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By David Rieder
BARCELONA, Spain, July 29. OF all the bloated world records set with the assistance of the polyurethane bodysuits in 2008 and 2009, some seemed more unbeatable than others. The prospect of Rebecca Soni beating the 200 breast world record of 2:20.12 did not seem so far-fetched in 2010, although she did not beat the mark for another two years. Many thought Ryan Lochte had a shot at beating his own 1:54.10 in the men’s 200 IM after FINA banned the high-tech suits, as well as Michael Phelps against his own 1:51.51 in the 200 fly. However, others seemed to be destined to survive for many years down the line.
Without the aid of suits, Aaron Peirsol’s groundbreaking 51.94 100 back seemed untouchable. That aura lasted for about one year when Camille Lacourt unleashed a 52.11 that moved him into Peirsol’s stratosphere. Lacourt never reached the record, but it had to withstand another close call when Matt Grevers popped a 52.08 at the 2012 Olympic Trials. The men’s breaststroke records seemed on a different level before Cameron van der Burgh took down Brenton Rickard’s 58.58 in the 100 at last year’s Olympics, and three different swam underneath Christian Sprenger’s 2:07.31 within a month’s span last year.
The world dropped its collective jaw when Sarah Sjostrom lowered the women’s 100 fly world record all the way down to 56.06 in 2009. However, the record did not look as fast when Dana Vollmer began chipping away at the mark in 2011 and 2012 before blasting a 55.98 at the Olympics. Katie Ledecky made Federica Pellegrini’s 400 free record seem catchable on Sunday, as did Cate Campbell for Britta Steffen’s 100 free. Some records, like Ariana Kukors’ 2:06.15 in the 200 IM, still seem far beyond the reach of today’s athletes, as no one has swum within a second of that mark. Prior to today, Jessica Hardy’s 1:04.45 seemed like another record out of the question for today’s swimmers in textile suits.
Coming into Barcelona, Ruta Meilutyte had been on fire, consistently clocking swims in the low-1:05-range, showing potential to break into the 1:04s, but few discussed the world record as a possibility. The young Lithuanian made it such after her prelims swim, where her 1:04.52 nearly clipped Hardy’s mark and obliterated Soni’s textile best time of 1:04.91. Suddenly, everyone had the world record on their minds. Rowdy Gaines even hinted at the prospect when he tweeted that if someone “want[s] to see a WR?” to watch Universal Sports’ broadcast of the day’s action. Sure enough, Meilutyte clocked 1:04.35 for a new global mark.
Since FINA banned the high-tech suits four years ago, the athletes have progressed towards these overly-fast global marks at varying paces. After a two year span where world records fell in 32 of the 34 individual long course events contested at the world championships — all except the men’s and women’s 1500 free — records have fallen in just seven since. Still, they remain the ultimate goal; Meilutyte even told the press today that the world record had been her main goal heading into the meet, so the gold medal would just be a bonus.
Even when the mortals out there saw Hardy’s record as out of reach, Meilutyte had the mark in her mind as her main goal. Athletes have their sights set on these other supposedly-unobtainable times in other events as well. For that reason, we haven’t seen the last of world records this week. Maybe a record will fall in the men’s 100 back, although gold medal-favorite Matt Grevers says he would need an “absolutely flawless” swim to get it done. Maybe Missy Franklin takes down her own 200 back mark, or maybe Campbell shocks the world and breaks a sprint free record. The records will keep falling, because the swimmers, unlike the analysts, don’t view them as out of their reach.
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