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'Weird numbers guy' predicts outcome of Saturday's first ever Olympic mixed medley relay

(Photo by Michael Kappeler/picture alliance via Getty Images)
Roar Guru
30th July, 2021
1042 Reads

Being a weird numbers guy, the first-ever Olympic mixed medley relay taking place on Saturday has sparked my curiosity. As such, I wanted to predict how it would unfold.

The stroke order for medley relays is identical to the same-gender medley: backstroke, breaststroke, butterfly, and freestyle. Mixed medleys must consist of two men and two women, but the choice of order (and therefore stroke) is left to the team – a highly tactical decision.

I have crunched the numbers to work out the optimal team for each country in the final. I will then examine how the race could play out if everyone performs to the highest level they’ve shown at this Olympics so far.

Selecting each country’s optimal team

The eight finalists are as follows:
Lane 1: Russian Olympic Committee (ROC)
Lane 2: Italy
Lane 3: China
Lane 4: Great Britain
Lane 5: United States
Lane 6: Australia
Lane 7: Netherlands
Lane 8: Israel

To work out the optimal team I have compared the best time an individual in each of those countries, across all strokes and all genders, has produced so far at the Olympics. I’ve examined all relay splits and individual events. For flat start swims, I have deducted 0.45 seconds from the time (except for backstroke as they start the relay). The reason for this is based on a study by Michael Everett of MIT that revealed the average reaction time for a relay start is 0.26 seconds and 0.71 seconds for a flat start.

For example, Kyle Chalmers has swum the 100m freestyle five times at this Olympics. His performances converted to projected relay split times are as follows:

Heat Relay Split: 46.63
Final Relay Split: 46.44
Heat Freestyle: 47.77 – 0.45 = 47.32
Semi-final Freestyle: 47.80 – 0.45 = 47.35
Final Freestyle: 47.02 – 0.45 = 46.57

Therefore, the split time we will use to project this race is 46.44. Australia’s best split times for each stroke and each gender are as follows:

Australia Time
Mitch Larkin (M) 52.76
Kaylee McKeown (F) 57.47
Difference -4.71
Zac Stubblety-Cook (M) 58.8
Chelsea Hodges (F) 66.15
Difference -7.35
Matthew Temple (M) 50.67
Emma McKeon (F) 55.27
Difference -4.6
Kyle Chalmers (M) 46.44
Emma McKeon (F) 51.35
Difference -4.91

Firstly, to work out the optimal team, you must subtract the female time from the male time for each stroke.

The two strokes with the lowest time difference between genders will mean the female swimmer should be chosen for the relay. The two strokes with the highest difference between genders will mean the male swimmer should be chosen for the relay. With gaps of 7.35 seconds and 4.91 seconds respectively, Zac Stubblety-Cook (breast) and Kyle Chalmers (free) form Australia’s male contingent. While Emma Mckeon (gap of 4.6) and Kaylee McKeown (gap of 4.71) will perform butterfly and backstroke respectively.

I have applied this rationale for all other nations in the race:

Nation Russia Italy China Great Britain
Male Back Evgeny Rylov Thomas Ceccon Xu Jiayu Luke Greenbank
Time 51.98 52.3 52.51 53.79
Female Back Maria Kameneva Margherita Panziera Peng Xuwei Kathleen Dawson
Time 59.49 59.74 59.78 58.5
Difference -7.51 -7.44 -7.27 -4.71
Male Breast Kirill Prigoda Nicolo Martinenghi Yan Zibei Adam Peaty
Time 58.99 57.83 58.27 56.92
Female Breast Evgeniia Chikunova Martina Carraro Tang Qianting Sarah Vasey
Time 65.45 65.4 66.02 66.16
Difference -6.46 -7.57 -7.75 -9.24
Male Fly Andrei Minakov Federico Burdisso Sun Jiajun James Guy
Time 50.55 51.37 51.29 50.58
Female Fly Svetlana Chimrova Elena Di Liddo Zhang Yufei Harriet Jones
Time 57.09 56.96 55.19 58.28
Difference -6.54 -5.59 -3.9 -7.7
Male Free Kliment Kolesnikov Alessandro Miressi He Junyi Jacob Whittle
Time 46.66 47.01 48.05 47.5
Female Free Maria Kameneva Federica Pellegrini Yang Junxuan Anna Hopkin
Time 53.47 53.02 52.57 52.3
Difference -6.81 -6.01 -4.52 -4.8
Nation United States Netherlands Israel
Male Back Ryan Murphy No Participant Yakov Toumarkin
Time 52.19 N/A 54.81
Female Back Regan Smith Kira Toussaint Anastasia Gorbenko
Time 57.64 59.09 59.3
Difference -5.45 N/A -4.49
Male Breast Michael Andrew Arno Kamminga Itay Goldfaden
Time 58.17 57.35 59.65
Female Breast Lydia Jacoby Tes Schouten No Participant
Time 64.5 67.44 N/A
Difference -6.33 -10.09 N/A
Male Fly Caeleb Dressel Nyls Korstanje Cal Cohen Groumi
Time 49.26 51.09 51.06
Female Fly Torri Huske No Participant Anastasia Gorbenko
Time 55.28 N/A 57.78
Difference -6.02 N/A -6.72
Male Free Caeleb Dressel Stan Pijnenburg Meiron Cheruti
Time 46.57 47.35 48.81
Female Free Abbey Weitzeil Femke Heemskerk Andrea Murez
Time 52.54 51.9 53.61
Difference -5.97 -4.55 -4.8

This means the ultimate mixed relay team for each nation (in order of stroke) is as follows:

Lane Nation Back Breast Fly Free
1 ROC Evgeny Rylov Evgeniia Chikunova Svetlana Chimrova Kliment Kolesnikov
2 Italy Thomas Ceccon Nicolo Martinenghi Elena Di Liddo Federica Pellegrini
3 China Xu Jiayu Yan Zibei Zhang Yufei Yang Junxuan
4 Great Britain Kathleen Dawson Adam Peaty James Guy Anna Hopkin
5 United States Regan Smith Michael Andrew Caeleb Dressel Abbey Weitzeil
6 Australia Kaylee McKeown Zac Stubblety-Cook Emma McKeon Kyle Chalmers
7 Netherlands Kira Toussaint Arno Kamminga Nyls Korstanje Femke Heemskerk
8 Israel Anastasia Gorbenko Itay Goldfaden Cal Cohen Groumi Andrea Murez

The makeup of each team is as follows:

• Male Back, Female Breast, Female Fly, Male Free = ROC
• Male Back, Male Breast, Female Fly, Female Free = Italy, China
• Female Back, Male Breast, Male Fly, Female Free = Great Britain, United States, Netherlands, Israel
• Female Back, Male Breast, Female Fly, Male Free = Australia

How the Race Plays Out

With all the different tactics, this race will be highly unpredictable.

Russia will get off to a hot start as they are led by the 100m and 200m backstroke champion, Evgeny Rylov and have the Bronze medallist in the 100m freestyle, Kliment Kolesnikov, anchoring them.

Italy will be looking to lead at the halfway point and then hang on for dear life with Ceccon (fourth in the 100m backstroke) and Martinenghi (bronze in the 100m breastroke) leading the charge.

China currently holds the world record of 3:38:41 in October 2020 with the exact same quartet that I have for them here. As silver medallist in the 100m fly and gold medallist in the 200m fly, Zhang Yufei will no doubt have them in a good spot with 100m to go.

Great Britain set the Olympic record in the heats with 3:38:75 and will name just one change with Anna Hopkin (fresh off the 100m freestyle final) coming in for Freya Anderson. With breastroke being the slowest stroke, having world record holder Adam Peaty in their line-up will be invaluable.


The United States will of course be a huge threat, with Caeleb Dressel leading the charge in the 100m butterfly fresh off of setting an Olympic record in the semi-final. Bronze medallist in the women’s 100m backstroke, Regan Smith should get them off to a solid start.

With the 100m backstroke champion and world record holder Kaylee McKeown leading the charge, Australia will aim to be top four after 100m. They will then rely on the versatile Emma McKeon and the fast-finishing Kyle Chalmers to give them a chance of gold.

The Netherlands will be relying on dual silver medallist, Arno Kamminga to keep them competitive.

Israel have done an extraordinary job just to make the final. Anything other than eighth would be a huge achievement.

The Race

I have used the 50m split times from the time used for each individual to project the race.

Rylov (Russia) off to a hot start, ahead of Jiayu (China) and Ceccon (Italy). Kathleen Dawson (Great Britain) the best of the ladies, with Kaylee McKeown (Australia) fifth.

Rank Nation Time Margin
1 Russia 24.96
2 China 25.4 0.44
3 Italy 25.54 0.58
4 Great Britain 28.18 3.22
5 Australia 28.2 3.24
6 United States 28.25 3.29
7 Netherlands 28.58 3.62
8 Israel 29.46 4.5

Rylov (Russia) hands off in front. Ceccon moves Italy up to 2nd with a strong back 50. Kaylee McKeown (Australia) finishes strongly to move Australia into fourth.

Rank Nation Time Margin
1 Russia 51.98
2 Italy 52.3 0.32
3 China 52.51 0.53
4 Australia 57.47 5.49
5 United States 57.64 5.66
6 Great Britain 58.5 6.52
7 Netherlands 59.09 7.11
8 Israel 59.3 7.32

Italy (Martingenghi) and China (Zibei) race out to a big lead. Russia clinging on, while Adam Peaty has pushed the Brits into the top four. Zach Stubblety-Cook falls back to sixth for Australia.

Rank Nation Time Margin
1 Italy 79.23
2 China 79.51 0.28
3 Russia 83.15 3.92
4 United States 84.46 5.23
5 Great Britain 84.78 5.55
6 Australia 85.28 6.05
7 Netherlands 85.78 6.55
8 Israel 86.26 7.03

Italy and China continue to dominate and have a substantial lead at the halfway point, while Adam Peaty (Great Britain) has surged into the top three. Russia falls to seventh as Chikunova struggles to keep pace as she’s the only female breaststroker selected.

Rank Nation Time Margin
1 Italy 110.13
2 China 110.78 0.65
3 Great Britain 115.42 5.29
4 United States 115.81 5.68
5 Australia 116.27 6.14
6 Netherlands 116.44 6.31
7 Russia 117.43 7.3
8 Israel 118.95 8.82

Zhang Yufei pushes the Chinese world record holders into the lead. Italy still close behind, but Caeleb Dressell (USA) is flying. A stunning 22.75 50m split takes him ahead of James Guy of Great Britain.

Rank Nation Time Margin
1 China 136.04
2 Italy 136.31 0.27
3 United States 138.56 2.52
4 Great Britain 138.73 2.69
5 Netherlands 139.64 3.6
6 Australia 141.98 5.94
7 Israel 142.61 6.57
8 Russia 143.84 7.8

Dressell (USA) surges past Zhang Yufei (China) at the 287m mark. He gives Abbey Weitzel a 0.9-second start on the rest of the field. Yufei (China) touches just ahead of Guy (Great Britain). Italy (De Liddo) slides back to fourth and Australia (McKeon) falls behind Israel into seventh. However, Australia now has Kyle Chalmers entering the water, with six female swimmers in front of him…

Rank Nation Time Margin
1 United States 165.07
2 China 165.97 0.9
3 Great Britain 166 0.93
4 Italy 167.09 2.02
5 Netherlands 167.53 2.46
6 Israel 170.01 4.94
7 Australia 171.54 6.47
8 Russia 174.52 9.45

Weitzell (USA) is looking strong, but Anna Hopkin (Great Britain) is flying, putting over a second between her and Yang Junxuan for the silver medal position. Femke Heemskerk is putting the Dutch in with a great chance of a medal after a very fast 24.55 50m split. Kyle Chalmers has only moved Australia up one spot, but we know how quickly he can fly in the final 50m.

Rank Nation Time Margin
1 United States 190.03
2 Great Britain 190.82 0.79
3 China 191.85 1.82
4 Netherlands 192.08 2.05
5 Italy 192.45 2.42
6 Australia 193.77 3.74
7 Israel 195.33 5.3
8 Russia 196.59 6.56

Chalmers is absolutely flying – he surges past Pellegrini (Italy) with 31m left, goes past Heemskerk with 23m left. Can he give Australia a medal? He goes past Junxuan (China) with 11m left. He now gets past Hopkin (Great Britain) with 5m to go. Weitzell is fading but Chalmers just runs out of time. USA hold on. World record! Hopkin (Great Britain) hangs on for Bronze over a fast-finishing Junxuan (China). The top three times all went under China’s previous world record. What a race!

Rank Nation Time Margin
1 United States 217.61 World Record
2 Australia 217.98 0.37
3 Great Britain 218.3 0.69
4 China 218.54 0.93
5 Netherlands 219.43 1.82
6 Italy 220.11 2.5
7 Russia 221.18 3.57
8 Israel 223.62 6.01

There you have it. No doubt the actual race will probably see different personnel picked and slower times produced, but this would certainly make for one exciting race.

Just for fun, the ultimate world team to take on the aliens would be Kaylee McKeown (backstroke), Adam Peaty (breastroke), Caeleb Dressel (butterfly) and Emma McKeon (freestyle) with a projected time of 215.00 (3 minutes 35 seconds).