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 that summer 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 following 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 and he would be in the stands as a fan.
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. Additionally, when the two swimmers went head to head during training camp a few weeks earlier Ervin had prevailed there too.
Ervin looked like the go-to pick.
The coaches ended up choosing 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.
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.