Relay success not as simple as it seems

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By Jim Morris

It sounds so simple.
 
Pick your four fastest swimmers, put them together on a team, and have them race a relay. Of course when it comes to putting theory into practice nothing is ever as simple as it seems.
 
Canadian swimmers have podium potential in three women’s relay events at the Commonwealth Games, which open Wednesday in Glasgow, Scotland.

John Atkinson, Swimming Canada’s high performance director, believes the 4×100-m and 4×200-m freestyle, plus the 4×100-m medley relays all have a chance at medals.
 
“If our teams swim to what I know they are capable of doing, they will all be challenging for medals,” said Atkinson. “We know we have great talent.”
 
Swimming at the Commonwealth Games gets underway Thursday, with live coverage on cbcsports.ca/glasgow2014 and daily highlight shows being broadcast on CBC TV.

The Canadian women’s team won a bronze medal in the 4×100-m medley relay at the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi. Brittany MacLean was part of the 4×200-m freestyle relay that finished fourth at the 2012 London Olympics and was sixth at the 2013 world championships in Barcelona, Spain.
 
“A lot of people will tell you (relays) are a lot more fun and I agree with that,” said the 20-year-old from Etobicoke, Ont. “It’s the whole team aspect you don’t necessarily get as much in the sport of swimming.
 
“It’s really cool to be with three other girls behind the block and use each other to get motivated. I find (relays) a little bit more relaxing because I have other people with me.”
 
Katerine Savard is one of the best butterfly swimmers in the world but feels a knot in her stomach before a relay.
 
“I feel way more pressure in a relay than in my own race,” said the 21-year-old from Pont-Rouge, Que., who likely will swim the medley. “I don’t want to make any mistakes.”
 
Selecting a relay team can be an art. Not only do the coaches have to decide who will be on the team, but what is the best place for them to swim.
 
“There are certain athletes who can race above their individual level of performance when they are on a relay team,” said Atkinson. “They are dependable and will improve their times more than you would expect that a flying relay start would give them.”
 
Who swims where is another puzzle. Some swimmers like to use their power to get out in front. Others have the strength and determination to chase down an opponent.
 
Emily Overholt, a 16-year-old from West Vancouver, B.C., likes being first off the blocks.
 
“I like swimming at the front because it makes it more like an individual event,” said Overholt, who will likely swim in the 4×200 in her first senior international event.
 
“I like to start my races out fast. I like to start the relay because I feel like I can get the lead.”
 
MacLean’s fiery competitive spirit makes her ideally suited to be an anchor, especially if her team is behind and needs to gain ground.
 
“I know if there is someone remotely close to me I will do everything I can to try and catch them,” she said. “There’s a little extra motivation at the end to be able to be the last one on the team and touch the wall knowing you’ve done everything you can.”
 
Strategy also comes into play.
 
“There are different ways you swim depending on the teams you are against,” said Atkinson. “You may want to lead out the relay. You might want to have your best swimmer on the anchor.
 
“That’s all the things the coaches are working on.”
 
Countries with lots of depth can use four swimmers in the qualification, then four different athletes in the final. Some countries will hold one or two of their best swimmers for the final and use the qualification to determine the other spots.
 
Countries without that depth have to be careful their swimmers don’t burn themselves out qualifying for the final.
 
“Even if we are behind or in front I am always going to think about swimming fast,” said Savard. “When we are in the relay we are four girls together.”
 
Each relay swimmer has to be confident in their ability but try not to do too much in their leg of the race.
 
“You always want to swim your own race,” said Overholt. “In a 200 you really have to stick to your plan and your strategy. If you don’t, you will pay for it at the end of the race.”
 
In Canada, with athletes spread around the country, training for a relay is a challenge. A medal can be lost if a swimmer leaves the blocks early on a takeover. That’s one reason the Canadian team spent time practising relays at a training camp in Spain prior to arriving in Glasgow.
 
“They get together, they practice their takeovers,” said Atkinson. “They talk about the concept of working together as a team.”
 
In a sport that is mostly individual, MacLean loves the sense of team a relay builds.
 
“You are all racing for one goal,” she said. “You are racing as a group.
 
“There is no weak member, no strong member. The time on the board is what you are all added up to.”

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