The Australian Men’s 4x100m freestyle relay team had an off day in the pool, no doubt about that. The team went into the race hot favourites after speeding into the final with the fastest time of all the countries contesting the event. They deserved their ‘favourite’ tag with former champion and world record holder Eamon Sullivan and current world champion and holder of the fastest time this year, James ‘Missile’ Magnussen in the team. The team also contained the not inexperienced Matt Targett and James Roberts who stormed onto the team for the individual event behind Magnussen with a time in the high 47 seconds.
But ultimately, the also fast and favourites until Australia stormed home in the heats yesterday morning, the French prevailed in a time of 3:09.93. They came home 0.45 of a second ahead of the United States of America (3:10.38) and the also speedy Russians who managed to edge out Australia for third in a time of 3:11.41.
It wasn’t poor preparation that brought the team undone. They’d had just as much time preparing for the race as the Olympic champion women’s team did the day before. They completely smashed it, with anchor Melanie Schlanger storming home for Australia to take the gold. They put a great race together with all firing just when they needed to and that translated to the first gold medal of the 2012 Olympic Games for the Australian team.
It was certainly not a lack of potential for speed with two of our swimmers, the two James’ swimming times of 47 seconds this calendar year. Both did that at winning the trials in Adelaide just a matter of months ago, with Magnussen finding himself just outside the world record. Eamon Sullivan too has shown himself capable of swimming a time in the range of 47 seconds. Sullivan broke the world record twice, first at 47.24 and then took it back from fast Frenchman Alain Bernard with a time of 47.05, the latter a time .05 seconds faster than Magnussen’s best time of 47.10.
The decision for Magnussen to swim both the morning heat of the race and the final was at the very least an interesting one. Usually the fastest in the team are omitted in the morning to save them for the evening, but James Magnussen opted to swim in the heats to “blow the cobwebs out”. Swimmer’s at the top level should be able to back-up and swim a faster time in the evening finals than in the heats.
Another interesting decision was for ‘the missile’ to lead out the team in the final overnight. The fastest swimmer in the team is often used to anchor the swim so that they can swim over the top of other competitor nations if they are ahead of them.
Instead the strategy was theorised as the fastest swimmer going out first and going out hard and getting the team a sizeable lead for the weaker swimmers to defend in the final three legs of the relay. But that lead never materialised and there were teams ahead of us with Magnussen swimming a very poor opening leg of 48.03, almost a second outside his best.
Australia was behind from the get-go and never recovered with the slower of the swimmers, not slow by any stretch of the imagination unable to cut the deficit left after the first leg.
But it would be wrong to think that the fourth place was because of those two decisions. It simply was not. While they were strange decisions, Magnussen could just as easily have swum the same time in bringing the Australian relay team home. We won’t ever know, but it’s entirely plausible.
It’s also wrong to focus all the blame for the race on Magnussen. Being about one and a half seconds off the pace it was more than down to the slow Magnussen swim. It would have been much closer were James able to swim at his best, with a medal a certainty had he swum his best time, but not the gold. The others were responsible for the remaining gap of about half a second from the gold medal time.
Put simple, it just wasn’t the day for the men’s 4x100m relay team. They were probably partly a victim of their own high expectations, but elite athletes can and should know how to deal with this, especially with the support staff on offer. The team just didn’t perform and James Magnussen should not be too hard on himself. We need him back and swimming like a torpedo for the individual men’s 100m freestyle.
But really, a key reason Australia didn’t do so well? France, the US and Russia took advantage of the situation and swam better than our team.