Flippers and Flukes, or Did the Flying Frenchman Really Do It? (Some Thoughts on Bousquet’s 18.74)

By Tito Morales

MINNEAPOLIS, Minn., March 28. IT’S been several days now, and I’m still trying to make sense of it.

18.74…

What Auburn’s Fred Bousquet pulled off in Minneapolis last Thursday at the NCAA Division I Championships defies probability. He crossed a 25 yard pool twice in 18.74 seconds.

He didn’t walk or run it, mind you. He swam it.

Or so I’ve read. I wasn’t there, so I didn’t see it firsthand. I’ll have an opportunity to watch it on television this Friday. But I’m still not certain I’ll believe it. Can anyone who grew up around the deck of a 25 yard pool ever properly digest this type of thing?

Remember that movie a while back that raised the issue of whether men really did land on the moon — the movie that suggested perhaps it was all faked on a Hollywood soundstage or something? How can we all be absolutely certain that the footage of Bousquet’s preliminary swim won’t be digitally doctored in some way? After all, this is the 21st century. Given modern technology, it would be child’s play. And, besides, stranger things have happened.

Of course, there were plenty in attendance at the University of Minnesota Aquatic Center who will claim that they did, in fact, witness the feat. But how can we be certain that they weren’t all in on the ruse? And how many of them — realistically — did see the swim from gun to touch?

18.74 is not a heckuva lot of time. Close your eyes to sneeze and you’ve pretty much missed it. If the fella sitting in front of you decides to stand and scratch his back for a moment, you can probably forget about it. Glance down at your heat sheet to see the list of competitors, and your being a party to history is pretty much, well, history…

Let’s face it: the timers sitting behind Bousquet’s lane probably had to struggle to make it up to the edge of the pool in time to press the buttons on their stopwatches!

1874?!? 1874 isn’t a swimming time. It’s one of those dates we were supposed to memorize back in high school history class. It’s an inexpensive meal for two at a burger joint. It’s an address — that’s what it is, like 1874 Maple Lane… Type it into Mapquest; maybe there it will have some sort of relevance.

But there’s no way it applies to the sport of competitive swimming. Is there?

Ironically, someone like Bousquet is probably among the least struck by his accomplishment. He grew up in France. He probably never even saw his first 25 yard pool until he enrolled at Auburn University. Ian Thorpe and Hoogie — same thing. They probably heard the news of the Flying Frenchman’s record breaking swim and shrugged. The great Moroccan middle distance running champion Hicham El Guerrouj admits that it took him many, many years to understand all the hoopla surrounding the four minute mile. That’s what happens when you’re raised in an environment of metric measurements.

But American swimmers — those of us who cut our teeth crossing 25 yard pools as young age groupers — we understand. We remember trembling atop the blocks as novices. We recall the exhilaration we felt as we thrashed across the pool for the very first time trying to beat the swimmer in the lane next to us. And we remember scrambling out of the water to learn our result. Was it 16.7 or 17.8 seconds? 18.3 or 19.2?

Whatever the time, that became your baseline — your own personal barometer. Everything with your future in the sport unfurled from there… What you could do in the 25 backstroke or breaststroke was contingent upon how fast you could do the 25 free. The intervals you would be able to hold during a set in practice, the P.R.’s you would be able to muster in your 50′s and 100′s — they all flowed from the same one lap source.

And, perhaps, this is precisely what’s most exciting about what Bousquet did last Friday morning. Every time a new barrier is broken, there is a paradigm shift in the competitive swimming universe. Suddenly what once seemed impossible not only seems achievable, it has become factual. It’s documented, right there in black and white.

When a new barrier is smashed, however — as Bousquet did by lowering the existing record by over 3-tenths of a second — there is a colossal cosmic shift in the sport whose effect may not be fully realized for years to come. If someone can do an 18.74 in the 50, then it’s only a matter of time before someone gets into the low 40′s in the 100. And if someone can get down near a 40 in the 100 yard free, then what’s to stop them from swimming a 42 in the 100 fly, or close to a 50 in the breaststroke?

Short answer: nothing.

This wondrous trickle down effect extends to women as well as men — age groupers as well as high school athletes, and masters swimmers as well as collegians. Records, be they personal or world or otherwise, suddenly become far less imposing. Once again one of the sport’s daunting lids has been pried opened, but unlike the mythical Pandora’s Box — in which all of mankind’s plagues and sorrows were set free upon the world — containers such as these release nothing less than the inspirational beauty of human potential.

Anything in a swimming pool is possible.

“If some guy really can swim two laps of a 25 yard pool in under 19 seconds, then what’s to stop me from ________________” (feel free to fill in the blank).

But, of course, none of this line of thought is to suggest that I’m buying into Bousquet’s swim. At least not quite yet. I’m very familiar with 25 yard pools. I traverse one with some regularity, even timing myself on occasion.

Take it from me, 18.74 can’t be done. Maybe by a seal or a dolphin. Not by a man.

But, then again, maybe that’s the real issue here. Has anyone started checking these folks for flippers and flukes yet?

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