BUDAPEST, Hungary – The newest Olympic swimming relay has enough combinations and permutations to make your head spin as coaches try to outwit each other.
Team USA smashed the world record in the mixed 4x100-meter medley at the FINA World Championships with a time of 3 minutes, 38.56 seconds, eclipsing the previous mark of 3:40.28 set by a completely different set of Team USA swimmers in the Wednesday morning prelims.
Australia won the silver medal with a time of 3:41.21, then Canada and China tied for the bronze in 3:41.25.
“I didn’t think we were going to go faster than what the prelims swimmers did,” said Caeleb Dressel, who had a blistering 49.92 split on the butterfly leg, “so that was amazing -- eight guys and girls from America and the two fastest times in the world.”
The mixed 4x100-meter medley, which will make its Olympic debut at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020, is like an individual medley swum by four different swimmers. Each team must be composed of two men and two women, but anyone can swim any stroke.
“I think it’s one of the most exciting races to watch,” said backstroker Ryan Murphy, who swam lead-off in the morning prelim. “A lot of people really like watching IM, just because there’s a lot of lead changes. And you add in mixing guys and girls and those lead changes become even bigger. It’s really exciting and really good for the sport.”
This was the only relay race in which Team USA had never won a gold, but then it has only been on the program twice at worlds. Great Britain defeated the United States in Kazan in 2015.
Murphy said he didn’t consider it an unfair advantage competing against women. “Everyone has two guys and two girls,” he said. “It’s up to the coaches to make that as fast as possible based on your team strengths.”
In the final, Matt Grevers, the 2012 Olympic gold medalist, swam backstroke, followed by Lilly King, the new world record holder in breaststroke. Dressel, the rising star in U.S. sprinting, gave the U.S. the lead on butterfly, and Simone Manuel, the Olympic champion, anchored in freestyle.
“Luckily, I was last, so I didn’t get passed by a guy,” Manuel said. “But it was a lot of fun. There was a lot of energy in the ready room. It was just exciting. It’s different, but it’s pretty cool that this is going to be an Olympic event.”
Strategy comes into play before anyone gets on the blocks. Which swimmer should perform each stroke? The U.S. had at least 16 swimmers to choose from.
“We trust the head coaches and we have to,” said Kelsi Worrell, who swam breaststroke in the prelims. “There are so many different opportunities for this relay because we have so much depth.”
Team USA coaches switched it up between prelims and finals, going from male-male-female-female to male-female-male-female.
Dressel said he didn’t find out he was swimming until the previous day, after King set the world record in the 100 breast.
He had to play catch-up on his leg, and did, slicing through the women whose male teammates had given them a head start. “I never really swam against girls before, but it was great,” he said.
Grevers said the coaches put all their splits together to try to figure out the fastest combination, and he heard the two U.S. teams were within .01 of each other paper.
Both he and Murphy swam faster than they did in the 100 backstroke final on Tuesday night, with Grevers clocking 52.32 and Murphy 52.34.
"It’s pretty cool that we could have had two separate relays and gone 1-2," Grevers said. "That just shows the awesome depth of the USA. Two world records in one day with eight different people. I don’t know how often that happens.”
Although a mixed 4x100-meter freestyle will be held later this week at worlds, only the mixed medley won approval to be included in the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020.
"Before," said King, "it was like, ‘OK, it’s just a world championships event. It’s not an Olympic event, so it’s not that big of a deal,’ but now it is. We really have been putting a lot more thought into it and it’s more than just who has the fastest swimmers. It’s who has the strategy and the best order.”
It also helps to have the best talent.