Exploring Team USA’s Chances at Cashing In On $1 Million Relay Bonus


By Braden Keith on SwimSwam

On Tuesday, USA Swimming announced a new program that would award prize money to all swimming team members (pool and open water) at the 2023 World Championships and 2024 Olympic Games.

The prize money on offer is as follows:

2023 World Championships Bonus Money

  • Sweep the seven Olympic relays – $500,000
  • Win a medal in the seven Olympic relays – $150,000

2024 Olympics Bonus Money

  • Sweep the seven Olympic relays – $1,000,000
  • Win a medal in the seven Olympic relays – $250,000

Widely, the two reactions to the program have been this: one is that the sweep is highly unlikely (more on that later), and the other is the intrigue behind why the program rewards all swimmers, and not just those who participate in the relay (who already receive prize money from FINA and from the USOPC’s Operation Gold program).

The US roster, including open water swimmers, usually runs between 50 and 55. So that means at Worlds, the bonuses would be about $10,000 per swimmer for the sweep and $3,000 per swimmer for 7 podiums.

At the Olympics, those numbers escalate to about $20,000 per swimmer for the gold medal sweep and about $5,000 per swimmer for 7 medals.

What are the chances of success?

How often has a full-medal sweep happened in history? A few times. The US went 4/4 in 1960, when two new relays (the men’s and women’s 400 medley relays) were added, and 5/5 at the next three Olympics.

After boycotting the 1980 Olympics, the Americans won all 5 relays at the counter-boycotted 1984 Games.

The best performances was a 6-for-6 result at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, the first year when a women’s 800 free relay was added to the schedule.

Men’s 400 free relay 800 free relay 400 medley relay Women’s 400 free relay 800 free relay 400 medley relay
Mixed medley relay
1908 N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A 0/1
1912 N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A 0/2
1920 N/A X N/A X N/A N/A N/A 2/2
1924 N/A X N/A X N/A N/A N/A 2/2
1928 N/A X N/A X N/A N/A N/A 2/2
1932 N/A N/A X N/A N/A N/A 1/2
1936 N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A 0/2
1948 N/A X N/A X N/A N/A N/A 2/2
1952 N/A X N/A N/A N/A N/A 1/2
1956 N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A 0/2
1960 N/A X X X N/A X N/A 4/4
1964 X X X X N/A X N/A 5/5
1968 X X X X N/A X N/A 5/5
1972 X X X X N/A X N/A 5/5
1976 N/A X X X N/A N/A 3/4
1980 N/A N/A N/A 0/4
1984 X X X X N/A X N/A 5/5
1988 X X X N/A N/A 3/5
1992 X X X N/A X N/A 4/5
1996 X X X X X X N/A 6/6
2000 X X X X N/A 4/6
2004 X X X N/A 3/6
2008 X X X N/A 3/6
2012 X X X X N/A 4/6
2016 X X X X X N/A 5/6
2020 X X 2/7

Note: table excludes the men’s 200 yard freestyle relay at the 1904 Olympics, where the U.S. won gold, silver, and bronze medals; and the 200 metre team race in 1900, which wasn’t really a relay, but was won by Germany anyway.

Since 1996, the US has had mixed results. In Rio in 2016, the Americans went 5/6. At the 2020 Olympics, held in 2021 in Tokyo, the Americans famously went just 2-for-7 in relays, which percentage-wise was the worst result since 1956 (when there were only 2 relays).

There were a few reasons for that. A big part of it was just not having the depth that the US has had in the past. In the men’s 800 free relay, for example, Great Britain was winning, and there wasn’t really much the US could do about it (though the Americans had the pieces to medal, at their best). The same was true in the women’s 400 free relay.

But this will also ramp up the pressure on coaches to make the right decision – and perhaps give them the leverage to make the right decision, even if it breaks with tradition, dogma, or the politically more-salient choices.

The US did still medal in 5 out of 7 relays, missing the men’s 800 free relay and mixed 400 medley relay podiums.

Those two relays are, interestingly, two where the US maybe has the best chance of getting back on top, and where they won World Championships in both races last summer.

The American men look better than they have in a generation in the 800 free relay, including a World Championship-winning 7:00.24 last summer, and the defending Olympic Champions from Great Britain have struggled since to hit their peaks together. Team USA won 3.26 seconds ahead of the runners-up from Australia and 3.76 seconds ahead of Great Britain at Worlds last year (though both nations had more championship meets to come that summer).

The Americans won the mixed medley relay in 3:38.79 later in the meet, which was 2.45 seconds ahead of Australia. Australia was without two superstars in Emma McKeon and Kyle Chalmers, but the Americans were without Caeleb Dressel (though, they were almost two seconds better than they swam with Dressel at the Olympics, so maybe that doesn’t matter much).

The Americans’ biggest deficit, the breaststroke leg, is looking better with Nic Fink‘s second wind and Adam Peaty and Arno Kamminga struggling to get back to their bests since Tokyo. So the Americans aren’t a lock there yet, but with proper lineup selection and a little more development especially from the young back-half of Torri Huske and Claire Curzan, they’re in the mix.

But even on the best day for the USA, with Dressel back in form and development of the young female core and Nic Fink holding on through Paris, there’s still one gigantic hurdle for the Americans: the women’s 400 free relay.

The Australian women are doing to the 400 free relay what Katie Ledecky did to distance free. Even when they’re not at their best, they still win, by significant margins. At Worlds last year, with another taper meet still to come, with no Emma McKeon or Cate Campbell or Bronte Campbell, they still won by more than a second.

While the American core of that relay is still very young – Torri Huske and Claire Curzan are 20 and 18, respectively; Kate Douglass is 21, Erika Brown was the veteran at Worlds at 24, and with Abbey Weitzeil seeming to catch a groove under new coaching, the Americans are on the upward swing here.

But the Australian 400 free relay machine shows no signs of slowing down. Mollie O’Callaghan, the defending World Champion, is the next-up at only 18, Meg Harris is only 21, and Shayna Jack has returned with a vengeance since her doping saga.

That’s the one relay that would be really tough for the Americans to win, even on their best day.

Maybe Gretchen Walsh will turn her short course success into an electric long course 100. Maybe Huske and Curzan will push each other faster-and-faster. But maybe that’s still not enough.

So that’s the perfect scenario, and it’s been a while since the Americans have had the perfect scenario.

But as National Team Director Lindsay Mintenko said in an interview about the topic with Sports Illustrated, this is as much about the culture and the team bonding. USA Swimming has long billed its national team culture, as compared to the huge talent pool or massive public investment in swimming pools, as the key to its international success.

And while we could debate if that’s always true, I think that maybe that element of spark, of camaraderie, of that real passion for team culture, is what has been missing from the National Team in recent years.

This could be that spark. Whether the bonuses are paid out or not, if that spark motivates swimmers to better relay performances, then that’s a winning formula for everyone involved – both financially and culturally.

SwimSwam: Exploring Team USA’s Chances at Cashing In On $1 Million Relay Bonus

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