Australia’s coaching brains trust have defended their relay selection strategy after being ambushed into bronze by a stunning swim from China and a USA squad anchored by an airborne Katie Ledecky in the women’s 4x200m freestyle relay.

The team of Ariarne Titmus, Emma McKeon, Madi Wilson and Leah Neale were unbackable favourites to take gold in an event where there was so much depth they were able to swap in four fresh swimmers for Thursday’s final.

Bronze medalists Ariarne Titmus, Emma McKeon, Madison Wilson and Leah Neale.Credit:Getty

They ended up breaking their own world record, set at the 2019 FINA World Championships in Gwangju. The only problem was so did China (7:40.33), who took it from wire-to-wire as their quartet dropped a series of personal bests on the way to an upset victory.

The USA (7:40.73) was always close and took silver after Ledecky melted a final leg of 1:53.76 to almost overhaul Lie Bingjie (1:55.3) for gold. It was the second-fastest relay split of her career and in the context of a massive Olympic program, jaw-dropping.

Neale, having her first and only swim of the Games, was able to cling on for bronze as the Australians touched in 7:41.29. It was another medal, although not the colour most had predicted, and there was some controversy about selections after 17-year-old Mollie O’Callaghan had produced an impressive lead leg of 1:55.11 in the heats the previous night.

That would have been good enough for fifth in the individual 200m final but she remained out of the final four, with head coach Rohan Taylor and the coach of the relay, Dean Boxall, already having planned to swim four fresh athletes in the final, with all eight swimmers knowing the plan ahead of time.

Emma McKeon hugs her teammates after the 4x200m freestyle relay.Credit:Getty

It was a long-term strategy, they said after the race, hatched from the experience in Beijing in 2008 where swimmers struggled to reproduce quick swims the morning after late heats. Given O’Callaghan is only 17, that was the overarching concern and they said they wouldn’t have altered the strategy even in hindsight.

“What we saw in Beijing and what we are seeing here, is [issues with] the late night heat and then coming in and backing up again. We wanted a fresh batch and we had them. They did a great job,” Taylor said.

“You think of the morning [swim] and getting home at 11pm from a swim where she was asked to put everything in just to get the team through. Then to get to sleep, get up in the morning then come back to swim a big final. The guarantee of her going quicker when we have fresh athletes to go in… we took that strategy and that’s how it played out.”

There were alarm bells after the first two legs. Olympic champion Ariarne Titmus took the lead in chase of a world record but wasn’t able to get past Yang Junxuan, while McKeon was around a second off her best 200m relay time as she swam a 1:55.31.

The margin many had thought would be there simply wasn’t. Wilson (1:55.62) and Neale (1:55.85) scrapped hard to ensure they were on the podium, with Neale saying she could feel the pressure as China and the USA had them under siege.

“It was pretty crazy to have the Chinese right next to us and Katie coming. The pressure was on but to get out there, we all did the best we could and couldn’t ask for more,” Neale said.

Whether O’Callaghan could have reproduced her heat time remains to be seen, while there were also questions about Australia front-loading the relay to begin with Titmus. But she also lead off in Gwangju when the took out the world title, although McKeon swam the anchor on that occasion.

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