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Mixed events add new pieces to relay puzzle

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By Jim Morris

Putting together a successful relay team has never been an exact science.

A swimmer’s performance can earn them a spot on a relay team, but a coach still decides when to put them in the water. Having two mixed relays at this summer’s FINA World Championships in Gwangju, South Korea, adds more pieces to the puzzle.

Initially the idea of teams of two women and two men racing against each other may have been considered a novelty, but with Olympic medals up for grabs at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, countries are taking the mixed relays very seriously.

The races have also become popular with fans and athletes.

“It’s like a different battle altogether,” said Yuri Kisil (High Performance Centre – Ontario) who has collected mixed relay bronze medals at the last two world championships. “I enjoy the hell out of it. It’s super fun.”

Canada will field teams in the mixed 4×100-metre freestyle and 4×100-m medley relays in Korea with Ryan Mallette the coach. The 4×100-m medley will be the only mixed relay in Tokyo.

The thought process for the freestyle relay is pretty straightforward.

“It tends to be you lead your men and try to get ahead of the curve and provide your women with the best advantage possible,” said Mallette, head coach at the High Performance Centre – Victoria.

More strategy comes to play in the medley relay. Not only does the coach have to select the best backstroke, breaststroke, butterfly and freestyle swimmers, they also must decide which men and women to use in the different strokes.

“Different teams will have different strategies based around their strengths,” said Mallette. “Right now, in all the different sort of game planning scenarios that we have, we have a combination of eight or nine different relays with 12 different swimmers that are all within one second of each other.”

The final decision of who swims the mixed relay could be made by individual performances during the competition.

“We want everyone to know they need to perform in order to get on the team,” said Mallette. “We have really strong swimmers and we are building a bit more depth than we’ve had in the past.

“I want all the athletes to look at this as an opportunity they can be on these teams. But I also want them to look at it as the people who improve, or the people who step up, will be the ones who get these spots. It’s not just going to be the status quo.”

Athletes who swim regular relays also can participate in the mixed relays. Having depth in all strokes gives Mallette the advantage of replacing some swimmers from the morning preliminaries with fresh bodies in the finals.

“Our best swimmers are going to swim as much as they can handle,” said Mallette. “Ideally we would be able to strategize and save them for finals swims.”

The mixed relays were introduced at the world championships in 2015 in Kazan, Russia. Kisil was a part of the inaugural 4×100-m freestyle with Santo Condorelli, Chantal Van Landeghem and Sandrine Mainville which earned a bronze medal.

Two years later in Budapest, Canada finished third in both the mixed freestyle and medley relays. Kisil was the lead in the freestyle, then swam an exciting anchor leg as Canada tied with China in the medley relay.

“One of the most exciting races I’ve ever been able to see has been Yuri on that mixed relay, being able to come from behind and get his hand on the wall and win us a medal,” said Mallette.

The world championships are important because the top 12 finishers in the relays earn their countries spots at the Olympics.

The Canadian women’s relay teams earned bronze medals in both the 4×100-m and 4×200-m freestyle relays at the Rio 2016 Olympics.

At the last world championships the women just missed the podium, finishing fourth in the 4×100-m freestyle and 4×100-medley and eighth in the 4×200-m freestyle.

Olympic medallists Penny Oleksiak and Taylor Ruck are expected to be key parts of the freestyle relays. They will be joined by swimmers such as Kayla Sanchez, Maggie MacNeil and Rebecca Smith. Women’s relay coach Ben Titley sees plenty of potential.

“They have the ability to be some of the best in the world,” said Titley, head coach at the High Performance Centre – Ontario.

The men’s free relays will be a mixture of veterans Kisil, Markus Thormeyer and Jeremy Bagshaw joined by young swimmers such as Alex Pratt, Carson Olafson and William Pisani.

Kisil called the 4×100-m freestyle group of Thormeyer, Pisani and Olafson one of the best he’s ever been part of.

“Just the depth of it,” he said. “Everyone is going to be close to if not (at) world times in that relay.

“I think it’s going to be a great relay for the future and also a great building block going into Tokyo.”