I was disappointed Sunday to watch the United States men’s 4 x 100 freestyle relay team surrender a lead late in the race and finish second to France.
I was more disappointed the next morning to find the Internet and the sports media swarming with Monday morning swim coaches questioning Team USA coach Gregg Troy’s decision to put Ryan Lochte on the team for Sunday evening’s final.
When Lochte dove into the pool for the anchor leg of the relay, the United States was in first place and had a half-second lead on its closest competition. But French anchor Yannick Agnel swam the race of a lifetime, surpassed Lochte on the final 50 meters, and touched the wall 0.45 seconds before the American to win gold for France.
The United States team of Lochte, Nathan Adrian, Michael Phelps, and Cullen Jones won silver.
Lochte’s failure to maintain or build on the lead, along with the hype surrounding Lochte entering the 2012 games, led otherwise insightful sports writers to wonder why Lochte was swimming the anchor leg on the 4 x 100 free relay in the first place. (Lochte didn’t help matters by failing to medal in the 200 freestyle yesterday.)
Josh Levin and Justin Peters at Slate, noting Lochte’s cockiness after winning the 400 IM on Saturday, wrote:
Lochte’s confidence earned the approval of Dwyane Wade. It also seemingly got the attention of the U.S. coaches, who put him on the 4-by-100 relay ahead of the team’s freestyle specialists. But the most-confident swimmers aren’t always the best ones.
Team USA coach Gregg Troy knows Lochte isn’t a sprint freestyler. He knows that of Lochte’s many swimming gifts, closing speed isn’t near the top. He knows Lochte has competed in four races totaling 1,200 meters already in London, including a 200-meter freestyle semifinal an hour before the relay final. He knows Lochte doesn’t fit the mold of a sprint anchor. And still he put him in that role. It was a gamble, perhaps made from the high of Lochte’s dominant victory in the 400 IM and his too-quick coronation as the king of swimming. It didn’t make sense when it was announced and it didn’t make sense after.
It’s unclear to me whether Chase took exception to Troy’s decision to put Lochte on the team in the final or only to Troy’s decision to put Lochte on the anchor leg. Chase also questions the decision not to have Phelps lead off. (Phelps swam the first leg for the 2008 team that won gold and set a world record that still stands.)
Many of the commenters at Slate and Fourth-Place Medal were of the opinion that Lochte’s inclusion on the team was a response to Lochte’s fame or to the hype surrounding the Lochte-Phelps rivalry. Some wondered why Jason Lezak, the relay hero from 2008 who swam the anchor leg in the prelims, didn’t swim the anchor leg in the finals.
Ryan Hurley at the NBC Olympics website offered more reasoned analysis:
It is always easier to look back on the situation and say that the U.S. coaches should have handled the relay selection differently, especially when there is evidence that points to Lochte being a gamble at anchor in the first place.
A potential wrench was thrown in the plan for the final U.S. relay when Matt Grevers posted a 47.54 relay split in prelims on Sunday morning – a performance deserving of a second swim. The problem was that Nathan Adrian, Cullen Jones, Michael Phelps and Lochte were already slated to be the quartet to challenge France and Australia in finals. Adrian and Jones earned this right by finishing first and second in the 100m freestyle at U.S. Trials in June. Phelps and Lochte were being considered more or less based on reputation, allowing their past international experience to supersede traditional selection protocol. The ultimate decision for finals left Grevers as the odd man out.
Here’s the problem with this line of thinking: If you take Lochte off of the 4 x 100 relay, you have to put someone else in his place.
Levin and Peters at Slate suggested that Lochte could have been replaced by a “freestyle specialist.” But the USA’s two 100 freestyle specialists—Adrian and Jones—were already on the team. Two other sprint freestylers, Lezak and Jimmy Feigen swam for the United States relay team in the prelims. Feigen swam a 48.49 and Lezak swam a 48.04. Lochte in the finals swam a 47.74. Lezak, for his part, is 36 years old now. You can’t expect him to turn in a 46.06 like he did in Beijing.
Grevers, who swam a 47.54 in the prelims, would have been the obvious choice. But he swam the 100 backstroke semifinals immediately before the 4 x 100 relay final, so he wouldn’t have been at 100 percent. And even if Grevers had been able to swim a 47.5 in the final, it wouldn’t have been enough to beat the French team.
But even if you concede that Lochte was the right choice for that team, you can question whether he was the right choice for the anchor leg.
You can. I won’t.
I’m of the opinion that decisions involving relay order are more a matter of superstition than strategy. The objective in the 100 freestyle is simple: Swim as fast as you possibly can for 100 meters. It’s hard for me to believe that Cullen Jones or Nathan Adrian would have shaved a half-second off their relay splits if he had swam fourth instead of third or first.
If Jones had swam against Agnel on the anchor leg, we’d probably be blaming him for losing a gold medal for Phelps and Lochte. (Jones swam a 47.60, Adrian a 47.89.)
I think that many Americans are under the mistaken impression that, because we have Phelps and Lochte, we should win the swimming relays without much trouble. But the United States wasn’t even favored to win gold in the 4 x 100 free relay, Australia was.
The USA was supposed to battle for silver with France and Russia. Finishing second and beating the Russians and Aussies by a full second is a good result for the United States. The Americans, including Lochte, swam a very good race. But the French, and especially Agnel, swam a great race.
Let’s not overthink this.