An Ace in the Hole for Team USA

You can find links to all of our event-by-event previews and a compilation of our predicted medal-winners here.

2017 FINA WORLD CHAMPIONSHIPS

The women’s 800 free relay will have just 10 teams entered at this year’s World Championships – part of an overall trend of decreased relay participation.

That will make prelims as intriguing as finals in the race – there’s no real ‘just hear for the experience’ teams entered into the race. While some, like Denmark, aren’t as prolific in this relay as in other events, each of the 10 teams entered are part of swimming’s competitive top tier.

While throughout history, the Americans haven’t been notably successful in this 200 free individually – they won the first 3 World titles, and the last 2, but had a 31-year drought in between – in the relay, it’s been a different story. The Americans have won 6 of the last 7 World titles in this race (the exception being the suited year in 2009, where China beat them) and all but one of the Olympic medals in the event (Australia won in 2008).

This year, the Americans are on par to be heavy favorites once again. While Australia, the silver medalists from Rio, haven’t gotten any better on paper, China, the 4th-place finishers, do look truly dangerous.

The Americans’ most obvious ace is Katie Ledecky. This season, her 1:54.84 from Worlds Trials is 8-tenths clear of anybody else in the world. The emergence of Leah Smith at the US Trials, however,  is their secret weapon. No country in the world has a #2 better than Smith this season with a 1:56.68 (#8 in the world overall).

While half of the gold-medal winning relay (Allison Schmitt and Maya DiRado) have retired, the Americans have a seemingly-insatiable depth of 1:56 freestylers to insert into the lineup. This year, Melanie Margalis and Mallory Comerford both swam 1:56s at Trials, and Simone Manuel wasn’t far behind in 1:57.11. With virtually no pressure to make the final, the Americans can see who’s ‘on’ in prelims, and then make the decision about who will join Smith and Ledecky in finals based on the hot hand – a luxury that few other countries can boast.

If there’s one hiccup that could catch up to Team USA, it’s that the 800 free relay comes late in the meet, and both Smith and Ledecky have huge lineups. Still, the gap should be enough to not matter.

The Australians also lost half of their relay from the Olympics, and don’t have quite the depth to replace Tasmin Cook and especially Bronte Barratt’s 1:55.8. Emma McKeon has remained hot this year, with a 1:55.6 that ranks her 4th in the world, but Australia’s #2 is Madi Wilson – ranked 27th in the world in 1:57.68. The Americans have 5 swimmers faster than that, and the stacked Chinese have had an astonishing 7 swimmers go a faster time than that this season.

The Chinese are a wild-card. As alluded to, they’ve had 8 swimmers go 1:57 or better this year, including the #9, #10, and #11 swimmers in the world this season. The problem for China is that all of that depth won’t do enough to erase the 3-second deficit that they’d face on whichever leg matches up against Katie Ledecky and a presumed 1:53.

But, if one of those young Chinese swimmers catches fire (and they are wont to do that, unpredictably), this could be a battle.

That brings up the 4th contender, Canada, who haven’t been mentioned yet. Their Olympic success has been industry-changing in their home country, and an 800 free relay bronze was among the highlights of that performance. The encore performance hasn’t been as good in 2017 so far, though, with Katerine Savard leading the way at 1:57.12. While Penny Oleksiak, the top of the team pyramid, should be better in Budapest than she was in Trials, Canada still has the challenge of replacing Taylor Ruck on the relay. She split 1:56.1 at the Olympics for Canada’s second-best split, but missed this year’s team. That means Canada will have to turn to Kayla Sanchez or Mary-Sophie Harvey to find a way onto the podium.

The battle seems to be between them, Australia, and Hungary for bronze, and all three have three solid legs and one glaring hole in their lineups. Whomever fills that hole the best will find themselves on the podium. Our faith right now is with Canada. They have the most room to drop as compared to their aggregate (which doesn’t include Oleksiak right now), combined with Australia’s recent history of underperforming at major championships.

Sweden, 5th-place finishers at the Olympics, haven’t entered a relay (in spite of having the #2 200 freestyler in the world Michelle Coleman). That’s probably because Sarah Sjostrom has sworn off the event forever – they would be the favorites if they had them both. Italy, the silver medalists in 2015, underperformed badly at the Olympics, but still have Federica Pellegrini in their stable. Russia, Japan, the Netherlands, and Denmark then are probably left to fight for the last two spots in the final.

Japan and Russia are deeper than they feel, and the Dutch and Danes won’t have their best relay swimmers there, so the top 8 seems pretty comfortable – unless the Italians, for example, leave Pellegrini off their prelims relay. In that case, a spot should open in the top 8.

Breakdown of aggregates for the medal contenders (based on top 4 who are on the Worlds roster, not necessarily who will swim)

Swimmer Season best (in seconds) Aggregate
USA
Ledecky 114.84
Smith 116.68
Margalis 116.9
Comerford 116.95 7:45.37
AUs
McKeon 115.68
Wilson 117.68
Titmus 117.9
Ngawati 118.24 7:49.50
CAN
Savard 117.13
Harvey 117.81
Sanchez 118.28
Padington 118.39 7:51.61
CHN
Al 116.72
Li 116.74
Shen 116.79
Liu 117.06 7:47.31
HUN
Hosszu 116.81
Kesely 117.85
Verraszto 118.44
Jakabos 119.33 7:52.43

Predictions:

Place Country 2017 Aggregate Predicted Time at Worlds
1 USA 7:45.37 7:43.5
2 China 7:47.31 7:45.0
3 Canada 7:51.61 7:46.5
4 Australia 7:49.50 7:46.9
5 Hungary 7:52.43 7:50.9
6 Russia 7:51.43 7:50.9
7 Japan 7:50.53 7:51.2
8 Italy 7:52.64 7:53.1

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