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Commentary by Jeff Commings
BARCELONA, Spain, July 30. IF you disregard the 2008-2009 polyurethane techsuit era — and I know many of you want to do so — only once in history have four world records been broken in one day. We almost saw it happen for a second time here in the Palau Sant Jordi, the site of the FINA swimming world championships. Unfortunately, three swimmers were a combined .51 seconds shy of making it happen, leaving us with just one world record on the day. And what a world record it was.
A little history about the first day four world records were set. It was Aug. 20, 1989, at the Pan Pacific championships in Tokyo. Mike Barrowman, Janet Evans, Dave Wharton and Tom Jager gave the USA ample bragging rights when they each broke a world record in an individual event. Barrowman got things started with a 2:12.89 in the 200 breast preliminaries, then Janet Evans kicked off finals that night with an 8:16.22 in the 800 free, a world record that would last until the 2012 Olympics. Dave Wharton nearly cracked two minutes in the 200 IM, posting a 2:00.11, then Tom Jager ripped through the 50 free with a 22.12.
Today, I had a feeling we would see four world records fall, but was I being overzealous? Not the way the meet has gone so far. Surely Katie Ledecky would break the world record in the 1500 freestyle, and I was certain Ruta Meilutyte would chip a few hundredths off her 100 breast world record from yesterday. And after Cameron van der Burgh got within .11 of his world record this morning in the 50 breast prelims, I was confident he could make it happen again.
And then there was Missy Franklin and the 100 backstroke. She just missed out on Gemma Spofforth’s world record of 58.12 when she won Olympic gold last year, and I thought that record was history.
Franklin was up first in the 100 back. She took the race out fast, .09 under Spofforth’s pace at 50 meters. Franklin never pushes the pace that hard, and though she couldn’t be caught, the effort might have cost her the record. Still, 58.42 isn’t bad at all, but I noticed she didn’t have her usual ear-to-ear grin after the race. I think she had that record in mind as well. She’ll get another chance in the medley relay on Sunday.
In the second semifinal of the men’s 50 breast, van der Burgh posted a 26.81, which is .14 slower than his own world record of 26.67 from 2009. To my eyes, van der Burgh didn’t look as aggressive this evening than he was this morning, maybe using the semifinal as a chance to try something a little different. Maybe I’m wrong on that observation, but he looked too smooth for a 50-meter swim.
The women’s 1500 freestyle was next. I have to give heaps of credit to Lotte Friis for giving Ledecky the race of her life from start to finish. I estimated the Dane wouldn’t be able to match Ledecky’s pace for more than 700 meters, but there she was at 800, 900, 1200, 1300 meters. By 1400 meters, though, Ledecky was surging to a lead that seemed to take a page from Sun Yang, finding a final burst that was shocking given the intensity of the 1450 meters before that. But that’s what makes a champion, and we had two of them today. Three, actually. Props to Lauren Boyle of New Zealand for hanging out under world record pace for about 300 meters. Ledecky’s 15:36.53 will stand as a legendary swim as well Friis’ 15:38.88, whose move to France to train is finally paying off. I can’t wait to see what these two uncork at the 2015 world championships.
Even though we weren’t going to get four records in one day, I hope the swimming community truly appreciates the magnitude of that swim. The last time two people broke a world record in the same race was at the 2011 world championships, when Ryan Lochte and Michael Phelps dueled in the 200 IM. Lochte prevailed with a 1:54.00, while Phelps was .16 behind. That was an epic race that still gives me goosebumps when I watch it. And to see the fastest, second-fastest and fourth-fastest performances in history in one race has to be something that swimming superfans will research and let us know whether or not it has happened.
The final event of the night was the women’s 100 breast final. It was not going to be a race for first, but a race for a faster world record. Meilutyte was .13 slower at the 50-meter mark tonight than she was in semifinals, and that might have cost her the record, and an additional $25,000 world record bonus offered by FINA and sponsor Midea. But a 1:04.42, which ties Jessica Hardy’s old record, is still a mind-blowing swim.
I don’t see any other opportunities this week for four world records in one day. Van der Burgh might drop his record in tomorrow’s finals, and a few other records are on notice this week. I would love to see these athletes try to match the intensity of today’s competition. I doubt it can happen.