The relays are one of the most anticipated events on the Olympic swimming program. A lot of the biggest moments in the history of our sport have come during these races.
Who can forget Bruce Hayes storming back to defeat Michael Gross and the West Germans in 1984? Shirley Babashoff and the American women defeating the unstoppable East Germans in Montreal? And of course, Jason Lezak and his otherworldly final split in Beijing to defeat the highly favored French team.
The relays produce some of the biggest moments at the Olympics, and the men’s 4x100m freestyle relay in Rio was no exception.
Heading into Rio there was no clear favorite to win gold.
The French team were fielding sprint champ Florent Manaudou, Metella and Stravius. The Russians had the speedy Vlad Morozov. The hometown Brazilians had Marcelo Chierighini leading off.
If there was a favorite, the Australians looked like a reasonable bet. They walked onto the pool deck for the final with a line-up of sprint heavyweights: James Magnussen, Cam McEvoy and Rio champion in the 100m freestyle, Kyle Chalmers.
And of course, you had the Americans.
But when the four American swimmers walked out for the final there was a notable change to the line-up.
They hadn’t fielded their fastest swimmer from the prelims.
Return of the King
The year after the London Olympics Michael Phelps was in full retirement mode. After hanging up his racing suit he’d been traveling, playing lots of golf and fulfilling obligations to his sponsors. This was part of the reason he went to the FINA World Championships in 2013—to represent sponsors Speedo and Omega—but also to take in the events. Worlds would be the first major swimming event in the post-Phelps era.
The races didn’t leave a good taste in his mouth.
He watched from the stands as the American men lost the 4x100m free relay by two tenths of a second.
“I was so fired up,” Phelps said afterward . “We have enough guys on that team who can swim faster than that, and that was just frustrating for me to watch.”
Within a few weeks Phelps was back in the water, setting up the showdown to come in Rio.
“What do we need to do to make the most of this?”
In Rio there was no doubt Phelps would be on the relay that would swim at night. He had a long history of throwing down when it mattered most. Phelps had also cracked the American record in the 100m freestyle at the Beijing Olympics, so he had the speed.
Defending Olympic champion in the 100m free, Nathan Adrian, would anchor the Americans. Caeleb Dressel, a relative unknown on the international stage, would lead things off with his explosive start.
Leaving one spot on the relay to be determined.
The swimmers who raced in the prelims of the 4×100 free relay weren’t just trying to make sure the US advanced to the final; they were also racing for that final spot on the relay.
Jimmy Feigen, Ervin and NC State sprinter Ryan Held would be competing to see who swam at night. Coaches will typically select the “hot” swimmer who races fastest in the prelims. The idea is that a swimmer peaking at the right time trumps personal best times.
Ervin dropped the quickest time (splitting a 47.65) with Held just a couple tenths back. When the two swimmers went head to head during a training camp a few weeks earlier Ervin had prevailed there too.
Ervin looked like the go-to pick.
Ultimately, the coaches defied expectations and chose Held.
Held was fourteen years Ervin’s junior, (i.e. he’d recover faster from the morning swim), the relay was his only event at the Olympics, and Ervin still had the 50 later in the week.
Bob Bowman, the American men’s head coach, broke the news to Ervin.
Ervin took a big breath and thought for a couple moments. Finally, he nodded, sensing an opportunity.
“What do we need to do to make the most of this?”
Ervin’s coach, David Marsh, suggested to Ervin—also a team captain—that he be the one to tell Held that he’d be swimming that night at finals.
“Anthony got to go give the blessing of the relay position to Ryan Held,” Marsh said .
When team first is more than just a motto
The decision turned out to be the best one for the team.
The American men won the race.
Dressel got them off to a good start in 48.10, handing to Phelps, who lived up to GOAT status by pulling out to nearly a body length lead on the strength of an unreal turn and breakout.
Held, swimming the third leg, kept the lead and handed off to the ever-consistent Adrian, who brought it home with the fastest split of anyone in the water for a convincing win and American gold.
Later in the week Ervin would fly down the length of the pool to win gold in the 50m freestyle, making his comeback after a decade out of the sport complete. 16 years after his first Olympic gold medal he had another in the same event, setting a personal best time of 21.40.
Ervin could have fought the decision. He had the experience and he had the faster split. Ervin also had unfinished business on his mind—he’d been a member of the Sydney Games team that lost gold in the 4×100—the first time the US men had lost the relay in 36 years of Olympic competition. He’d also been in the water for the relay back in 2013 in Barcelona that placed second behind the French.
His decision to honor the decision by the coaches couldn’t have been easy. But it was a symptom of the “team first” culture that had grown around the American swimmers during training camp and the Games.
Ervin gave up his relay leg and looked for a way to make the most of it, demonstrating mental toughness and how to be an exceptional teammate.
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