What happened to Team USA in the 400m free relay and how did they get chased down by France over the final 100 meters? It's a question that many are asking after the U.S. built a sizable advantage over the first three legs, only to see it disappear as Yannick Agnel chased down Ryan Lochte during the anchor leg.
It's easy to place the immediate blame on Lochte, whose 47.74 with a "flying" start was the slowest American split in the relay -- remember, Nathan Adrian's time was technically slower but came on the opening leg without the benefit of a flying start. Lochte had also just swam a 200 free semifinal race, though Agnel did the same and went just about a half-second faster in his semifinal heat.
Take a look at Team USA's splits for the race: Nathan Adrian: 47.89 (start), Michael Phelps: 47.15, Cullen Jones: 47.60, Ryan Lochte 47.74. Now compare Team USA's splits to those of the French swimmers: 48.13, 47.67, 47.38, 46.74. Something should immediately jump off the page.
It would appear that Team USA's relay was set up from fastest to slowest, with the hopes of building a significant advantage early in the race, then hanging on for dear life at the end -- or, at least, that's how it played out. Adrian is the fastest 100m free swimmer the U.S. has, and won the Olympic Trials, beating out Jones by just about .4 seconds. Phelps and Lochte are more all-around swimmers, though neither is swimming the 100 free competitively.
Edit: And the coaches admitted as much. The strategy was to go out fast and hang on, with Adrian and Phelps working to lead them out and build an advantage.
Despite how straightforward it looks, there's quite a bit of strategy involved in setting relay lineups. The traditional school of thought involves putting the fastest swimmer last in an effort to close strong. But it's not all that uncommon to send the fastest swimmer out first, mixing up the lineup a bit in between. For example, putting the two fastest swimmers on the ends, then slower swimmers in the middle, helps to start and end strong while trying to maintain over the second and third legs. Or going slow-fast-slow-fast could be employed, as well.*
*Slow is a relative term here. They're all world-class swimmers. The terms fast and slow are meant to measure times between the four swimmers on a relay, not imply some are weighing the team down.
And while it's easy to pick apart strategy in hindsight -- the most obvious flaw likely being Lochte as the anchor -- having a swimmer go as low as Agnel did blows everything to pieces. Could the U.S. have stayed with him had Adrian been swimming the last leg or had they not built a lead and instead played to chase? Maybe. But we have no idea without running the whole thing over again.
Simply, the USA got beat as a result of a fantastic anchor leg by the French. It's one of those times where you simply tip your cap to an amazing effort -- not unlike that of Jason Lezak in 2008. Turnabout is fair play and France put on a show in an incredibly entertaining race.
But still, Team USA has to be wondering what might have been -- if Lochte was fresh and able to shave tenths of a second off his time, if the order was different or if the French team hadn't been able to blow through the final 100 meters.