By David Rieder
DURHAM, North Carolina, December 9. OVER the past eight years, nearly every record in swimming has fallen, most by rather large margins during the stretch of polyurethane suits in 2008 and 2009. In that short span, 38 of the 40 world records in long course events went down, and 43 marks fell at the 2009 World Championships alone. Only some of the most notable records in the sport — like Grant Hackett’s 1500 free world record or Janet Evans’ American mark in the 800 — survived the onslaught, and most of these records have since fallen in similarly-special performances.
Many of the short course yards marks, however, stayed put, as only one NCAA Championships (2009) featured the new technology. To find the last record-smashing performance at NCAAs, one has to go back to Ryan Lochte’s senior season in 2006, when he swept the IMs and won the 200 back in Atlanta. Lochte set NCAA records in all three and American records in all but the 400 IM. Additionally, he set an American record of 44.60 leading off Florida’s 400 medley relay team, breaking Neil Walker’s nine year old mark of 44.92.
Lochte would go on to reset the American marks in the 200 back and 200 IM at Short Course Nationals 21 months later, but he didn’t swim the 100 back in his return to the Georgia Tech Aquatic Center. Albert Subirats made a run at Lochte’s mark in 2007, as did Ben Hesen in 2008, seemingly everyone in 2009, and Tom Shields in 2012. Lochte’s mark just stood there, and no one could reach that 44.60 barrier. That is, until November of 2012, when recently-crowned Olympic gold medalist Matt Grevers posted a 44.55 at Short Course Nationals to erase the aged time.
At this year’s Short Course Nationals, Nick Thoman made his intentions known from day one, blasting a 44.56 leadoff leg on SwimMAC’s 400 medley relay. A day later, he broke a pair of American marks in one race, setting the 50 back standard as a split on a record-breaking 200 medley relay. At that point, it looked pretty clear that he would have a shot at surpassing Grevers’ mark in the event’s final a few hours later. Returning from a layoff following winning the Olympic silver medal in the event in 2012, Thoman had designs on more than just clipping the time.
When Katie Ledecky took nine seconds off the American record in the women’s mile on Saturday, it seemed like a demolition of a record unseen since the suit era. Not so; Ledecky took about 0.56 off of the record per 100 yards, not much more than the 0.48 Thoman chopped off of Grevers’ record with his 44.07. Even though Grevers himself finished at 44.49, under his old record, Thoman still obliterated him. With spectacular underwater abilities, Thoman has always been a strong short course swimmer — he still holds the 100 back world record in short course meters — but that swim on Friday made a statement.
Without Thoman participating at U.S. Nationals this summer, David Plummer won the 100 back in Indianapolis and finished second to Grevers at the World Championships. Thoman, naturally, has aims of getting back into that mix in 2014 and beyond, and it could push the event to new levels. At the 2012 Olympic Trials, Grevers, Thoman, and Plummer all broke 53 seconds in the 100 back final, the first time that three men had ever gone under that time in a domestic meet (and in fact, the first time two men had done so).
Now, though, the 100 back short course record is faster than the 100 fly mark (Austin Staab, 44.18) for the first time since 2004, when Ian Crocker first broke 45 seconds as part of a blistering run of world record-setting in the sprint fly events. Sure, it’s not abnormal to have short course backstroke times surpass butterfly times because of the quickness of a backstroke flip turn compared to a butterfly open turn. The men’s 100 back has always been a quick event in the U.S., and with Thoman swimming a 44-flat in December of 2013, that trend won’t end anytime soon.