By David Rieder.
Remember that 1650 free from last year’s NCAA championships, considered one of the great collegiate races ever? Four men—Clark Smith, Felix Auboeck, Akram Mahmoud and Jordan Wilimovsky—all swam faster than anyone ever had before, with Smith touching first in 14:22.41.
Well, less than nine months later, that record is gone—obliterated, actually. Two days after smashing Smith’s American record in the 500 free, Zane Grothe beat the record in the 1650 free by an even greater margin: four seconds. His final time: 14:18.25. From the first 100, whether the mark would go down was never in doubt.
But unlike in the NCAA race, when none of the four men would have swum as fast as they did without each other, Grothe was all by himself. He won the race by 25 seconds over Mitch D’Arrigo and lapped everybody else in the race at least once.
“You know, my goal was faster than that,” Grothe said, acknowledging that he had hoped for a 14:15. “I told my coach (Mike Westphal), ‘I want to be closer to my goal than the record.’”
Grothe had previously swum a 14:29 in the 1650 free back in February—with no rest, he explained—so he craved the opportunity to go for short course yards time with a full taper and shave. Westphal gave him one, and Grothe delivered in full.
Twice this week, public address announcer Mike Poropat had the opportunity to call Grothe’s record-setting swims—so who better for some perspective on what happened?
“After Thursday in that 500 free, you knew there was a likelihood you were going to see something special out of Zane tonight,” Poropat said. “Coming home in the 500 in under 50 seconds, I think you could tell, he wasn’t going to fall apart in the mile tonight. Hitting 4:17 at the 500, that was like, ‘Wow.’ That’s a top-five time in the 500 free at National Championships.”
Once during the race, Poropat even uttered the name “Ledecky.” As in, Katie Ledecky—she of unprecedented dominance in so many clutch moments. Winter Nationals might not have been the deepest meet this year, but Grothe still won by nearly a full 50.
“I mentioned it was like a Ledecky impersonation, where he’s totally alone, leading by a 50,” Poropat said. Grothe was still pushing hard. “I think that really speaks to his personality, his mentality. He’s always had that level of, ‘I’m going for this, all out on every length of the pool, and nothing’s going to stop me from this.’”
As Grothe closed in on the home stretch, Poropat called Grothe’s effort “one of the greatest swims in USA Swimming history.”
“When you think about how much work went into the guys just to make it into the fastest heat, just to qualify for the meet, and here a guy’s going to beat you by 40 seconds or 30 seconds,” Poropat said. “No one here is a slouch. Everyone here is an excellent, phenomenal swimmer. When you have someone who’s that far ahead, to me, that’s historic.”
As if it was not perfectly clear after the 500 free two nights earlier, Zane Grothe is for real.
“To really have a breakout here—you could say the breakout was this summer when he won the 400 free (at U.S. Nationals)—but this, when you’re taking down records, especially two in a week, I’m really happy for the guy,” Poropat said.
Watch a post-race video interview with Zane Grothe: