SwimmingBritish Men Set Up 800 Freestyle Relay World Title Showdown With USA

British Men Set Up 800 Freestyle Relay World Title Showdown With USA

British Men Set Up 800 Freestyle Relay World Title Showdown With United States

Facing a nine-year world-title drought, the American men finally recaptured the top spot in the 800 freestyle relay at last year’s World Championships. Drew Kibler had the team just off the lead following the first leg before Carson Foster, Trenton Julian and Kieran Smith built an advantage of more than three seconds. The win was especially sweet for Kibler and Smith, who had been part of the squad that finished fourth one year earlier at the Tokyo Olympics, the first-ever U.S. men’s relay to miss a podium on the Olympic level.

Kieran Smith, Carson Foster, Trenton Julian & Drew Kibler led the U.S. men to gold in the 800 freestyle relay at the 2022 World Championships –Photo Courtesy: Giorgio Scala / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

But there was an asterisk to this American victory: Great Britain, fresh off a dominant victory in Tokyo, was missing two pieces from the Olympic lineup with Duncan Scott sidelined after a bout of COVID-19 and Matt Richards was removed from the finals squad after a lackluster 1:48.21 prelims split, more than three seconds slower than his effort from the Tokyo final.

Britain did grab bronze in Budapest thanks to a heroic 1:43.53 anchor split from Tom Dean, but it was clear that a full-force matchup between the United States would have to wait until 2023 at the next World Championships in Fukuoka, Japan.

Well, game on. Britain’s top performers showed up big time in the final race of the country’s national championships. Dean led by almost a half-second with 50 meters remaining, but then Richards unleashed a scorching 26.48 homecoming split to finish ahead of the 200 free Olympic champion, 1:44.83 to 1:44.93. It was already evident that Richards had returned to top form after he swam a Welsh record 47.75 100 free earlier in the week, and that speed was on display in winning his first national title.

Behind the top two, former 200 free world champion James Guy placed third in 1:45.85, just ahead of Scott’s 1:45.90. With a team of Richards, Dean, Guy and Scott, the British will certainly return to the gold-medal mix in July, with Jack McMillan (1:46.79) and Joe Litchfield (1:46.88) providing depth.

Now, it will be incumbent on the American men to respond, for enough swimmers to hit 1:45s or even 1:44s at U.S. Nationals in late June to set up a tight showdown at Worlds. Ten American men posted 1:46 performances in 2022, but only three got into the 1:45-range from a flat start.

Here are the composite relays for the British men and the U.S. men based on season-best times from 2022 and 2023 combined:

Great Britain: Matt Richards 1:44.83 + Tom Dean 1:44.93 + Duncan Scott 1:45.54 + James Guy 1:45.85 = 7:01.15
United States: Drew Kibler 1:45.01 + Kieran Smith 1:45.16 + Carson Foster 1:45.57 + Luke Hobson 1:46.14 = 7:01.88

Of course, that does not account for relay starts, and the British men have a history of massively outperforming their individual swims on relays. Before Dean’s 1:43-mid performance in Budapest last year, Guy went 1:44.40 and Scott 1:43.45 in Tokyo, with Scott’s performance helping Great Britain nearly reach the world record of 6:58.55 established by the United States during the full-body polyurethane suit era of 2009.


Luke Hobson could be a difference-maker for the U.S. men’s 800 freestyle relay this year — Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

That means the Americans need some improvements, and the most likely candidate for a drop is Luke Hobson. Hobson missed the U.S. team for the World Championships by one spot last year but dropped more than a second in three months to win U.S. Nationals in late July in 1:46.14. Shortly after, Hobson swam an unofficial time of 1:45.59 in the 200 free at the Duel in the Pool. If that time was included in the above composite relays, the British advantage would be down to less than two tenths.

Most recently, Hobson was magnificent at the NCAA Championships as he swam a time of 1:29.63 in the 200-yard free leading off Texas’ 800 free relay, and he added individual national titles in the 500 free and 200 free at that meet. His track record of improvement over the past year-and-a-half suggests big capabilities for 2023 — and given the way the British men performed this week, the Americans will need him in prime form.

Meanwhile, Hobson’s Texas teammates Foster and Coby Carrozza, a relay alternate for the U.S. men at Worlds, each split nine tenths faster on the 800 free relay this year compared to last year, hinting at similar improvements in the long course version of the event.

Smith and Kibler, a former Texas swimmer himself, remain the American favorites entering the summer, but it seems certain that Foster and Hobson will be in the mix for individual spots, with relay contenders including Carrozza, Julian, Grant House, Gabriel Jett, Jake Magahey, Jake Mitchell, Luca Urlando and perhaps others.

We will see if the Americans can record enough fast times to jump back into favorite status before the teams arrive in Fukuoka, but for right now, the British men have returned to pole position.

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