Only one word can describe the performance by Team USA on the last day of track and field action at the Tokyo Olympics.
From start to finish, the U.S. men’s and women’s 4x400m relay teams outclassed the international competition, crossing the finish line so far ahead of the pack that the broadcast couldn’t keep up.
After an Olympic Games that began with shock and turmoil when poor exchanges took away medal opportunities from the U.S. 4x400m mixed relay and men’s 4x100m relay teams, the Americans prevailed in the end, literally running away with the final two races on Saturday.
It took heroic efforts from some of the U.S. track and field team’s brightest stars.
Here’s how the U.S. track and field team developed a secret strategy to win gold in both relays Saturday night in Tokyo.
Team USA saved its best runners for the women’s relay finals
Watch all the action from the Tokyo Olympics live on NBC
The United States traditionally prioritizes individual events over relay events. An athlete has a choice on whether to participate in a relay or not. The men’s and women’s 4x400m relay teams are historically dominant. The U.S. women have the most gold medals in the event in Olympic history (seven) and have not lost a 400m relay since 1996. That history likely inspired their best runners to join the relay, capping off what would be Allyson Felix’s last race, surpassing Carl Lewis as the greatest American track Olympian of all time.
400m hurdles gold medalist Sydney McLaughlin, 2016 400m hurdles gold medalist Dalilah Muhammad and 800m gold medalist Athing Mu joined Felix on the relay team. McLaughlin started off the race and handed the baton off to Felix, with Muhammad running the third leg and Mu anchoring.
Mu’s college coach explains why she was a perfect fit for the 4x400m
Texas A&M coach Pat Henry, who coached Mu as a student athlete, said that while the 19-year-old claimed the first U.S. 800m gold medal in 53 years, she is still one of the best 400m runners in the world.
“Going into the Olympic Games, she was the fastest 400m runner in the U.S.,” Henry said. Mu ran a split of 48.34 seconds, the fastest on the relay team Saturday as the anchor leg.
“It’s evident this young lady can run both races and that was the smart thing to do. Let her run.”
McLaughlin and Muhammad had already developed chemistry from their time competing together at the 2019 Doha World Championships. Henry said that having a familiarity and cohesiveness is essential to relay success.
“You see other countries, those groups are together for long periods of time. And so they develop an air of confidence about themselves. And we're coming into a zone and we may have not exchanged with that person, but once or twice. And that's your running full blast and you're going out full blast. You know, that's hard to get it together. So until we start training more together, it's not going to happen.”
The US men have also had their fair share of success in the 4x400m
Michael Cherry, Michael Norman and Bryce Deadmon all competed in the men’s 4x400m preliminary round. Adding 400m hurdles silver medalist Rai Benjamin to anchor the team proved to be an excellent decision as well. The men finished with a season-best 2:55.70 time.
The United States currently holds the men’s Olympic record for a 4x400m relay team. LaShawn Merritt, Angelo Taylor, David Neville, Jeremy Warine finished the race in 2:55.39 seconds to win gold in 2008.
How does Team USA decide on the athletes for relays?
Relay teams usually send out their "B" team to run the preliminary heats and save their best runners for the final. The U.S. men’s 4x100m team implemented this strategy Thursday during the preliminary round, hoping the foursome of Trayvon Bromell, Fred Kerley, Ronnie Baker and Cravon Gillespie would be enough to qualify for the final.
But Thursday's heat featured Italy's Lamont Marcell Jacobs, who won gold in the 100m, and Canada's Andre De Grasse, who won gold in the 200m just several hours earlier.
This prompted Carl Lewis, arguably the greatest male track athlete of all time, to respond on Twitter, stating that the team did everything wrong.
How does training together impact the success of a track relay?
In reality, it may have just been due to a lack of practice and cohesiveness at the Olympic level. But Henry believes the U.S. track and field team is so deep that the top athletes normally don’t get the same amount of time to practice with one another as they do at the collegiate level. He says that in order for things to change there must be cohesiveness.
“The United States, we're strapped a little bit different than a lot of other countries, and it doesn't have to be that way. But it has traditionally been this way. We're not very demanding of the athletes who want to run on the relay every once in a while,” Henry said.
“We don't make the time to train together and work out together. We're just you know, it's a different scenario for our country. It's not good, but it is why we've had to operate. And I think it's going to take a change to develop some cohesiveness between the young men and young women who are going to run on that one to really make it smooth like other countries.”
Henry compared the blind track and field exchanges in the 4x100m to football:
“In the 4x100, it’s like a quarterback and wide receiver. Those two guys got a niche. They got it. They got to be on the same page at all times. And the 4x1 is exactly the same. You just can’t go out there and throw to that receiver one time expecting him to catch a ball.”
In a university setting, the relay runners have more time to get acclimated to one another.
“We are together every day, OK? We're in the same place every day for, you know, and for many of them years and years, you know. So the acclimation to each other is just not near where it is for the Olympic teams. So for my group, I know I've got a group of five, maybe six guys and ladies that we feel are people that can run on the relay.”
“And then as the year goes, we'll kind of substitute people in and out, do a lot of rehearsals and try to figure out who's who is ready at the end for both.
“Both genders are exactly the same. So same with me. I plug in people during the year. See how people run first, like second leg, how people run to a break,” Henry said.
“You know, there's a lot of different aspects of it that make a difference. And who you run where makes a difference. So, yeah, you know, you got to know your personnel. And that's the challenge.”
The U.S. men’s and women’s 4x400m relay teams were certainly up for that challenge in Tokyo and will now return home to the States as heroes in one of the Olympics’ marquee events.