Could Australia Challenge Great Britain, United States for Men’s 800 Free Relay Superiority?


13 December 2023, 07:44am

Could Australia Challenge Great Britain, United States for Men’s 800 Free Relay Superiority?

In recent years, the Australian men has achieved their most consistent success in the 800 freestyle relay since the days when Ian Thorpe was handling anchor duties with teammates Grant Hackett and Michael Klim on board. Currently, Australia is riding a streak of four major meets winning a medal in the event, dating back to an upset gold at the 2019 World Championships. Australia won silver at the 2022 World Championships and bronze in 2023, albeit swimming over one second quicker and with an entirely new quartet.

This year’s Aussie group could not match the firepower of Great Britain, which boasted a team of world champion Matt Richards, Olympic champion Tom Dean and veterans Duncan Scott and James Guy. Also ahead were the Americans, with Carson Foster and Kieran Smith hitting 1:44 splits in a spirited silver-medal effort. But Australia got bronze, more than one-and-a-half seconds clear of fourth-place France, without a single weak leg.

A mix of newcomers and veterans all produced 1:45 splits, with 100 free superstar Kyle Chalmers going the quickest at 1:45.19 before Alexander Graham and Thomas Neill, both members of the bronze-medal team from the Tokyo (alongside Chalmers), going high 1:45s to seal the deal. But they would never have been in position without the breakout performance of Kai Taylor, a 19-year-old who broke 1:46 for the first time on the leadoff leg. After a disappointing individual performance in the 200 free, where he missed the semifinals, Taylor rebounded to lead off in 1:45.79, and his team was off and rolling.

Those four swimmers provide an excellent base for Australia’s 200 free corps, while Fukuoka alternates Flynn Southam and Elijah Winnington both have the ability to contribute to this relay, with the 18-year-old Southam having clocked 1:46.24 earlier in the year while Winnington led off the finals squad in 2022 in 1:45.83. Sam Short, the world champion in the 400 free and a medalist in the 800 and 1500 at World Championships, has contributed to this relay in the past, while Zac Incerti should return to the mix next year after a shoulder injury knocked him out for this year’s Worlds.

Depth earns relay medals at major meets, and Australia has no problem there. But winning relay gold requires sensational efforts, like when Chalmers split 46.56 anchoring Australia’s 400 free relay in Fukuoka to steal a gold medal. Well, there’s a new Australian star emerging in the 200 free, one with the capabilities of becoming that central relay figure in short order.

Max Giuliani was not too far away from qualifying for Worlds this year, finishing eighth in the 200 free final at the Australian Trials. His time that evening was 1:48.05. But improvements came swiftly. In late July, the 20-year-old traveled to the United States to race at the TYR Pro Championships, and he blasted a mark of 1:46.23. In October, racing in Europe on the World Cup circuit, Giuliani dropped his time of 1:46.18 and then 1:45.42, which made him the country’s top-ranked swimmer for 2023.

And most recently, with a phenomenal effort at the Queensland Championships, Giuliani joined the 1:44-club, leading off a relay in 1:44.79 to become only the third Australian ever under 1:45 and the second-fastest ever from his country, behind only Thorpe (1:44.06).

That time and his ridiculous improvement curve suddenly vaults Giuliani into serious contention for an individual Olympic medal in the 200 free next year. Giuliani is only the ninth man to swim sub-1:45 from a flat start this year, and only five swimmers have surpassed his time all year: Richards, Dean, Hwang SunwooPan Zhanle and David Popovici.

Add that time onto a relay with Taylor, who could feasibly work his way close to (perhaps even under) the 1:45-barrier in the next year, and supply some veteran reinforcement from Graham, Chalmers, Neill and/or Incerti. Southam has been inconsistent over 200 meters this year, but he is almost two years younger than Giuliani.

Suddenly, the prospect of a sub-7:00 relay, maybe even chasing down the British team, the American team and the world record, does not seem so improbable. As 2023 gives way to 2024, the men from Down Under already own the top spot in the 400 free relay, and they are quietly (or not-so-quietly) building a mighty team for the longer relay as well.

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