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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Old Man Chalmers
3 months ago

morozov has a 47.02 from the mens medley in 2019

Ol' Longhorn
3 months ago

Apple is going to have a Lezak-esque anchor.

Mr Piano
Reply to  Ol' Longhorn
3 months ago

The strat is to draft off of the Russians on the last length.

Mr Piano
Reply to  Ol' Longhorn
3 months ago

The strat is to draft off the Russians on the last length

3 months ago

Held missing the games was a HUGE up for Russia, hopefully in 2024 there’s more multi-event qualifiers so all the horses can show up. Phelps and Lochte really made bring 6 much easier

Reply to  Ragnar
3 months ago

Curry going 47 in prelims no cap

Reply to  Ragnar
3 months ago

Stop putting disrespect on Becker though? I like a lot of people write him off STILL and i’m not sure why. Dude is talented. He did, after all, beat Held (not by much granted).

Reply to  GowdyRaines
3 months ago

You right, give the guy a shot.

That 4th guy on the relay is under pressure not to be an outlier compared to the other 3.

Do you know what kind of relay swimmer Becker is?

Reply to  GowdyRaines
3 months ago

Please don’t do a username riff on Dan Hicks

Reply to  Charge
3 months ago

I’m ashamed I didn’t think of that….

3 months ago

Just to be accurate:
At Sette Colli, Ceccon swam 48.14, Condorelli 48.49, Frigo and Zazzeri 48.54.
This means aggregate is 3.12.62.

Reply to  mynameis*
3 months ago

And Frigo swam 47.29 in 2019 relay. So Italy split is 3.10.53 (Condorelli 48.49-Frigo 47.29-Ceccon 47.59-Miressi47.16)

Reply to  mynameis*
3 months ago

Yep – Italy have faster flat times this year than both GB and Australia

3 months ago

1. Russia
2. USA
3. Take your pick between the rest of the final.

Whilst GBR have the biggest upside outside of the top two, I think it might be a year too early for them to get on the podium and I’m edging towards Italy for bronze.

Last edited 3 months ago by Dee
Reply to  Dee
3 months ago

I’d add, I think the big worry for GBR could be missing the final. British swimming won’t ask Dean or Scott to double in the morning imo, so we’re looking at a likely line up of Richards, Guy, Whittle and Litchfield. They’ll either miss or scrape in somewhere between 6th-8th imo. I think they’d take lane 1 or 2 in the final with the waves the big boys from the US & Russia will be making in the middle, but it’s a risky game.

Reply to  Dee
3 months ago

It is a big risk – but realistically both Dean and Scott are better medal chances than this relay, so it’s the right call IMO

Reply to  Iain
3 months ago

I agree

Ol' Longhorn
Reply to  Dee
3 months ago

Choke potential of Russia is off the charts. Wouldn’t be surprised if they false-started or if Morozov did one of his 21.9 to the feet then die like a mother.

3 months ago

“A bunch of dudes going 48mid” feels a bit harsh when we have three youngsters at 48.5 or better flat start (in addition to Scott), and James Guy who never fails to go 47. on our 4×1

Last edited 3 months ago by Dee
3 months ago

Italy for bronze. They’re marginally better than Britain and Australia. They were faster in the water than Britain at the Europeans and they all swam fast at Setti Colle. They also now have Condorelli who wasn’t in Budapest. That’s as things stand.

Britain though have Dean, Whittle or Richards who are all very raw and fresh and at their first Olympics. So they could explode and challenge for a bigger medal than bronze (or explode and not qualify).

Almost certainly though between Russia and the USA for gold (although they won’t be that far ahead),

It should go down to the wire and be really down to -I imagine- Apple against Kolesnikov. KK has the pedigree here although… Read more »

Reply to  Jamie5678
3 months ago

Seems like the consensus is it will come down to the last leg here. Is there any sense to USA putting Dressel on anchor? I know his flat start is incredible but might be worth having someone with a wealth of experience that could drop 46.0 for the touch?

Reply to  Pineapple
3 months ago

I think we need to get out to a body length lead on the first leg and just hold on for dear life. We should throw Zapple on the anchor leg and hope curry/peironi/Becker can show up for those middle two legs. If dressel is really on and can lead us off with a 46.8 or better and zapple can anchor with another 46.xx I think we can do it but it will definitely be close

Reply to  Yabo
3 months ago

I just don’t think the US has the engine room to be leading after 3 legs. The bigger danger – made more likely if they save Dressel for the anchor – is that they’re a little bit adrift.

So I think this is a pretty good assessment Yabo. For me, it’s a bit like 2008 although Russia aren’t quite as good as France. The US will use their champion swimmer on the opening leg and go with the plucky underrated relay stalwart to surf behind and then take down Russia’s champion on the final leg.

They say lightening doesn’t strike twice but it could work.

Ol' Longhorn
Reply to  Pineapple
3 months ago

Dressel has zero experience being an anchor. Zapple does.

Lex Soft
Reply to  Jamie5678
3 months ago

Santo Condorelli… this guy was awesome at Rio 2016. In 100m final, he was leading until about 85-90m, but was surpassed by Kyle Chalmers in the last 5m, then by Nathan Adrian and Pieter Timmers in the last stroke.
Now that he represents Italy, I can see they will be on the podium.

3 months ago

I think Zapple may be getting slept on here, I’m confident in him and Blake to throw down good splits. Dressel is set it and forget it. Its true that Becker and Curry are unproven but to make it through the field at Trials is an accomplishment. In 2016 Held was the unproven commodity and he came up with a solid swim. Granted Russia will be tough but I think USA will take it.

Also think Team GB and their young guns can pop off 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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