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Australian swimming’s ‘relay project’ that is paying off at Tokyo Olympics | Tokyo Olympic Games 2020

Last Thursday, earlier than Australia’s swimmers had swum any aggressive laps in Tokyo, head coach Rohan Taylor outlined a key ambition. “There are seven relays that we compete in; there’s seven alternatives,” he mentioned. On the Beijing Olympics in 2008, Australia had gained a medal in all six relays. In Tokyo, continued Taylor, he wished his swimmers to match that commonplace: “We are attempting to place each single relay able to get on the rostrum.”

To date, so good. Within the first relay occasion of the meet, the Australian ladies smashed their very own world file to win the 4x100m freestyle. Within the three relays that have adopted – the boys’s 4x100m and 4x200m freestyle, and the ladies’s 4x200m freestyle – the Australians have discovered themselves on the rostrum, gathering three bronze medals.

“Relays to me are the best factor to be part of,” Taylor mentioned. “We’ve made [relays] a really huge precedence inside our preparation.”

On Saturday, the Dolphins can be underneath stress to proceed the streak – because the blended 4x100m medley relay makes its debut, the first-time a mixed males’s and girls’s relay occasion has featured at the Olympics. The Tokyo 2020 swim program will then conclude on Sunday with the 4×100 medley relay for each women and men. If the Australians can discover themselves on the rostrum in all three, they’ll surpass their relay medal haul in Beijing. It might be fairly the achievement.

However Australia’s success in Olympic relays is about extra than simply luck and quick particular person swimmers. Relays are tactically advanced, high-pressure occasions the place the smallest mistake can result in disqualification. Australia has responded by throwing time, cash and devoted analysis at the relay format, within the hope of boosting the nation’s swimmers to staff glory. It seems to be paying off. These are Australia’s relay secrets and techniques.

Relays have lengthy been a characteristic of the Olympic swimming program. On the 1904 Olympics in St Louis, the third fashionable Games, the boys contested the 4×50 yard freestyle relay. It was changed by the 4x200m relay in 1908, earlier than the ladies had a 4x100m freestyle relay added to this system in 1912. Within the subsequent century, each races remained an integral a part of the Olympic swim meet (albeit with some gender discrimination – the ladies couldn’t race the 4x200m till 1996). The 4×100 medley relay was added in 1960.

Ian Thorpe with Don Talbot in 2001
Ian Thorpe with Don Talbot in 2001. {Photograph}: Stuart Hannagan/Getty Photos

For Australia, relay swimming was not a precedence. Whereas an Australasian staff (combining Australia and New Zealand) gained the second-ever males’s 4x200m in 1912, it took 4 and a half many years for the nation to say gold once more – albeit twice, at the house 1956 Olympics. Within the second half of the century, arch-rivals the US reigned supreme within the relay. Except a relay win underneath the Olympic flag at the boycotted 1980 Games in Moscow, Australia wouldn’t win one other relay gold till the following dwelling Games at Sydney 2000.

By then, Don Talbot was in cost, and the legendary swim coach had put a serious deal with relay success. Following Talbot’s demise final yr, a swimming web site headlined his obituary, “Legend Who Led Green & Gold Past Stars & Stripes”. This was true typically – Talbot was teaching the Dolphins after they famously surpassed the Individuals within the medal tally at the 2001 world championships. But it surely was notably true within the relay. Immediately the US had competitors.

On the 2000 Olympics, Australia went 5 from six within the relays, together with two golds. In Athens it was three from six, together with two golds. After the excessive level of Beijing (six from six – two golds), Australia’s relay stars have continued to ship. At London 2012 the Dolphins gained 4 relay medals (one gold), in Rio it was 5 medals (once more one gold). In Tokyo, the Australians need to go even higher.

Lately, the Dolphins have doubled down on their relay focus. “We run a relay challenge,” Taylor says at the halfway level of the Tokyo 2020 meet. The challenge is led by Jessica Corones, efficiency options supervisor at Swimming Australia. “We’re constructed alongside relays – there’s the place our depth is,” says Dean Boxall, an Australian swim coach who is main the relay teaching in Tokyo. “We’re actually attempting to construct that staff unity.”

Australia’s swimmers, coaches and advisors level to 4 key elements driving Australia’s relay success.

First, the staff gathers for a relay-focused coaching camps. “We come collectively at least annually and practice collectively for a full week,” Cate Campbell says after her 4x100m relay staff had gained gold on Sunday. “We push one another and we problem one another, however we do that in a very supportive manner. There’s no malice, and no animosity in the direction of each other. I feel that has simply spoken volumes. This is the third Olympics in a row that Australia has gained this occasion.”

This yr, that camp had added significance. “We did that in February on the Gold Coast, which was much more particular this yr than earlier years as a result of clearly we had the yr aside with Covid,” says Kyle Chalmers, who has gained two relay bronze medals up to now this week.

Australia’s earlier head coach, Dutchman Jacco Verhaeren, established the relay camps just a few years in the past. His successor, Taylor, has continued them. “It’s a very good alternative for us to race in opposition to one another … and apply these relay changeovers,” Chalmers says. “After which when the time comes, and it counts probably the most, we’re ready and we’re not anxious in regards to the abilities we have to do within the race.”

Relay approach is the second issue. The changeover between swimmers is all-important – if the incoming swimmer is too timid, they’ll lose invaluable time. If they’re too aggressive, they threat disqualification. Incoming swimmers can’t go away the blocks till their teammate has touched the wall; they’re, nevertheless, given three one-hundredths of a second margin of error (on Wednesday, Australia nearly misplaced their bronze medal within the males’s 4x200m when Zac Incerti dived in 0.03 seconds too early, however he was saved by this leeway).

The Dolphins have spent hours practising relay approach. “Our relay coach Dean [Boxall] will get us to do some fairly attention-grabbing drills,” says Tamsin Cook dinner, who swam within the ladies’s 4x200m warmth this week. “He makes us face the opposite manner, after which calls ‘go’ for the swimmer coming in. We have now to run, seize our goggles and make it again to the block to do a secure relay changeover. He throws every little thing at us so that after we hop on the market we’re completely ready for no matter occurs.”

This preparation has included engaged on completely different relay begins. The custom approach sees a swimmer with each toes on the entrance of the beginning block. Even earlier than their colleague has hit the wall, they raise their arms backwards after which forwards to realize momentum earlier than their toes go away the block simply because the outgoing swimmer touches dwelling. However in recent times American swimmers have pioneered a brand new approach referred to as the step-over begin, which goals to offer even higher momentum off the blocks, with one foot positioned in entrance of the opposite.

Verhaeren was reportedly not a fan, however Taylor has inspired his swimmers to go together with their most well-liked method. “We’ve given the athletes the chance to seek out what one fits them greatest,” he says. “We movie it, we measure it, we search for what’s the very best one. A few of them just like the step-over, you’ll see Kyle [Chalmers] simply does a two-foot begin. So it’s a desire, it’s not a directive.”

Brianna Throssell and Mollie O’Callaghan
Australia’s Brianna Throssell and Mollie O’Callaghan within the heats. {Photograph}: Stefan Wermuth/Reuters

The third issue is analysis. Swimming Australia has a staff of analysts and sports activities scientists utilizing video and timing date to tell relay technique. “We have now accomplished evaluation of the final 10 years of worldwide 4x200m worldwide freestyle relays,” says Professor David Pyne of the College of Canberra, who has attended 4 Olympics with the swim staff (however is not in Tokyo). “The coaches have gotten all their expertise – and everybody appears at the numbers – however we’ve got accomplished a deeper dive into the evaluation.

“There was numerous work accomplished on the order [of relay swimmers],” Pyne says. “It’s partly science and partly artwork. Usually you need your greatest swimmer to go first or final. That’s the traditional knowledge, which is what the analysis has borne out. The evaluation we do is to assist the coaches with their choices in race order. We’re additionally wanting at rookie swimmers. There is some attention-grabbing evaluation to indicate that the rookies can really enhance extra [in relays]. It is a trade-off in threat. There is extra potential to enhance, however you don’t all the time get that within the emotion of the massive second.”

Even the best-laid methods don’t all the time go to plan. There was a lot controversy on Thursday morning when Australia completed third within the ladies’s 4x200m relay, having been anticipated to win. The staff had swum quickest within the heats, however Taylor and Boxall swapped out the warmth swimmers for an all-new ultimate staff. Whereas the pair insisted they’d no regrets in a combative post-race trade with the media, the incident underscored the high-risk, high-reward nature of relay swimming.

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The ultimate issue is considerably intangible. However the Australians are lucky to have depth and breadth to their swimming program, and a seemingly limitless conveyor-belt of recent expertise. And so they additionally simply appear to essentially like one another.

“They arrive collectively, they kind a staff,” Boxall says. “It’s just like the transformers after they come collectively, the Autobots.” He factors to the instance of the boys’s 4×100 staff, who had not put in common instances at the Olympic trials however improved to earn bronze in Tokyo.

“It’s very particular to be a part of this relay, it all the time is,” says Bronte Campbell, a part of the gold medal profitable ladies’s 4x100m staff this week. “The competitors in Australia is fierce for this relay, and that’s what makes us so aggressive on the worldwide stage. It’s greater than us competing in opposition to one another for the spots on the relay, as a result of we actually are an prolonged staff.”

McKeon, Campbell’s teammate, pointed to the expertise coming by way of the ranks. “I feel it’s the depth that we’ve bought,” she says. “We race in opposition to one another on a regular basis – [we] raise the requirements, push one another and go quicker and quicker. We’ve bought numerous younger ones coming by way of. They preserve chasing those that are at the highest, so that retains the usual lifting on a regular basis.”

All of which leaves Australia with the opportunity of going seven out of seven in Tokyo. It is not going to be straightforward – the three remaining relays are all medleys, and Australia is weaker within the 100m breaststroke class for each women and men. However head coach Taylor stays optimistic.

“We nonetheless have some challenges,” he mentioned mid-week. “We’ve bought to determine methods – that’s what we do, sit strategically [and put a team together] … I’m hopeful that we’ll go seven from seven.”

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