Looking Back on Swimming’s Major Barrier Breaker in the Mile

PHOENIX, Arizona, May 6. THE sporting community is celebrating a landmark achievement in sports today: the 60th anniversary of Roger Bannister’s 1500-meter run that became the first under four minutes.

At a dual meet on May 6, 1954, Bannister ran the mile in 3:59.4, a watershed moment that many thought impossible to break, especially since no one had gotten within two seconds of getting under four minutes until that day.

Swimming has a similar barrier-breaking moment in its mile event, and it happened 26 years later at the Moscow Olympics. At those Games, the 1500 freestyle final was held on the third day of competition, the last time the distance event was contested so early in the meet. All eyes were on Salnikov, who many believed could break Brian Goodell’s world record of 15:02.40.

What follows is the account written by Swimming World staffers in the September 1980 issue:

The Russians couldn’t quite match the DDR, but their men, led by world record holder Vladimir Salnikov, won 17 medals. …

But it was the 20-year-old Salnikov who had everybody at the Olympic pool buzzing. He was the men’s only world record holder, and he chose an event that everyone had been anticipating for four years.

The event was the 1500-meter freestyle and the anticipation centered around whether or not the 15-minute barrier could be broken.

Brian Goodell of the United States owned the former world record of 15:02.40, set in 1976 at the Montreal Olympics. Breaking 15 minutes in swimming’s mile would be comparable to track’s four-minute mile when Roger Bannister did it in 1954.

The anticipation turned to fruition.

Vladimir Salnikov’s time for 1500 meters of freestyle was 14:58.27, a new world record, a barrier broken.

“I was confident to go under 15,” Salnikov said. “It was a goal I’ve been trying to reach for three years. I was pleased to accomplish it in the Olympics and in my fatherland.”

The 6-6, 157-pound Salnikov had to accomplish the feat on his own and with the help of an understandably excited homeland crowd. He finished 16 seconds ahead of silver medalist and teammate Alexandr Chaev, 15:14.30, and bronze medalist Max Metzker of Australia, 15:14.49. The DDR’s Rainer Strohbach just missed a medal at 15:15.29, but the time was good enough for a national record.

To break 15 minutes, Salnikov swam the first 100 in 58.53, a fraction ahead of Goodell’s world record split. For the next 1,000 meters, he averaged just over a minute per 100. At 1100 meters, Vladimir turned at 11:01.15.

And the crowd began to roar.

And Salnikov began to fly, picking up his pace with 59-second 100s through 1400 meters and a 58.05 final 100 to break through the barrier.

“The public’s roar at 1100 meters really helped me,” Salnikov said. “I was still flying the last 100 meters.”

One can tell from Salnikov’s splits that Vladimir swam the race very evenly. His first 500 meters was 5:00.23, his second 500 was 5:00.62 and his final 500 was negative-split in 4:57.42.

Salnikov’s record over the last three years was just as steady. His last defeat in a 1500-meter free was by Goodell (15:1578 to 15:23.26) at Leningrad on Sept. 4, 1977. Since then, however, the Russian has entered and won 21 races in the 1500, and Salnikov was under 15:20 13 times.

Between the two Olympiads, Montreal and Moscow, nobody has been better than Salnikov. He’s turned in the eight fastest performances in the world and has been under 15:10 six times.

When Goodell was receiving all the attention in Montreal with two gold medals and two world records in the 400 and 1500 free, Salnikov’s best performances was a fifth-place time of 15:29.45 in the 1500, good at that time for a European record.

In the 400, Salnikov didn’t even make it into the finals.

But two years later at the III World Championships in Berlin, Salnikov won both the 400 and 1500.

Without his toughest competition in Moscow (the Americans and Canadians), Salnikov was as good as gold to repeat his World Championship wins at the Olympics.

Comments Off on Looking Back on Swimming’s Major Barrier Breaker in the Mile

Author: Jeff Commings

Jeff Commings is the Senior Writer for SwimmingWorld.com and Swimming World Magazine. He graduated from the University of Texas at Austin with a degree in journalism and was a nine-time NCAA All-American.

Current Swimming World Issue