Relay selection more than four fast swimmers

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BARCELONA –  A famous headline appeared on a Jewish news site during the 2008 Summer Olympics.

“Two Jews and a black man help Phelps fulfill Olympic dream.”

It may sound like the beginning of a bad joke but the article talked about the role Jason Lezak, Garrett Weber-Gale and Cullen Jones played in helping Michael Phelps win the men’s 4×100-metre freestyle relay, one of eight gold medals the great American swimmer won at the Beijing Games.

Whether the headline is in good taste or not is a subject for debate, but the story underlined how putting together a successful relay team is more complicated than simply taking four fast swimmers and putting them in the water. 

“It is and it isn’t,” said Randy Bennett, head coach for the Canadian team competing at the FINA World Championships in Barcelona. The pool events run July 28 to Aug. 4.

Bennett, who has been head coach at the Victoria Academy of Swimming since 2008, said the Canadian women’s 4×200-m freestyle and medley relay both have a chance to reach the finals at the world championships. That’s why there has been added focus on relays, including three dedicated sessions at Canada’s pre-competition staging camp.

“The overall direction is towards (the) 2016 (Olympics in Rio de Janeiro) and the decisions around the team with respect to selection and the process are to make us prepared for 2016,” Bennett said. “Everything that we do on the relays now, we’re establishing the process that we’ll follow on all our national teams from here to Rio.

The 4×200 freestyle team of Samantha Cheverton, Barbara Jardin, Brittany MacLean and Amanda Reason finished fourth at the 2012 London Olympics. MacLean, Cheverton and Jardin are returning for worlds. MacLean, 19, of Etobicoke, Ont., earned two bronze medals at the recent 2013 Universiade swimming the 4×100 and 4×200-m freestyle relays.

Just like a track and field relay team, some swimmers are better suited for different legs of a freestyle relay. Some use their power to get out in front. Others have the stamina and determination to chase down an opponent.

“We do try to swim to the kids’ strengths,” said Bennett. “There are strategies that we put up. You also have the countries you are up against. Even the lane assignments, when you know who you are beside.”

Olympic medallist Brent Hayden won two world championship silver medals and a bronze in relay. He often was the Canadian team’s lead-off swimmer. His quick start would set the tone for the team.

“They wanted me to get a lead so the swimmers on the next leg didn’t necessarily have to swim in the other swimmers’ wake,” said Hayden, who is now retired. “If you dive in behind somebody, you are swimming against the current.

“Based on how you think the other team is swimming, you judge on how you should structure your team in that manner.”

Each relay leg “offers different stress,” said Hayden. “Being the first guy, and having to get your team the lead, might feel a little bit different than being the third guy trying to get you back into the race or just trying to maintain your current position.

“Also, being the anchor guy, everything is left up to you now. Different people handle the pressure differently. The first leg and the anchor are probably the most stressful legs.”

Bennett said MacLean, a 400-m freestyle finalist at the London Olympics, is an example of someone you want swimming the anchor when a podium finish is up for grabs.

“Brittany is a kid you would always trust on the anchor,” he said. “She would get up and swim her guts out.

“You are going to get a great swim from her anywhere but she responds incredibly well to the race.”

Montreal’s Genevieve Saumur, who swam at the 2008 Olympics, is an example of someone who excelled at the relay. Saumur, who still holds the Canadian women’s 200-m freestyle record, won four relay medals at Commonwealth Games and Pan Pacific Championships.

“We could count on her always to be better than her individual swim,” said Bennett. “You look for characteristics like that and put the kids in the areas where you think they are stronger.

“If you have a kid that is not necessarily a great front-end swimmer, you don’t want to put the relay in a hole. You try and find the situations where you maximize the four people’s strengths.”

When a swimmer qualifies for a Canadian team in an individual event they also can be used for a relay. Some are chosen because of their relay skills.

“Typically you look at the kids who make the event first, then you pick the order,” said Bennett.

Countries with lots of depth, like the U.S. and Australia, can use four swimmers in the qualifications, then four different swimmers in the final. The Americans would sometimes use the qualification to decide who would join Phelps and Ryan Lochte in the final.

“They would swim four other guys in the morning and take their best two,” said Bennett.

That plan can backfire. At the London Olympics, Brazil’s coaches decided to rest Cesar Cielo, the world record holder in the 50 and 100-m freestyle during the preliminaries for the 4×100 relay. The team failed to qualify for the final.

The Canadian swim team lacks the depth to rest any of its swimmers during the preliminaries in Barcelona.

“This year we are going to swim our best relay (team) in the heats,” said Bennett. “There will be no fooling around.

“We are in a situation where we are trying to make the final first.”

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