Honoring the Greatest World Records In History; Michael Phelps Leads the Celebration

Honoring the Greatest World Records In History; Michael Phelps Leads the Celebration

The fastest of all-time. It’s a special title to hold, and only a tiny percentage of athletes can make the claim. To own the label of world-record holder elevates an individual to a status that cannot be argued. Whether for an hour, days, months or years, world-record setters know no peer. They are – for a period – the best their event has seen.

As the 2022 campaign gets underway, Swimming World decided to look at the greatest world records in history. No, this is not a perfect science, and there will be objections from the dedicated readership. But the eight records featured are – plain and simple – spectacular in nature, and one longtime scribe’s picks for all-time recognition.

When selecting these records for inclusion, several factors were considered. They were:

• Duration of the world record.
• Historical significance and context.
• Was it a barrier-breaking mark?
• Gap to the opposition.

Ultimately, the women’s records covered a greater range of eras, while the men’s marks consisted of one ancient standard and three marks from modern times. Feel free to argue and suggest other options but know this: The following records are all special.

Women

Dawn Fraser – 100 Freestyle (1962) – 59.9

Olympic gold and a Kangaroo in her pouch

Dawn Fraser – Photo Courtesy: Dawn Fraser Collection

By the time Dawn Fraser established this world record, the Australian already held legendary status. She was a multi-time Olympic champion from the 1956 and 1960 Games and held the global standard in the 100 freestyle uninterrupted since 1956. But there was one more bar to clear on the road to another Olympic crown: Breaking the minute barrier.

Racing at the Aussie Trials for the 1962 British Empire and Commonwealth Games, Fraser produced a time of 59.9 for the 100 freestyle to become the first woman to dip under a minute. Her achievement arrived 40 years after Johnny Weissmuller became the first man to accomplish the feat. More, the effort further separated Fraser from the competition, as it took nearly two years for American Sharon Stouder to become the second member of the sub-minute club.

Mary T. Meagher – 200 Butterfly (1981) – 2:05.96

mary-t-meagher-1981

Photo Courtesy: Tony Duffy

When a performance still ranks as elite four decades after it was delivered, it is easy to recognize the swim as an all-time mark. And that is exactly what the legendary Mary T. Meagher brings to the conversation. This world record was produced at the 1981 United States National Championships and was a statement performance, as it arrived a year after Meagher was denied the chance to race at the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow by President Jimmy Carter’s boycott.

So, how powerful was this mark? For starters, it was more than four seconds faster than the 2:10.44 that East Germany’s Ines Geissler clocked for gold at the 1980 Games. More, Meagher’s swim would have been good for fourth place (and just off the podium) at the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo.

Janet Evans – 400 Freestyle (1988) – 4:03.85

janet-evans

Janet Evans – Photo Courtesy: International Swimming Hall of Fame

Before Katie Ledecky emerged, Janet Evans was undisputedly recognized as the greatest distance swimmer in history. While her peak marks in the 800 freestyle and 1500 freestyle were considered, Evans earned inclusion on this list for the show she delivered in the 400 freestyle at the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul. There, the American teenager stood up to the East German machine, which was powered by a systematic-doping program, and turned in a performance that would stand for nearly two decades.

Ahead of the race, Evans was expected to be in a battle with East Germany’s Heike Friedrich, and the race was tight through its midway point. After going out in 2:02.14 for the opening 200 meters, Evans was faster on the back half, clocking 2:01.71 for the closing four laps and a negative split. The product was a world record that would stand for 17-plus years. It wasn’t until Frenchwoman Laure Manaudou went 4:03.03 in 2006 that the record was taken from Evans.

Katie Ledecky – 800 Freestyle (2016) – 8:04.79

katie-ledecky-

Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Like Janet Evans, there were multiple options with Katie Ledecky, but what the American star accomplished in the 800 freestyle at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro received the nod. As part of her 200-400-800 freestyle sweep, Ledecky blasted the opposition over 16 laps, her margin of victory over Great Britain’s Jazz Carlin an almost unfathomable 11-plus seconds.

To put the swim into further perspective, Ledecky produced the equivalent of back-to-back 4:02s in the 400 freestyle. More, the next-fastest performer in history, Australia’s Ariarne Titmus owns a career-best of 8:13.83, more than nine seconds shy of what Ledecky registered in South America. Through early December, Ledecky owns the 24-fastest times in history in the 800 freestyle, the rest of the world an ocean away.

MEN

Johnny Weissmuller – 100 Freestyle (1922) – 58.6

johnny-weissmuller

Johnny Weissmuller – Photo Courtesy: ISHOF

Not yet a household name in the pool or on the silver screen, Johnny Weissmuller became the first swimmer to break the minute barrier in the 100-meter freestyle in 1922. And he didn’t just dip under the 60 seconds, he emphatically moved into a new realm. Racing in Alameda, Calif., Weissmuller turned in a time of 58.6. It was an indicator of the greatness to come.

Following his breakthrough and barrier-breaking performance, Weissmuller became a decorated Olympic champion, winning the 100 freestyle at the 1924 and 1928 Games. He took the world record in the event down to 57.4 in 1924, and it wasn’t until a decade later that the standard was lowered, an indication of Weissmuller’s prodigious talent. Of course, his days as a swimming star were followed by years as an icon in movies as Tarzan.

Ian Thorpe – 400 Freestyle (2002) – 3:40.08

Ian Thorpe, Athens 2004 victory – Photo Courtesy: Delly Carr

From an early age, Ian Thorpe was pegged for stardom, and the Australian absolutely lived up to the vast expectations placed on his shoulders. At the 2002 Commonwealth Games in Manchester, England, Thorpe uncorked a time in the 400 freestyle that could easily remain the world record. Thorpe’s swim of 3:40.08 is just .01 off the world record in the event, and that global standard of 3:40.07 by Germany’s Paul Biedermann in 2009 was fueled by a now-banned supersuit.

With that effort, Thorpe would have won gold at the 2020 Olympics by more than three seconds, proof of the swim’s ahead-of-its-time status. In interviews, Thorpe has admitted regret about the performance, stating that he conserved some energy during the race to ensure he remained fresh for the duration of the Commonwealth Games.

Michael Phelps – 400 I.M. (2008) – 4:03.84

michael-phelps-

Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

With 28 Olympic medals to his name, Michael Phelps is the easy choice as the greatest swimmer in history, and his lone remaining world record was a lock for inclusion. At the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, where Phelps collected a record eight gold medals, he started his march toward history in style with a victory and world mark in the 400 individual medley. When Phelps touched the wall in 4:03.84, it was clear a special week awaited.

Thirteen years later, Phelps’ record has not been sniffed, the closest challenge the 4:05.18 from Ryan Lochte at the 2012 Olympics in London. Because Phelps excelled at all strokes, it is appropriate for this record to be featured, and there is no indication that it will disappear at any point in the near future. At the 2020 Olympics, gold was won by Chase Kalisz in 4:09.42, more than five seconds slower than Phelps’ opening shot at the Water Cube.

Adam Peaty – 100 Breaststroke (2019) – 56.88

Jul 24, 2021; Tokyo, Japan; Adam Peaty (GBR) during the men's 100m breaststroke heats during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Summer Games at Tokyo Aquatics Centre. Mandatory Credit: Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Network - Olympic Swimming

Photo Courtesy: Robert Hanashiro — USA Today Sports

There have been 21 sub-58 performances in the history of the 100 breaststroke. Great Britain’s Adam Peaty has accounted for 19. There has been one sub-57 mark, and it was the 56.88 that Peaty popped to win gold at the 2019 World Championships. The closest anyone has come to Peaty’s world record, other than Peaty himself, was the 57.80 of Dutchman Arno Kamminga at the 2020 Olympics.

Peaty has raced in his own pool for the majority of his career, the clock serving as his biggest foe. When the British star dipped under 57 seconds at the World Champs, he took the event to a place that – at one time – was considered impossible to visit. But Peaty and longtime coach Mel Marshall had established Project 57, and all it took to achieve history was an athlete-coach partnership based on belief.

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

13 comments

  1. avatar
    Kim

    Egerszegi: 2.06 in the 200 back (1991) and Darnyi: 1.59.36 (1991) should have made the list. However they are not from the anglo-speaking part of the World.

    • avatar
      John Lohn - Editor-in-Chief

      Both of those records are superb! Thanks for speaking up for them.

  2. avatar
    HE

    Also Federica Pellegrini 200 free. It has been up there for a while regardless of swimsuit.

  3. avatar
    John

    W 200 fly 2:01.81
    and Ulrike Tauber knocking 6 seconds off the 400 IM WR in 1976 even though 4 secs had been taken off it a month earlier.

    • avatar
      JVW

      You’re seriously going to suggest an East German women’s world record from the doping era?

    • avatar
      Ted Soltys

      Impressive swims clouded by doping allegations

  4. avatar
    Uwe Böbs

    Penny Heyns, the South African breaststroker should undoubtedly be on the list.
    Still the only woman in history to have managed the breaststroke double, Champion in 100m ánd 200m breaststroke at the Olympics (Atlanta 1996).
    She held 5 out of the possible 6 breaststroke world records, a feat no-one in history has yet achieved again, and at her peak broke 11 world records in three months.
    Coming from a less fancied swimming nation, she blasted the breaststroke fields which has not been seen since. Her world records also lasted a decade plus.

  5. avatar
    Kurt W

    David Wilke 200 breast. 2:15.11 set in 76 stood for 6 yrs. U of Miami Hurricane.

  6. avatar
    Rules apply for everyone

    You said Thorpe‘s record was erased by a supersuited Biedermann.

    Well, Phelps‘ record is also rubberized. The real WR is 4:05 from the legend Ryan Lochte.

    Do supersuits only help foreigners and not Americans or what?

    Next time, please learn not to be biased.

    PS: Peirsol record is also fueled by the rubber suit.

    • avatar
      Paolo

      The career of everyone speaks loud. Useless considers every supersuited performance equal.
      PS 2009 100% poly suits, like that Biedermann’s used at Worlds2009, were far more efficient that 2008 50% poly suits, like that Phelps used at Olympics 2008.

  7. avatar
    Mark J

    Thank you, Kurt W
    You beat me to it; totally agree with the David Wilkie 200 Breast from 1976

  8. avatar
    David Abineri

    Let’s not forget about Shane Gould whose accomplishments will probably NEVER be repeated. Shane Gould is the only person, male or female, to hold EVERY world freestyle record from 100 meters to 1500 meters and the 200-meter individual medley world record simultaneously, which she did from 12 December 1971 to 1 September 1972. She is the first female swimmer ever to win three Olympic gold medals in world record time, and the first swimmer, male or female, to win Olympic medals in five individual events in a single Olympics. She is also the only Australian to win three individual gold medals at a single Olympics

  9. avatar
    Robert Boni

    Makes me feel proud to have been a small cog in the world of swimming to read about these champions.

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