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Column by John Lohn, Swimming World senior writer
SHANGHAI, China, July 28. HOW long will they last? A few years? Decades? Eons? As the high-tech suit era hit its peak at the World Championships two years ago in Rome, then came to a close on the final day of 2009, many wondered when a world record would be broken. After all, the sport's times had become farcical in some, if not most, events.
In a sport long known for being measured in fractions of a second, where global standards were pipped by hundredths, the record book had suddenly been mauled. It started in 2008 with the introduction of the Speedo LZR Racer, then spun out of control in 2009 when Jaked and Arena wrapped the athletes in rubber. Hundredths became tenths, and in some cases, full seconds were lopped from the previous marks.
Still, we knew there would be a day when the records would begin to go – albeit gradually. At the short-course level, it started to happen at the end of 2010. In the long-course pool, it took exactly 574 days from the ban of the supersuits to see a world record. Fittingly, it was delivered by the guy who has risen to the top of his sport in a most impressive way: Ryan Lochte. Mark the date: July 28, 2011.
In his latest 200 individual medley duel with Michael Phelps, his pal and rival, Lochte dipped under the time he established in Rome, going 1:54.00 to lower the standard of 1:54.10. Really, he needed every bit of that record performance as Phelps touched for the silver medal in 1:54.16, a personal best. It was a race for the ages and sets up a great deal of hype for the 2012 Olympic Games in London. More, it allows for a chapter to be closed.
"I wanted to do something that everyone thought was impossible," Lochte said. "Since they banned the suits, everyone thought a world record wouldn't get touched again. I wanted to show everyone that it can happen. That's why we have records. They're made to be broken. Hopefully, everyone can start realizing that it's possible and a lot more records will fall."
As is the case with any stopwatch sport, fans desire the establishment of world records. There's something special about seeing a man or woman register a time – in the water or on foot – that has never been previously produced. These records raise the profile of the sport, especially in swimming, which has often fought for the spotlight outside of Olympic years.
With the high-tech suits making the record book unrecognizable, the casual observer – those without deep knowledge of the sport – couldn't understand why times were slower than the past few years. To provide clarity, a long explanation was needed, one that included the terms polyurethane and textile. It was a lot to digest.
Thanks to Lochte, however, the sport can move on, burying that unfortunate chapter. Technology, we learned at the Oriental Sports Center, is beatable with dedication and hard work. Is that cliché? Yes. It's also what was proven in Shanghai, much to the delight of the packed house in attendance. The crowd had waited four-plus days to see a world record and Lochte's race was the best chance to date. He absolutely delivered.
There is no question some of the world records in existence will not go anywhere for some time, perhaps many years. The women's 200 individual medley sits at 2:06.15 while the 200 butterfly is 2:01.81, nearly four seconds faster than what China's Jiao Liuyang (2:05.55) went to win this year's world title. On the men's side, the 200 free is 1:42.00, nearly two seconds quicker than either Phelps or Aussie Ian Thorpe went in a textile suit.
The next few days will reveal if Lochte's performance proves contagious. There are two other strong world-record possibilities. In the 200 breaststroke, American Rebecca Soni is expected to chase the mark of Canadian Annamay Pierse. Then there's the final night of competition, where China's Sun Yang will try to delight the home crowd by breaking the longest-standing record, that of Aussie Grant Hackett in the 1500 freestyle. Hackett's record is so monumental, it is the only standard on the men's side to have survived the tech-suit onslaught. (Kate Ziegler's 1500 free world mark from 2007 also survived the challenge.)
Whatever unfolds the rest of the way, we have learned something: Records are made to be broken – even those seemingly aided by a jetpack.
Follow John Lohn on Twitter: @JohnLohn