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Relays key to Dolphins climbing back to top

AUSTRALIA’S bold plan to become the No. 1 swimming nation by the 2020 Olympics will rely not only on the performance of their top stars but the depth of a relay program that has failed to fully fire since the last time the Dolphins ruled the pool.To beat the US at the 2020 Games, Australia will need to dominate the relays and become the pre-eminent team in world swimming.POOL BREAK-UP: Emotions spill over for pairThat’s the position it held at the Fukuoka world championships in 2001 — the last time Australia beat the US at a major meet and topped the medal tally — when the Dolphins snared gold in four of the six relays held.With a seventh team event on the program for the Tokyo 2020 Games after the decision last year to add the mixed medley relay to the schedule, being on song is more important than ever.To ensure the Dolphins are ready for 2020, Swimming Australia head coach Jacco Verhaeren has initiated the National Relay Project to ensure every prospective relay swimmer in the country is ready to perform at international level.The Dolphins have always been a close unit but have not been a relay force for more than a decade.The Australian women are Olympic champions in the 4x100m freestyle relay and while the Aussies won five medals from six relay categories in Rio, the men, in particular, were unable to produce their best on the big stage.At this week’s Pan Pacs in Tokyo though, the Aussies claimed two gold and a silver from the first three relays, including downing the US women’s 4x200m freestyle team for the first time in almost a decade at a major meet.

“Relays have always been an important part of our program but with the inclusion of another relay, the mixed medley, they are becoming even more important,” Verhaeren said.“And what that means is we practice relay skills all year round and on top of that we run tests every eight weeks in their home environment.“Because it’s a massive country we need to do that in the home environment — we get all that data back and give that feedback to the athletes where they can improve — and what we have seen with that added practice is that they are improving with their skills.“A lot of practice is necessary and that’s why we do that all year round now under what we have labelled the National Relay Project.”Brisbane coach Simon Cusack, the architect of Cate Campbell’s comeback at this meet and coach of the women’s 4x100m freestyle relay — Australia’s most successful relay in recent times — said the National Relay Project was a great initiative.“I would say everybody on the team now who would be up for consideration for a relay, can now execute a good changeover,” Cusack said.“Once upon a time, two of the four or three of the four could do a great changeover but you’d be stuck trying to fast-track someone’s skills coming into a major meet — and the skill will always fail under pressure if it’s not ingrained.“So it’s been a good initiative.”

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