Comparing Eras in Swimming

Guest editorial by Chris DeSantis

ATLANTA, Georgia, August 12. RECENTLY, there's been considerable hand-wringing about the all-out record assault taking place. The idea is that we've somehow lost the history of our sport when Alexander Popov gets buried in the all-time 50 freestyle rankings or Janet Evans gets knocked down a few pegs. Recently, in putting together our Georgia Tech team handbook, I had to revise the ACC and school records. It was an hour long process.

But have we really lost something? I say no. Records have been broken, no doubt. They have fallen at an unprecedented rate. The truth is, our sport has never been about records. The history of our sport to this point has not been about the times achieved on the clock. Records have always come and gone, but seldom were athletes forgotten just because their records had been broken.

Today Michael Phelps has brought swimming to a new peak in popularity. What is he famous for? He's famous for winning eight gold medals. Prior to Phelps, the peak of swimming stardom had always been Mark Spitz. Spitz was famous for winning seven gold medals. It mattered little to swimming fans that Matthew Gribble, may he rest in peace, was a faster butterflyer in the mid 80s than Spitz was in '72. No one tried to argue that Gribble was a better swimmer than Phelps.

Earlier this year, when I was coaching the University of Pennsylvania, we traveled to Dartmouth for a dual meet. The record board had an unexpected treat: still holding the pool record in the 100 butterfly was Spitz's old foil Doug Russell. He had held the record since 1968. I watched him lose it to Chris Pool of Yale. Still, I think a lot more people will still be talking about Doug Russell's Mexico City butterfly in 10 years than they will the accomplishments of Pool.

I do admit that to this point I've cherry-picked two examples that compare accomplishments at or near 40 years apart. What then, of the recent history that has been almost completely wiped from the books? I think the past two years have in someway only cemented their place in history. As long as anything beyond a brief is available in men's swimming, people will bring Popov into the discussion of any 50 free world record. We will never be entirely sure that the current record holder was truly better than Popov.

That concept goes beyond the "suits". Sports change and make it difficult to compare eras. I am reminded of this every time I watch some old basketball highlights and catch some of Bob Cousy:

Cousy is considered possibly the best ball-handling basketball player of all-time. However, if you watch his highlights now the moves seem somewhat stiff and unathletic. Have players become so much better in the last 40 years that Cousy wouldn't play well now? I say no. The sport has changed. When Cousy played officials were far tougher in calling traveling and palming of the ball then they are today. In the same way, we can never compare Jessicah Schipper to Mary T. Meagher because we don't have a time machine. Schipper is playing a different game.

Here's my point: swimming will always be about the competition taking place in the pool that day. The past is already past, and who knows what the future holds.

Chris DeSantis begins his first season at Georgia Tech as an assistant coach after previously coaching at the University of Pennsylvania.

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