Young Swimmers Could Boost American Women Into World Title Hunt in 800 Freestyle Relay

Erin Gemmell -- Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Young Swimmers Could Boost American Women Into World Title Hunt in 800 Freestyle Relay

One year ago, the American women were longshot candidates to win a world title in the 800 freestyle relay. In fact, finishing off the podium seemed like a more plausible scenario than U.S. gold. The field also included a Chinese team that had captured Olympic gold one year earlier, a Canadian group led by Summer McIntosh and Penny Oleksiak and Australia, which arrived in Budapest with unmatched depth.

At the 2022 Australian Trials, Ariarne Titmus took a shot at the individual world record in the 200 free, coming just three tenths short at 1:53.31, but even with Titmus set to miss the World Championships, the team still looked like strong favorites. Mollie O’Callaghan took second at Trials in 1:54.94, and every swimmer in the field went under 1:57. For some comparison, only Katie Ledecky beat that mark at the U.S. qualifying meet.

Turns out that the discrepancy in times on-paper did not matter when gold was on the line. In the World Championships final, Claire Weinstein and Leah Smith provided solid opening legs before Ledecky put the Americans into the lead. On the anchor leg, the Americans had Bella Sims in her first major final trying to hold off O’Callaghan, and Sims ended up out-splitting the talented Aussie by more than a second with a 1:54.60 anchor split, almost three seconds quicker than her flat-start best time.

But months later, Australia restored order at the Commonwealth Games. With Titmus added back to the lineup, the foursome knocked more than a second off the world record, beating the American winning time from Worlds by two seconds.

So far, 2023 is trending the same way as 2022. At the recent Australian Championships (not the qualifier for Worlds), O’Callaghan touched in 1:55.15, and Titmus took second in 1:55.28. They were followed by two swimmers with plenty of international experience but in other events: Shayna Jack (better known for her sprint freestyle) in 1:55.37 and Kaylee McKeown (the world-record holder in the 100 and 200 back) in 1:56.88. With Titmus and O’Callaghan likely to be in peek form by Worlds and Madison WilsonKiah Melverton, Leah Neale and Brianna Throssell all in the mix, this is a formidable group for sure.


Bella Sims — Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

The best hope for the Americans to pull off another upset win? Combine continued excellent splits from Ledecky with a speedy group of teenagers and hope those relatively inexperienced 200 freestylers swim to their potential on the biggest stage. Sims, who will turn 18 this Thursday, is already a known quantity, and she will likely close the gap between her flat-start best time (1:57.53) and her 1:54-level relay speed this summer. Weinstein, 16, got into 1:56-territory from a flat start last year at Worlds.

Erin Gemmell, 18, should be in the mix this year after swimming as fast as 1:56.14 in a second-place finish at U.S. Nationals last summer and then splitting 1:54.86 to anchor the American team to gold in the 800 free relay at the Junior Pan Pacific Championships. Gemmell placed seventh in the 200 free at last year’s International Team Trials, missing a spot at Worlds by just three tenths, but she showed huge growth with her breakout swims later in the year, and this weekend, she swam her fastest-ever in-season time with a 1:57.11 at a Sectionals meet in Richmond, Va.

That time ranks third among Americans this year behind Ledecky’s 1:54.96 at the Fort Lauderdale stop of the TYR Pro Swim Series and a surprising 1:57.02 posted by Indiana junior-to-be Anna Peplowski at this weekend’s Indy Spring Cup. Peplowski, 20, does not fit into this mold of rising teenagers poised for international success in the 200 free. In fact, last year, Peplowski was 22nd in the 200 free at International Team Trials in 2:01.70, although she did win the B-final of the 200 back that same day.

Peplowski had a best time of 1:59.87 at the start of April, but she crushed that time to win the 200 free at the Westmont stop of the TYR Pro Series (1:58.08) before dropping another second in Indy. Suddenly, she is a relay contender, having already surpassed Weinstein’s second-place time from last year’s qualifying meet.

Trying to assess a potential top-six relay lineup for the United States is always tricky, and as usual, a lot of different names could contend for spots next month in Indianapolis. Teenagers Katie Grimes and Leah Hayes are already World Championships veterans in other events, and both have 200 free skills. Veterans Smith and Alex Walsh could find their way onto the squad once again, and Paige Madden will aim for a return after helping the Americans to silver at the Tokyo Olympics. Backstroke and butterfly specialist Regan Smith certainly has untapped potential in the 200 free, if she can fit the event into her schedule.

However, in order for the U.S. to win another world title in the relay, flat-start 1:55s will be required from swimmers other than Ledecky, and in-season results have shown which swimmers are most likely to generate those times next month.

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