Great Races: When Tom Jager and Matt Biondi Took the 50 Freestyle Into Sub-22 Range (Video)

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Great Races: When Tom Jager and Matt Biondi Took the 50 Freestyle Into Sub-22 Range

Their duels produced one of the greatest rivalries the sport has seen, so it was only a matter of time before our Great Races Series featured one of the battles between Matt Biondi and Tom Jager. Together, Biondi and Jager redefined sprinting during the last half of the 1980s and into the early 1990s, and in this latest installment Great Races, we visit the showdown between the American stars at the 1990 United States Sprint Championships.

Held in Nashville, the U.S. Sprint Champs utilized a tournament-style approach and was undoubtedly designed to highlight the talents of Biondi and Jager. Eight athletes were slotted into a bracket that would determine the fastest man after three rounds of speed shootouts. Of course, the final brought together Biondi and Jager for the latest in their long line of clashes.

Between 1985 and 1990, Biondi and Jager combined to break the world record in the 50-meter freestyle on nine occasions. During that timeframe, the future Hall of Famers sliced more than a half-second off the global standard and changed what was thought to be attainable in the one-lap dash. A sub-22 outing? Let’s just say it was a lofty target.

Entering the U.S. Sprint Champs, Jager was the reigning world champion from 1986 and world-record holder at 22.12, a mark posted at the 1989 Pan Pacific Championships. Meanwhile, Biondi was the 1988 Olympic titlist and not far removed from a seven-medal haul at the Seoul Games. In Nashville, the hope was for another round of excellence.

Biondi and Jager delivered.

The opening round of the competition suggested the world record was about to be lowered. While Jager delivered a 22.14 effort, Biondi was timed in his race in 22.15. But those swims were just the start, as Jager and Biondi popped semifinal markers of 21.98 and 22.02. Racing first, Jager secured the fifth world record of his career in the event and became the first man to crash through the 22-second barrier.

The first round also featured a familiar name, as 31-year-old Rowdy Gaines stepped onto the blocks. The 1984 Olympic champion in the 100 freestyle, Gaines was beaten by Adam Schmitt and announced his retirement after the race. Of course, Gaines has remained a prominent figure in the sport, best known as the Voice of Swimming.

There was much more to come in the final, where Jager and Biondi would finally race side-by-side and chase the winner’s purse of $10,000. In their highly anticipated match race, Jager and Biondi went stroke for stroke until the scoreboard revealed Jager as the victor, on the strength of another world record – this time in 21.81. Right behind was Biondi, whose performance of 21.85 was also under Jager’s global standard from the semifinals.

In a matter of a couple of hours, Jager and Biondi turned in the four-fastest swims in the history of the 50-meter freestyle and took the event into a new realm. Suddenly, sub-22 was an achievable milestone.

“I felt so smooth the first two races and relatively fast. It couldn’t have gone more perfect,” Jager said. “The last race, I was just plugging away and got to the wall. I didn’t expect to swim this fast until the (1992 Olympic Trials). I couldn’t have written a better script. It was great for swimming. We opened some eyes.”

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