Tomorrow will mark the halfway point of swimming portion of the 2015 FINA World Aquatics Championships, and in the middle of the toughest major meet for Team USA in years, its coaches get to make some interesting decisions. Namely, day four of this meet will be the first time the USA has contested a mixed medley relay in a major (long course) international championship. There are going to be a number of factors that the USA coaches will have to keep in mind as they decide who will be swimming, including:
1. Men will swim back/breast, women will swim fly/free. This isn’t a rule, but is an optimization strategy that recognizes the fact that, because the first legs are slower, the gap between men and women is larger than between fly and free.
2. Event schedules for swimmers. A number of swimmers who will be under consideration will be slated to swim other events tomorrow. Several more will be swimming events the following day, as the Day 5 schedule features the heats and prelims of the women’s 100 frees and the 200s of the men’s back and breast. The coaches might have to strike a balance between picking the fastest lineup and saving swimmers with heavier schedules for their best individual events.
3. Tryouts. The mixed medley relay offers coaches a chance to evaluate a few swimmers who didn’t earn individual spots, but whose times could be faster than those who did, and see if they might help out the medley relays for each gender.
4. Fairness. It’s long been an unwritten rule that medley relay spots should go to those who qualified individually, and that the second-fastest individuals in each event would get a chance to earn a medal via swimming in the preliminaries. This has been prompted, in part, because usually the USA has been able to get away with swimming its “B team” in relays and still qualifying for finals. Of course, that strategy took a bit of a blow this week when the men failed to qualify for the finals of the 4×100 free relay.
5. Winning medals. I have a feeling that given the paucity of medals for the USA this week, the idea of “sharing the wealth” might take a back seat to “securing the wealth.” This means we may very well see the USA go with more of an “A” team on this relay that they might otherwise do.
Matt Grevers and David Plummer contested the 100 backstroke for the US this week and lead the considerations for relay spots. Plummer was apparently feeling ill during preliminaries, but somewhat rebounded in the semifinals. He finished 9th with a time of 53.54, which would have made finals in 2013. Grevers has been looking better as the week goes on, ending up with a 52.66 that only earned bronze, but was his best time since the 2012 Olympics.
Meanwhile, there has been a lot of speculation for months that Ryan Murphy, who’s been lighting up the NCAA for the past two seasons, but just missed out qualifying for the individual 100 back here, could get a chance to show what he can throw down right now in the 100 back. If he gets that chance, a strong time could earn a swim leading off the men’s medley relay. Murphy was 53.64 less than a month ago at the LA invite, so he should be able to go faster than Plummer did. If he does get that chance tomorrow and show that he can, or if he impresses in the 200 back later this week, the coaches could definitely justify putting him in preliminaries, which would let Grevers save his energy for the finals.
Kevin Cordes actually had the fastest 100 breast time among US swimmers last year, but that 59.70 came in the preliminaries of the Pan Pacific championships. He DQ’d in the A-final there, with the result that he missed out on qualifying for Worlds in that event. However, despite concerns about his penchant for jumping early on relays, the coaches selected him to swim in the medley relay and he split a 58.64, which is unofficially the second-fastest split for an American swimmer ever. He looks primed so far at this meet, having just broken the American Record in the 50 breast while qualifying third in the semifinals of that event. There are indications from the USA coaching staff that Cordes is very much in contention for a spot on the men’s medley relay, which makes sense.
Meanwhile, the two swimmers who beat out Cordes to swim here, Cody Miller and Nic Fink, were off their best times in the semi finals of the 100 breast, and both missed the final. If the coaches feel that Miller’s time is good enough to ensure the USA makes the final in this relay, he may swim prelims so that they can go with what should be their fastest lineup in the final. The 50 breast final is also tomorrow night, and while Cordes should have plenty of time between two events, the coaches could decide to have him swim preliminaries for the relay and avoid the double, if he’s on this relay at all.
On the first day of this meet, Claire Donahue finished 20th in the preliminaries with a time of 58.77. Kendyl Stewart made it to the semis, but finished in 10th with a time of 58.14, just slower than her preliminary swim. Katie McLaughlin is on the team for the 200 fly, but has been steadily improving her 100 fly over the past year. She swam a 57.87 at the Fran Crippen Memorial meet in June, a time that’s faster than either of the aforementioned teammates have gone here.
The fly leg may currently be the weakest for the USA women as they look to the women’s medley relay, and it would be great to get McLaughlin a “tryout” on this relay. However, this relay comes after the women’s 200 fly in both sessions tomorrow, so it’s not clear that putting McLaughlin on this relay would be a great indication of where she’s at in the 100. The coaches might instead decide to stick with Donahue and Stewart, and use McLaughlin’s individual 200 to gauge whether or not she’d be an upgrade as the USA women battle for a medal at the end of the week.
On one hand, this selection process is a little less complicated, as there is no need for a “tryout” on this leg. However, both of the USA women’s top freestylers, Simone Manuel and Missy Franklin, have busy schedules this week. I don’t expect to see Franklin on this relay at all. Manuel has the 100 free the next day, but will probably anchor the evening relay, assuming that the preliminary team can make it to finals without her.
If the coaches leave off Manuel in the morning, then that freestyle leg will probably go to Margo Geer or Lia Neal. Geer had the fastest time on the USA squad in the prelims of the 4×100 free, with a 53.37, but faded to a 54.14 in the finals. Neal was a little more consistent, splitting a 53.93 in the morning and a 53.70 for finals.
I’m glad I’m not Dave Durden or Dave Salo right now, as I wouldn’t be getting much sleep. However, if it was up to me, no matter how much I may feel like the mixed relays are exhibitions, I would think the US team could use a little shot in the arm, and a victory here could help give the team some momentum for the rest of the week. I’d go with:
Preliminary: Murphy, Cordes, Stewart, Neal
Final: Grevers, Miller/Cordes, Stewart/McLaughlin, Manuel — decisions on the middle two legs would depend on how the morning session goes.