 53.21||Jodie Henry – 53.21|
With Lezak’s split being the difference-maker, along with strong contributions from Michael Phelps‘ relay lead-off and Dara Torres‘ medley anchor from Beijing, the Americans comfortably take out Australia in this quad. Their time of 3:19.05 ends up holding up as one of the fastest ever despite a 53.2 female leg.
Despite the next quad factoring in the 2009 World Championships that had a windfall of world record performances, the relay teams were actually a bit slower as a whole.
|Dave Walters – 47.33||James Roberts – 47.63|
|Nathan Adrian – 46.79||James Magnussen – 47.00|
|Missy Franklin – 52.79||Libby Trickett – 52.34|
|Dana Vollmer – 53.18||Melanie Schlanger – 52.54|
The Australian men had James Magnussen (47.10) and James Roberts (47.63) wow at the 2012 Olympic Trials, but the nation did not get any relay splits sub-47 for the quad. Roberts was never faster than that on a relay, while Magnussen was 47-flat on an anchor leg in 2011.
The U.S. lacked high-end ability in the women’s 100 free during this timespan, as evidenced by only having one sub-53 leg.
This is where things really start to separate between the two countries, as the Aussies had the Campbell sisters producing numerous sub-52 relay splits throughout the second half of the 2010s.
They also had Cameron McEvoy clock 47.04 individually in 2016 which still ranks him fourth all-time in the 100 free (and #2 textile), and a few months later, Kyle Chalmers won the Olympic title in the event and split 46.72 in Rio.
That brings us down by nearly two full seconds to 3:17.12.
|Jimmy Feigen – 47.82||Cameron McEvoy – 47.04|
|Nathan Adrian – 46.74||Kyle Chalmers – 46.72|
|Simone Manuel – 52.43||Cate Campbell – 51.59|
|Abbey Weitzeil – 52.56||Bronte Campbell – 51.77|
Note that times done since the Tokyo Olympics are not factored in.
Not surprisingly, the fastest theoretical relay comes from the most recent quad, with the Australians able to compile a sizzling time of 3:16.63 – 2.75 seconds clear of the existing world record.
The men have Chalmers with the fifth-fastest male split in history, and then McEvoy’s 47.91 lead-off from 2017 does the job to open things up.
The U.S. challenges reasonably well. Caeleb Dressel finally enters the mix with the only sub-47 textile flat-start swim ever, and Zach Apple‘s 46.69 anchor leg from Tokyo is one of just 15 splits under 46.7 in history.
Simone Manuel is the only American woman to split under 52 seconds, doing so twice at the 2019 World Championships, while Mallory Comerford had the best meet of her career at the 2017 Worlds which included a 52.47 split and 52.59 flat-start swim.
|Caeleb Dressel – 46.96||Cameron McEvoy – 47.91|
|Zach Apple – 46.69||Kyle Chalmers – 46.44|
|Simone Manuel – 51.86||Cate Campbell – 50.93|
|Mallory Comerford – 52.47||Emma McKeon – 51.35|
The Netherlands is a prime candidate to do some damage in this race with their incredible female duo of Femke Heemskerk and Ranomi Kromowidjojo. Both have split sub-52 before, but they don’t quite have the two male legs in the same quad to bring them in for a truly competitive time.
Pieter van den Hoogenband wrapped his career up with a 47.68 swim at the Beijing Games in 2008, and then Sebastiaan Verschuren was a sub-48 flat-start swimmer four years later, but they never really overlapped.
The Canadian team can also put together a strong relay in the most recent quad, thanks in part to Taylor Ruck splitting sub-52 in 2018 (twice).
- Brent Hayden – 47.99
- Yuri Kisil – 47.15
- Taylor Ruck – 51.82
- Penny Oleksiak – 52.00
- Final Time: 3:18.96
Canada manages to come away with an add-up just under 3:19, still over two seconds shy of the Aussies.
With the #2 men’s split in history, Great Britain manages to put together a sub-3:19 relay during the same quad. The relay has been updated with Anna Hopkin‘s 52-flat from the Tokyo mixed medley relay.
Great Britain, 2017-21
- Jacob Whittle – 48.11
- Duncan Scott – 46.14
- Freya Anderson – 52.58
- Anna Hopkin – 52.00
- Final Time: 3:18.83
One relay that might be a surprise that manages to combine for a sub-3:20 is the Britta Steffen/Paul Biedermann-era Germans. While Steffen’s fastest relay split (51.99) was less than a tenth faster than her individual world record from the 2009 Worlds in Rome, they still put together a devastating team with Biedermann anchoring the 400 medley relay that year in 46.89, Daniela Schreiber splitting 52.37, and two years later, Marco Di Carli setting what is now the former national record for the men in 48.24.
- Britta Steffen – 52.07
- Paul Biedermann – 46.89
- Marco Di Carli – 47.82
- Daniela Schreiber – 52.37
- Final Time: 3:19.15
THEORETICAL MIXED 400 FREE RELAYS BY QUAD
- Current WR: 3:19.38, Australia (Cartwright, Chalmers, Wilson, O’Callaghan), 3:19.38
- Australia, 2017-21 (McEvoy, Chalmers, C.Campbell, McKeon), 3:16.63
- Australia, 2013-16 (McEvoy, Chalmers, C.Campbell, B.Campbell), 3:17.12
- United States, 2017-21 (Dressel, Apple, Manuel, Comerford), 3:17.98
- Great Britain, 2017-21 (Whittle, Scott, Anderson, Hopkin), 3:18.83
- Canada, 2013-16 (Hayden, Kisil, Ruck, Oleksiak), 3:18.96
- United States, 2005-08 (Phelps, Lezak, Torres, Coughlin), 3:19.05
- Germany, 2009-12 (Steffen, Biedermann, Di Carli, Schreiber), 3:19.15
- United States, 2013-16 (Feigen, Adrian, Manuel, Weitzeil), 3:19.55
- Australia, 2009-12 (Roberts, Magnussen, Trickett, Schlanger), 3:19.61
- Australia, 2005-08 (Sullivan, Targett, Trickett, Henry), 3:19.85
The conclusion? Even though the current world record of 3:19.38 clearly still has the potential to come down in future years, it’s interesting to see that only seven different relay teams separated by quad have add-up times that dip under the existing mark.
So the fact that the Australian women were missing the two fastest relay swimmers in history and their #2 option this year and still broke the world record speaks to the depth they have in that stroke.
Australia also has the luxury of having a stable of lightning-fast female freestylers to complement one of the best on the men’s side, Kyle Chalmers, and then there’s only one spot to fill for the next-best male. No other country has consistently been able to have two of the same gender be among the best in the 100 freestyle for an extended period of time outside of the Dutch, who don’t have the male swimmers to back it up.
So will this record continue to get knocked down in the coming years? No doubt. But it will take a quartet firing on all cylinders to do so.