Tokyo 2020 Olympic Swimming Previews: Legacy of Drama In Men’s 4×100 FRR

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  • World Record: USA (Phelps, Weber-Gale, Jones, Lezak) – 3:08.24 (2008)
  • Olympic Record: USA (Phelps, Weber-Gale, Jones, Lezak) – 3:08.24 (2008)
  • World Junior Record: USA (Magahey, Urlando, Chaney, Foster) – 3:15.80 (2019)
  • 2016 Olympic Champion: USA (Dressel, Phelps, Held, Adrian) – 3:09.92

*For our top few nations’ aggregate times below, the first column (Season-Best) is the aggregate of each leg’s best flat-start time between September 2020 and June 2021, not factoring in relay starts. The second column is a little more predictive, but also a little more rose-colored glasses, pulling the best time or split (that we could find) for that athlete since the summer of 2018 – the presumptive leadoff swimmer of each relay is listed first, with their flat-start best.

A Legacy of Showstoppers

Arguably the most prestigious relay at the Olympic games, the classic 4×100 free relay has consistently produced some of the most show-stopping races in Olympic history. And that’s not an exaggeration.

In 2000, Gary Hall Jr. predicted that the Americans (who to that point had never lost an Olympic men’s 4×100 free relay) would “smash [the Australians] like guitars.” The race ended with Ian Thorpe holding off Hall and the Australians celebrating a world record by pointedly playing air guitars at Hall’s expense.

In 2004, South Africa won a historic upset, smashing the field in a world record for the nation’s first-ever Olympic gold in men’s swimming.

In 2008, Jason Lezak saved Michael Phelps‘ quest for 8 golds in 8 events with an otherworldly run-down of France. Lezak split 46.0, still the fastest split of all-time and considered one of the great swims in the sport’s history.

In 2012, France returned the favor with Yannick Agnel coming through with his own iconic run-down of the Americans and Ryan Lochte.

And in 2016, a veteran Phelps swam his way onto this relay via a training camp time trial, eventually splitting 47.1 en route to his then-record 19 career Olympic golds. (He would finish those Olympics, and his career, with 23.)

Suffice to say, this race never fails to bring the fireworks. It happens right away on night 2, when teams haven’t yet had a chance to figure out who’s swimming well and who, well, isn’t. The top stars are completely fresh, the rookies are still working out those first Olympic butterflies in the stomach, and it all adds up to absolute chaos.

2021 should be no different.

The Favorites

Swimmer Split Swimmer Split
Kliment Kolesnikov 47.31 Vladislav Grinev 47.43
Andrei Minakov 47.57 Evgeny Rylov 47.02
Vladislav Grinev 47.85 Vladimir Morozov 47.02
Vladimir Morozov 48.00 Kliment Kolesnikov 47.10
TOTAL: 3:10.73 3:08.57

Russia has the world’s best depth in this event – that includes 4 men in the top 12 in world rankings for 2021, and a crazy eight men under 48.41 from a flat start in 2021 alone. What that really means is that Russia – more so than any other nation – can swim alternates in the morning heats to keep their stars fresh, or even allow their last few swimmers to swim-off for the finals spots.

The strategic decisions will revolve heavily around backstrokers Kliment Kolesnikov and Evgeny Rylovowners of the two fastest Russian relay splits since 2018. Both will likely have the 100 back semifinals in the same session, with only the women’s 100 back semifinals in between. Still, they’re incredibly valuable to this relay, and also probably have the ability to shut down their semifinal backstroke swims if they get out front.

Though Kolesnikov has the best flat-start time in the nation, Russia has typically used him as its anchor – that would also buy him a tiny bit more rest (two minutes or so) after his 100 back semi. When Russia crushed the Euros field by a second, they used flyer Andrei Minakov on the leadoff (he was 48.1 there but has been 47.57 from a flat start this season) with Vladislav Grinev (47.4) and Aleksandr Shchegolev (47.6) in the middle. But Rylov (47.0 split at 2019 Worlds) could also be in the mix, along with Vladimir Morozov (48.00 from a flat start this year and 47.6 on a relay at 2019 Worlds).

Russia’s depth will face its toughest test courtesy of three other nations whose shakier depth is covered by all-time great 100 free talents.

Swimmer Split Swimmer Split
Caeleb Dressel 47.39 Caeleb Dressel 46.96
Zach Apple 47.72 Zach Apple 46.86
Blake Pieroni 48.13 Blake Pieroni 47.32
Brooks Curry 48.19 Brooks Curry 48.19
TOTAL: 3:11.43 3:09.33

Superstar Caeleb Dressel should lead off for Team USA – he’s got the best flat start in the world, and doesn’t usually see the same kind of relay-start time boost that others do. Zach Apple is a vet who split 46.8 at 2019 Worlds, and Blake Pieroni is another Olympic veteran who can probably hit the 47-lows. The rookie of the bunch is Brooks Currya fast-dropping LSU standout who shocked the field at Olympic Trials after shocking the field at SECs a year earlier.

The U.S. men won this race at 2019 Worlds with Dressel, Pieroni, and Apple all on the team. How Curry (or lone prelims alternate Bowe Becker) fare in place of the legendary Nathan Adrian will really determine how this relay performs, especially when the relay’s biggest hitter won’t be swimming on the anchor leg for any sort of Lezakian heroics.

Swimmer Split Swimmer Split
Kyle Chalmers 47.59 Cameron McEvoy 48.29
Matthew Temple 48.32 Matthew Temple 48.32
Cameron McEvoy 48.49 Alexander Graham 48.11
Zac Incerti 48.51 Kyle Chalmers 46.60
TOTAL: 3:12.91 3:11.32

Australia has traditionally done the opposite with their order – Kyle Chalmers is considered one of the best closers in the history of the 100 free, and he tends to anchor this relay. Chalmers has been as fast as 46.6 from a flying start, and is as good a candidate as any to pop something game-changing over the final two laps of this relay.

Every strategy has its downside, though. While the Americans can’t count on their best swimmer in the high-pressure final leg, Australia is really going to need a top-tier leadoff leg to step up, or they’ll spend the entire race swimming though some of the most brutal chop the Olympic pool will see. At 2019 Worlds, Australia fell almost a second behind the leaders on a 48.4 Cameron McEvoy leadoff, sitting 6th of 8 teams. McEvoy is long removed from his 47-low days – in fact, he hasn’t broken 48 since the summer of 2017. His 48.2 above is a flat-start time from 2019 Worlds, and 48-low is probably a good baseline if he leads off.

Flyer Matthew Temple has been a more recent riser in this event, and hasn’t swum this relay at Worlds, Pan Pacs, or Commonwealth Games. His listed time above is his best flat-start time, so it’s fair to assume he’ll go faster than that with a flying relay start in Tokyo. Australia is without Jack Cartwright (47.7 split at 2018 Commonwealth Games) and Clyde Lewis (47.6 split at 2019 Worlds), so they’ll probably turn to 48.5 flat-start Zac Incerti or 200 freestyler Alexander Grahamwho split 48.1 at 2019 Worlds. Graham is a relay-only swimmer in the 200, so he won’t have a double with the individual 200 free in this session.

Great Britain
Swimmer Split Swimmer Split
Duncan Scott 47.87 Matt Richards 48.23
Matt Richards 48.23 Tom Dean 48.11
Tom Dean 48.30 James Guy 47.92
Jacob Whittle 48.55 Duncan Scott 46.14
TOTAL: 3:12.95 3:10.40

Great Britain’s Duncan Scott should also have the 200 free semifinals to kick off the session, but there’s a solid amount of rest between the two events. Scott torched the 2019 Worlds field in the medley relay, splitting 46.1 and very nearly matching Lezak’s fastest-split-of-all-time. It’s probably not realistic to expect Scott to match that unbelievable split, but he’s also fully capable of going 46-something again and scaring the field.

A young and fast-rising British group took silver behind Russia at Euros this summer, with 18-year-old Matthew Richards splitting 48.1. Richards and 16-year-old Jacob Whittle (48.4 split in prelims of that meet) are probably the future of this relay for the Brits, but it’s maybe more likely to be 200 freestylers Tom Dean and James Guy on this relay for the present. Scott and Dean should swim the 200 free semifinals earlier in this session, so it’s possible Whittle spells Dean on this relay if he swims well enough in prelims.

Other contenders:

Italy joins Russia as the only relay where all four legs have split 47s. They were third at Euros this spring with both Thomas Ceccon and Manuel Frigo hitting those best splits listed below in the final and Lorenzo Zazzeri splitting his best time in prelims. National record-holder Alessandro Miressi led off that relay, though he’s often anchored in years past. Santo Condorelli was a late addition to the Olympic roster after slipping past Frigo and Zazzeri (both 48.54 this season) with a 48.49 at Sette Colli.

Swimmer Split Swimmer Split
Alessandro Miressi 47.45 Alessandro Miressi 47.45
Thomas Ceccon 48.14 Thomas Ceccon 47.98
Santo Condorelli 48.49 Manuel Frigo 47.85
Manuel Frigo 48.54 Lorenzo Zazzeri 47.98
TOTAL: 3:12.62 3:11.26

Since winning bronze at 2019 Worlds, Hungary has never quite put it all together at the right time again. They’ve had some close shaves, though, narrowly missing medals with 4th-place showings at Euros in both 2018 and 2020. They’ve got the ability to knock off the last few teams for bronze in Tokyo, but it probably depends on a swimmer or two – maybe 21-year-old 200 fly superstar Kristof Milak or 21-year-old freestyler Nandor Nemeth – taking a big step into the 47-lows.

Swimmer Split Swimmer Split
Nandor Nemeth 47.84 Nandor Nemeth 47.84
Kristof Milak 48.00 Kristof Milak 47.50
Szebasztian Szabo 48.59 Szebasztian Szabo 47.83
Richard Bohus 49.31 Richard Bohus 48.34
TOTAL: 3:13.74 3:11.51

A few other teams to note: Brazil should have four good legs, including Pedro Spajariwho split 46.9 anchoring this relay to a DQ-aided win at 2018 Pan Pacs. The fastest 100 freestyler at their Olympic Trials, Andre Souza, was bumped off the Olympic team after a doping violation.

France could be in the hunt, with Maxime Grousset rising all the way from 48.5 to 47.8 from a flat start this year. If Mehdy Metella can return to his 47.8-split form from 2019 Worlds, this relay will have solid bookends.

Keep an eye on Canada, where 18-year-old Joshua Liendo is having a huge year. The host nation of Japan has a potential 47-second leg in Katsumi Nakamura.

Top 8 Picks

Ultimately, we’ll go with Russia’s depth, even with two of their fastest legs coming off the 100 backstrokes. The schedule favors the U.S., but this race almost always comes down to some last-leg heroics, and we’re not sure a U.S. team that’s likely already used Dressel can hold off whoever Russia sticks on the anchor leg.

We’ll take Australia narrowly over Great Britain for third – the big difference-maker there is that potentially half of the British relay (Scott and Dean) will probably be coming off the 200 free semifinals, which is a tough race to recover from. Australia, meanwhile, has made this relay a major priority, with Chalmers dropping his individual 200 free spot to stay fresh for what could be a game-changing anchor leg.

Place Country
2019 Worlds Finish
1 Russia 2nd
2 USA 1st
3 Australia 3rd
4 Great Britain 5th
5 Italy 4th
6 Hungary 7th
7 France 8th
8 Brazil 6th

In This Story

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Drama King
1 year ago

Gold – Russia
Silver – USA
Bronze – Italy

4. Great Britain
5. Australia
6. Brazil
7. France
8. Hungary

Dark Horse – Japan

1 year ago

For all bar USA & RUS, the margin of error is likely to be miniscule thus they may need to field as close to their finals line-up as possible. Could very well see 1-2 “rated” teams muck this up.

Gold is between RUS & USA, no question. The rest aren’t likely to be within the same post-code. Looking beyond Dressel, this does not look an overly strong USA line-up and RUS looks to have both the weapons plus the depth across their peak quartet.

USA’s record is one of getting it done in some tight battles thus one is hesitant to bet against them however, one will eventually run out of “get out of jail cards. With no little… Read more »

1 year ago

The USA to win it narrowly over Russia with Dressel leading off in a neat WR and Apple anchoring in around 46 mid. Italy for the bronze.

1 year ago

Dresser leads off in 46mid and the world is chasing, gasping, over swimming the front. USA, USA, USA!

1 year ago

I fancy GB for a medal here, they could scrap with the big dogs and possibly win I think

1 year ago

Great race, looking forward to it, two races in one, Russia v USA, the battle of the super powers, just giving my nod to Russia, but a US win would not surprise.
Bronze, yeah GB, Italy & Australia, very very close, maybe GB as they have young up & comers, unless Chalmers & McEvoy pulls out something special.

Reply to  Robbos
1 year ago

I would be over the moon if Australia get a bronze here. I just don’t see it happening though.

Reply to  Samesame
1 year ago

I think we’ll be close, but I see GB edging us with Italy thereabouts too.
With the likes of Chalmers, McEvoy & Carthwright we should have been challenging for Gold, but McEvoy total lost of form, hopefully good enough to get back into high 47s & Carthwright injuries, not to be.

Bobo Gigi
1 year ago

Ok guys. Here’s my gold medal predictions. Very low confidence in about half of the events but we’ll see.

400 IM. D.SETO

Canadians are gonna love my picks. 😆
800 FREE.… Read more »

Reply to  Bobo Gigi
1 year ago

I’ve a sneaking feeling for Pickrem too. Detti would be a big surprise.

Bobo Gigi
Reply to  Jamie5678
1 year ago

I didn’t want to always pick the favorites on paper and I find that Canadian big names have been pretty quick at their trials knowing that they were already preselected. So I count on them to swim much faster at olympics.
Choice by default in the men’s 400 free. I feel nothing this year in that event. I had to pick somebody. I’m probably wrong to not pick an Australian. I don’t know.

Reply to  Bobo Gigi
1 year ago

I agree with the Canadians being a bit under the radar. But they’ve quietly gone about their business. They’ve not swum much and, although I’m not an expert, they seem to have had a tougher lockdown than most and might be better acclimated to the bubble. Their trials seemed very low key and strict.

For some countries, Toyko is going to seem very odd and quiet but to Canadians it might seem like a comparative party.

Reply to  Bobo Gigi
1 year ago

Yes Bobo… you are wrong to not pick an Aussie in the 400

Last edited 1 year ago by Samesame
Reply to  Bobo Gigi
1 year ago

I read Dressel in the 100 free & stopped reading.

Mr Piano
Reply to  Robbos
1 year ago


Reply to  Mr Piano
1 year ago

Bobo says he’s staying away from favourites & the first 2 picks are favourites.

Reply to  Robbos
1 year ago

He’s picked the favourite in every event where a North American is the favourite. He just didn’t want to pick the favourites where it’s someone else.

Reply to  Bobo Gigi
1 year ago

You have very little faith in the Aussies. You haven’t picked them for a single close touch where they’re in with a chance, and have also picked against them in a few races where they’re favourites.

You seem pretty bullish on North America. Canada only have 8 Olympic golds in history and you’re picking them to win 5? Lazor for 200Br and Pickrem with the double IM seem pretty bizarre choices.

Reply to  Sub13
1 year ago

He went Titmus over Ledecky in the W400 and only a very blinkered AUS (and I’m not accusing you of being one) would think that is anything other than a close call either way.

  • Whilst not my pick, Lazor is a very defensible option in W200BRS.
  • With Hosszu’s previous aura of invincibility looking somewhat faded, Pickrem is certainly very much part of the equation in either IM, esp now McKeown has ditched 200.
  • Winnington is probably the only front-line AUS gold prospect on the men’s side but even then he’s far from an overwhelming favourite. Looking elsewhere is certainly a defensible call.
  • Masse over McKeown is fair enough given both PBs being close and Masse’s record
… Read more »

Reply to  Bobo Gigi
1 year ago

4*200 Russia is a strange pick,.its between Brits and Aussies for gold. Also Detti is a strange pick in 400 Free. As for the rest… it can happen)

Last edited 1 year ago by anty75
Casas 100 back gold in Fukuoka
Reply to  anty75
1 year ago

Russia wins 4×200 at Euros without using all of their best four swimmers. I know many of the GB team were not rested there, but we can’t assume Russians were rested as well.

Reply to  Bobo Gigi
1 year ago

Bobo do you have a prediction for the men’s Olympic marathon? Can Kipchoge repeat? Or would somebody else take the crown?

Relay Enthusiast
1 year ago

I don’t see how the US can beat Russia. Gone are the days of the US throwing Phelps in for a 47 low split.
Dressel vs Grinev (Dressel 0.5 second lead)
Pieroni vs Minakov (Minakov will chase down Pieroni, maybe not quite catch him hopefully lol)
Curry/Becker vs Morozov (Morozov will overtake US 3rd leg)
Apple vs Kolesnikov (Kolesnikov is just way better than Zach Apple)

Russia will win gold. This is easily the best team they’ve ever had.

Reply to  Relay Enthusiast
1 year ago

Wrong. Apple way out split Kolesnikov at 2019 Worlds head to head

Reply to  Marklewis
1 year ago

Kolesnikov was about 12 years old then though.

Reply to  Marklewis
1 year ago

When Kolesnikov split 47.5 on the 2019 relay, his best flat-start time was a 48.5. His best flat start time from this year is 47.3. Not saying he will also drop 1.2 seconds from his previous relay split, but it isn’t a stretch to except KK to have a faster split here than Apple.

Reply to  Relay Enthusiast
1 year ago

How is Kolesnikov WAY better when their PB are not that different? And remenber Kolesnikov will swim 10 back semi just before the relay. I think if Aplle will repeat his 46.8 split then its gold USA here.

About Jared Anderson

Jared Anderson

Jared Anderson swam for nearly twenty years. Then, Jared Anderson stopped swimming and started writing about swimming. He's not sick of swimming yet. Swimming might be sick of him, though. Jared was a YMCA and high school swimmer in northern Minnesota, and spent his college years swimming breaststroke and occasionally pretending …

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