Are We Swimming Too Fast in 2007?

By Sean Hickman, Guest Editorial

BRIGHTON, Michigan, November 12. SWIMMING times are the basis and beauty of our sport and have been analyzed by coaches, swimmers and fans since the invention of the timed event. The historic "I had the time of my life" T-shirt worn by so many age group swimmers accurately sums up the nature of our sport.

Analysis of the times posted by world swimmers in 2007 will tell you that this year has been the fastest in history. You may ask "shouldn't it be?" assuming that swimming times get progressively faster on a year to year basis. The answer is a statistically derived "no".

An analysis of the world rankings of the top swimmers of the past 30 years, as reported by FINA, Swimming World Magazine and Swimnews will show you that the fastest swimmers in the world peak in four-year cycles that correspond to the Olympic Games. Post Olympic years tend to be a little bit slower and sometimes pre Olympic years get a little bit faster.

An analysis of the men's 100 meter freestyle will demonstrate an unprecedented trend established by this year's top world swimmers. Why the 100 meter freestyle instead of another event? The answer is three-fold. First of all, everyone swims the 100 free, because it is both a popular individual and relay event. Second of all, there have been fewer freestyle stroke innovations in recent history as compared to the other strokes. For example, the 2006 incorporation of a dolphin kick on the breaststroke turn has had major ramifications. Finally, this is possibly the most mature event with regards to training strategies. The ability to swim a successful 100 freestyle requires a broad range of training of the different energy systems, which has not changed during the past 15 years.

Therefore, the most modern 100 meter freestyle is the subject of this analysis. What is the most modern time frame? The freestyle stroke revolution was started more than 15 years ago by Bill Boomers' careful analysis of Alexander Popov and Kieren Perkins in the early 1990's. The "catch up and roll" freestyle stroke has produced the current 100 meter freestyle world record of 47.84 that was established at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

The average of the top 20, male, 100 meter freestyle times in the world, since this record was established is listed below:

Year Top 20 Average Comments
2000 48.99 Olympic Year
2001 49.17
2002 49.25
2003 49.03
2004 48.93 Olympic Year
2005 48.93
2006 48.92 Slightly faster than Olympic Year

The reader can see that not only has the world record progression ceased, but that the average of the performances of the top athletes has also not improved.

Further analysis can be performed based on an assumption that a world record setter is an athlete of exceptional talent and drive that is able to maximize the opportunities of the day to establish a global standard. Athletes of increasing ability such as Jim Montgomery, Johnny Skinner, Rowdy Gaines, Matt Biondi and Pieter van den Hoogenband have chipped away at the world record during the past 30 years.

The fact is that the average of the top 20, male, 100 meter freestyle times so far this year in 2007 is an amazing 48.66. Does this result have significant ramifications?

The roughly quarter-second drop so far this year may not seem like much, but it represents a .7 percent shift in the top 20 average (in one year) since the world record was set in 2000. There is no data that supports such a significant shift during the past 25 years. The entire shift of this average during a 15-year stretch of the 1980's and 1990's was only roughly 1 percent. (Examples of 50.44 in 1985, 49.97 in 1990, 49.89 in 1997).

This also suggests a world record drop of almost 1/2 of a second to 47.42 is on tap. Don't forget that this recent drop is based on data from a non-Olympic year! The statistical trend predicts even faster performances in 2008.

It is the author's belief that the significant shift in times in 2007 cannot be explained by statistical trends. A single phenomenal athlete such as those mentioned above has the ability to establish new world records, but their influence on the average of the top 20 is minimal. Such a large shift in the top 20 average suggests that perhaps too many athletes are getting too good too fast.

Is it possible for a new superstar to emerge and go 47 low in the 100 freestyle? Certainly. However, it is going to be hard to explain if a whole field of athletes at the 2008 Olympic Games go under a bench mark time, i.e. the 1994 world record of 48.21, in a mature event that has had minimal technique or training changes since then.

The question that begs to be asked is "Why are so many people swimming so fast?"

Perhaps it's the suit. Michael Phelps put on the newest FastSkin and set a world record untapered at the 2007 Missouri Grand Prix last year. Then, he went on to break four world records and win seven gold medals at the 2007 World Championships. There are a number of other features in swim suits that claim to improve performance such as compression fabric which is designed to reduce muscle fatigue, as well as drag.

The issue here is that comprehensive swim suit analysis has been performed on the new drag reducing suits and the conclusion is in: the laws of physics dictate that it is not the drag associated with the suit.

Here's the simple explanation of drag: 95 percent of the drag of a swimmer moving through water is pressure drag associated with the shape of the human body. 3-5 percent of drag is friction drag associated with things such as a swim suit and water density. If the suit was the answer, the .7 percent shift in velocity detailed above would mean that the latest suits reduced friction drag by a minimum of 16 percent. Detailed studies such as the one here give a thorough explanation of how this is not possible. Do the new suits help? Certainly, but they do not account for the massive shift in world times alone.

One cannot overlook the possibility of drugs such as HGH. This past year has seen unprecedented news media coverage of steroid use in baseball, track and cycling. In a time where performance enhancing substances are prevalent, it would be hard to imagine that there isn't some swimmer somewhere who is trying to get ahead by using banned substances. Any effect on the overall results is only speculation.

Another answer is perhaps, there are just a lot of really talented, hardworking athletes who have made their presence felt on the world swimming scene. This could be the case, especially if there is significantly more sponsor and prize money this year as compared to last. This author does not claim to know the exact effect of long-term marketing on athlete performance. However, it makes sense that the large finances associated with golf, baseball, football, basketball, hockey and soccer have improved the overall level of the athlete participating in these sports over the decades. Perhaps swimming is attracting more talented athletes than ever before.

In summary, 2007 has been a fantastic year for swimming. This year's performances have created undeniably high expectations for the 2008 Olympic Games. If the above trends continue to hold true, we could witness an unprecedented time progression for the world as a whole. Should this be a potential concern or merely a celebration of the evolution of our sport? I am asking the world swim community to consider an explanation of these sudden, extraordinary results.

The opinions, views and ideas expressed in this article are those of the author. They do not necessarily represent those of Swimming World.

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