6 Races Where Swimmers had to Conquer Insurmountable Odds

Photo Courtesy: Melissa Lundie

By Emily Thirion, Swimming World College Intern.

Swimming is not a sport for wishful thinkers, and there are no golden tickets to success. Swimmers are more than aware of how much hard work is required every day to be the best. Easy victories are not the ones that are celebrated or remembered – it’s the tough ones that stick with us. The history of competitive swimming is riddled with instances where swimmers had to conquer a series of trials and tribulations in order to reach their goals.

Here are six incredible championship races where the underdogs pull through to conquer insurmountable odds:

1. Nathan Adrian’s 100m Freestyle (London, 2012)

As the 2012 Olympics approached, James Magnussen of Australia was the clear favorite to take the men’s 100 free. No American had won the event since Matt Biondi in the 1988 Games in Seoul. The field of competition was dense: one competitor being France’s Yannick Agnel, who split a 46.74 in the men’s 4×100 free relay the day before to pass the U.S. swimmer Ryan Lochte to bring his team to victory. The heat also included Cesar Cielo of Brazil – a world-record holder and one of the fastest men in the race’s history. Going into the event, Adrian was only ranked sixth in the world. At the 50m mark of the race, Cielo was winning by an arm stroke; by the 75m, Magnussen had taken the lead; at the finish, Adrian had won by the smallest margin in swimming: .01 at the finish. Adrian won by a fingertip and pure grit.

2. Ye Shi Wen’s 200m Individual Medley (Shanghai, 2011)

At the Aquatic World Championships in 2011, then 15-year-old Ye Shiwen was a virtual unknown. Alicia Coutts of Australia and Ariana Kukors of the United States were the two favored women to win the 200m IM. The two dominated the first three legs of the event, with Shiwen sitting in fifth place leaving the final turn. Shiwen powered home on the final 15 meters of the race to win by .10, making up over a body-length of ground on Coutts and Kukors for an outstanding finish.

3. The Australian Men’s 4x100m Freestyle Relay (Sydney, 2000)

Everyone remembers the U.S. men’s 4x100m relay in Beijing, but most young swimmers aren’t as familiar with the 4x100m relay swum by the Australian men that preceded it. During the first night of the Sydney Games, rising Australian star Ian Thorpe had a challenging race schedule ahead. Thorpe won the men’s 400m freestyle, and then had to turn around and anchor his relay team immediately following that event. The Americans had never lost the 4x100m freestyle relay, and their anchor Gary Hall Jr. had remarked earlier in the day that they were going to “smash the Australian’s like guitars.”

On the final exchange, Thorpe dove in just a head of Hall, and by the time he had breached the surface, he was behind. At the final turn, Thorpe was trailing Hall by half a body length. Thorpe said that at the 75m mark, he knew that Hall would be hurting. Thorpe had simulated the pain he was feeling at practice so many times before that he knew he would be able to finish stronger. Thorpe powered to the wall and gave the Australian men their first ever gold in the event.

4. Misty Hyman’s 200m Fly (Sydney, 2000)

At the 2000 Games in Sydney, Misty Hyman was truly only expected to compete for the silver medal in the women’s 200m butterfly. The Australian Susie O’Neill – also known as Madame Butterfly – was expected to defend her title, as she had gone virtually undefeated for the previous four years. Petria Thomas was another close competitor who was representing Australia on their home turf and was expected to do well. Hyman took the lead in the race early and held on through the finish. No one was more stunned than Hyman herself, recounting: “I’ve played it over so many times in my head, but I never thought it would come true.”

5. Vladimir Salnikov’s 1500m Freestyle (Seoul, 1988)

Vladimir Salnikov was arguably robbed of a multitude of Olympic titles due to the Soviet Union boycotting the 1984 Games in Los Angeles. When 1988 rolled around, many considered Salnikov – then 28 years old – to be too old to compete in Seoul. He had set a world record in the 800m free in 1986 but could not manage to final in the European Championships the year after. He was not considered to be eligible for the Games, as he did not reach the standards set by to Soviet Olympic Committee; however, he was given a spot later on due to the intervention of several Soviet officials. He did not let his country down, winning the 1500m free by several body lengths. Salnikov admitted after the fact that he practically put all his energy in from the start, and he swam the last 25m while blacking out.

6. The United States Women’s 4x100m Freestyle Relay (Montreal, 1976)

In what is thought to be one of the greatest swimming upsets ever, the U.S. relay team of Kim Peyton, Wendy Bogliolo, Jill Sterkel, and Shirley Babashoff toppled the steroid-aided East Germans to win the women’s 4×100 free relay. At that point in the meet, the German women had won eleven out of the twelve events and were expected to take the last relay. The Americans were fired up, and they went on to beat the Germans by a second to obliterate the prior world record by over four seconds. The U.S. women shouldn’t have been able to win, but sometimes it truly comes down to how badly you want it. The U.S. victory was not only a win for the nation but also for the rest of the world who believed in a drug-free sport, overcoming what seemed to be insurmountable odds.

All commentaries are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Swimming World Magazine nor its staff.