Barriers and Masters Swimming

Guest editorial by John Craig

PHOENIX, Arizona, May 26. CERTAIN barriers in athletics take on more meaning than others, often mostly because they are simply round numbers. For instance, most people have heard of how the four minute barrier in the mile run was first breached by Roger Bannister back in 1954. But few have heard of who first broke the 3:58 barrier.

Swimming, partly because the improvement in times has been so steady, has faced fewer insurmountable-seeming barriers. When Rick Demont first broke four minutes for the 400 meter freestyle back in 1973, the news accounts pretty much reported it as just another record. The progress before that had been so rapid that few doubted the four minute mark would soon fall, therefore it never took on any sort of mythic quality.

Likewise, when Federica Pellegrini became the first woman to break that same barrier this past summer in Rome, the achievement was not greeted with the fanfare one might have expected. In her case, the record might also have gotten somewhat lost in the Roman carnival of tech suit-aided record-breaking.

This past weekend at USMS nationals – the last hurrah for tech suits in masters swimming — there were 103 individual records set. (This number doesn’t take into account records which were already broken earlier this year.) Many of the records broke through what would seem to have been significant barriers. For instance, Jim Clemmons, 60, swam a 1650 in 17:59.55, breaking through the eighteen minute barrier. But given that the previous record was an 18:49.29, the eighteen minute barrier hadn’t taken on much significance. And given that 59-year-old Jim McConica, a former NCAA champ, swam a 17:25.12, who knows where the record will go next year. So it is with many masters records: they are improving so quickly that it’s hard to keep track or even think in terms of barriers. Even the hardest core swimming fan can’t keep track of all the masters records.

Other seemingly significant barriers were breached as well: Jon Blank, 50, became the first guy to reach the half century mark and break a minute in the 100 breast, with a 59.94. Charlotte Davis, became the first 60 year old to break a minute in the 100 free, with a 59.41.

Masters swimming is a relatively new sport (it has been around since 1970), and given the proliferation of age groups and events, the records sometimes seem a cheaper currency. But compare the various records to what most of the people of that age are capable of, and the older swimmers will seem unnaturally spry. (Compare, for instance, Charlotte Davis to the average 60 year old woman swimming at the local rec pool, doing a stately breaststroke while trying not to get her hair wet.)

One record breaker seems particularly worthy of mention. Richard Abrahams, just hit retirement age, 65, when workers are often put out to pasture. Abrahams celebrated by setting records in the 50 free with a 22.10 (the old record was 23.66); the 100 free with a 49.42 (52.76); the 200 free with a 1:57.54 (2:00.61); the 50 fly with a 24.94 (25.99); the 100 fly with a 56.36 (1:00.91); and the 100 IM with a 1:00.32 (1:02.26). In two of his events he put a new number in the minute column.

Abrahams’ 50 free time is the one which would stand up best against today’s college swimmers. It would place, if not win, in most college dual meets. But from a historical perspective, his 100 free may be the more significant time. Johnny Weissmuller, who later achieved fame as an actor, set the American record with a 51.0 in 1927. That record wasn’t broken for 17 years, and for a long time the 50 second barrier was regarded as insurmountable. When Alan Ford first broke Weismuller’s record (and the 50 second barrier) in 1944, his record wasn’t equaled until 1952.

Abrahams’ performance sends an inspirational message to young people: at 65, you can still be Tarzan.

John Craig’s (nonswimming) blog is

Editor’s note: Watch for an interview with Rich Abrahams next week on The Morning Swim Show.

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