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TOKYO — The reason the United States finished a sobering fifth in the first Olympic mixed medley swimming relay was not the performance of any of the four swimmers. But the sight of 17-year-old Lydia Jacoby persevering through the breaststroke leg with her goggles in her mouth, having rolled down her face after diving in, served as an apt metaphor.
It was a snapshot of a relay gone wrong.
Scheduling issues, stamina issues, experience issues—and perhaps biggest of all, trust issues—likely played parts in the worst U.S. relay finish in Olympic history. Coaches Dave Durden and Greg Meehan admittedly “overanalyzed” the race in going with a flawed lineup, though freestyle star Caeleb Dressel also spoke some truth when he noted that “we don’t have the pieces right now.” The coaches were not playing a flush hand.
This is a weird, gimmicky new Olympic event, with two women and two men swimming the four legs. Strategic trial and error can be expected as coaches around the world wrap their arms around it. But they serve up medals for it like every other relay—and the Americans finishing fifth is a forehead slapper for sure.
“Fifth place is unacceptable for USA Swimming and we’re aware of that,” Dressel said. “The standard is gold.”
After what Durden and Meehan described as extensive study of all the numbers, plus a dash of “gut feel,” they opted for a lineup strategy that differed significantly from the other seven finalists. The U.S. was the only relay team that put a female breaststroker to go up against the fastest human ever in that event, Great Britain’s Adam Peaty. It also was the only relay to anchor the freestyle leg with a male—and while Dressel is the fastest in the world in the 100 free, he was destined to be too far behind to make a difference.
By times, the largest gap between men’s and women’s gold medalists here is in breaststroke. Peaty, who is the world-record holder, won the 100 breast in a time 7:58 seconds faster than Jacoby’s gold-medal effort. So why did the Americans roll the dice on the biggest of mismatches? And why did they risk leaving their best relay swimmer (Dressel) in a too-little, too-late position?
The answer is multi-layered. But here are some of the factors:
• Not going with a male breaststroker is the easiest second guess. But the U.S's best in that event, Michael Andrew, had just contested a 50 freestyle minutes earlier—and if there is one thing we’ve seen with Andrew and his light training regimen, his stamina is not the best. (Dressel, by comparison, had no problem swimming the 50 and then producing a fast relay leg in his third swim of the morning.) Also, having been coached by his father on a one-man team for most of his life, Andrew has less relay experience than most and might not be as committed to the team cause. Lastly, there is the significant fact that Andrew has been one of the bigger disappointments of this competition so far—or was until the time when the relay lineup had to be submitted an hour before the session started. (Andrew then swam a good 50 free to make the final in that event.)
The other option from the individual 100 breaststroke was Andrew Wilson, who was O.K. but not great in the mixed medley preliminary and had already logged 800 meters of racing this week. The best play might have been Nic Fink, who finished fifth in the 200 breast. He’s had some quality relay performances in the past.
Jacoby fought hard in her leg, especially given the fact that her goggles were literally in her mouth—“I was definitely panicking a little bit,” she said. That’s a mishap routinely seen in age-group races but almost never at this level. (Yes, Michael Phelps swam with water in his goggles in the 2008 Olympics 200 butterfly, but that was a momentary flip where they still remained on his eyes, not in his mouth. Jacoby was only wearing one swim cap, as opposed to two, which increases the chances of a total goggle malfunction.)
Jacoby’s time was good—nearly as fast as her gold-medal mark. For an Olympic rookie, that’s a game effort under extreme duress. She showed some character in that moment. But ideally, relay swimmers are .5 to .7 faster with benefit of a flying start instead of a flat start.
Even if her goggles had stayed on and she’d gone a second faster, Jacoby wasn’t going to put the U.S. on the podium. But the Alaskan had no international relay experience, and likely no high-level relay experience nationally. Lilly King, world-record holder in the 100 breast, has been through the international battles and was certainly an option—theoretically one capable of posting something in the low 1:04 or high 1:03 range. But she hadn’t been faster than 1:05 in four 100s in Tokyo; Jacoby beat her handily head-to-head; and King was coming off an all-out 200 breast the day before.
Ultimately, the breaststroke problem was less Jacoby’s performance than her presence on the relay in place of a man. That’s not her fault.
• Dressel was absolutely going to be used on this relay, and moving him up to butterfly would have increased his impact on the race. Torri Huske, in her first Olympics, did not produce a stellar relay split, although part of that could be attributed to being caught up in the wash behind several other teams. Regardless, it contributed to the hole Dressel had to try to swim out of at the end.
But replacing him with a female on the freestyle leg also was not a cut-and-dry call—because who do you choose? The U.S.'s best 100 free swimmer, Abbey Weitzeil, was coming off a 50 just minutes earlier. So was Simone Manuel, a relay star for years struggling with health issues in 2021. The best option in that spot might have been Natalie Hinds, who twice turned in good legs on the 400 freestyle relay earlier in the week.
Quite simply, American swimming has never had an Olympic relay meet this bad. Five relays in, the results are one gold (men’s 400 freestyle), one silver (women’s 800 freestyle), one bronze (women’s 400 freestyle) and two podium misses (fourth in the men’s 800 and this fifth). And don’t look now, but the American men will be underdogs to Great Britain in the medley relay Sunday—an event the U.S. has never lost at the Olympic level.
Egos battered, the U.S. could use a relay revival to end this meet and reassert itself. To do that, the Americans need to very quickly solve some trust issues and find the right eight people to finish the job.
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