Matt Richards Becomes First Athlete to Hit Historic 21/47/1:44 Freestyle Triple

Matt Richards -- Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Matt Richards Becomes the First to Hit Historic 21/47/1:44 Freestyle Triple

At the 2000 Olympics, the Netherlands’ Pieter van den Hoogenband stole the show from hometown Australian favorite Ian Thorpe by capturing upset gold in the 200 freestyle, and one day later, he became the first man ever under 48 in the 100 free in the event’s semifinals before coming from behind to win Olympic gold in the final. Van den Hoogenband was in pursuit of a third individual gold medal, which only Mark Spitz had accomplished at a single Olympics, but he came up just short in the 50 free, his time of 22.03 leaving him five hundredths behind co-gold medalists Gary Hall Jr. and Anthony Ervin.

In the remainder of his excellent career, the Dutchman would never swim a faster single length. Thorpe would become the first man to swim under 1:45 in the 200 free in 2001, and van den Hoogenband joined him in the 1:44 club in 2002, but he would never break 22 in the 50 free.

More swimmers would achieve 47-second 100 freestyle swims beginning in 2008, and more would hit 1:44s in the 200 free, with Michael Phelps becoming the first man under both the 1:44 and 1:43 barriers. But no one ever showed the sort of range to hit 21, 47 and 1:44 — until Sunday, when 20-year-old Briton Matt Richards completed the trifecta.

Richards had not broken any of the three barriers prior to last week’s British Championships, but in the span of four days, he went 47.72 in the 100 free, 21.98 in the 50 free and 1:44.83 in the 200 free. It’s a sign of the current era of swimming that only one of those efforts, his 200 free, is competitive international medals, and Richards actually ended up third among his countryman in both shorter races (albeit with a slower 100 free time than his prelims effort). But he holds a piece of swimming history, a small one but still noteworthy considering the many all-time greats who have never quite gotten to that level.

Among the notable names falling just short:

  • Caeleb Dressel, the 2021 Olympic champion in the 50 and 100 free. Dressel ranks third all-time in the splash-and-dash (21.04) and fourth in the 100 free (46.96), and despite plenty of evidence suggesting he could excel over 200 meters, he never got the chance to show it at a major competition. His best time remains the 1:46.63 he posted in prelims at the 2021 U.S. Olympic Trials before scratching semifinals.
  • Kyle Chalmers, the 2016 gold medalist in the 100 free and Dressel’s main rival in the event for several years, with Chalmers finishing mere hundredths behind the American at the 2019 World Championships and 2021 Olympics. Chalmers owns a best time of 47.08 in the 100 free, but he has actually never beaten either other barrier, with best times of 22.07 in the 50 and 1:45.48 in the 200.
  • Cameron McEvoy, an Australian who posted sizzling times of 21.44 in the 50 free and 47.04 in the 100 free, the latter of which remains the Australian record ahead of the likes of Olympic silver medalist Eamon Sullivan, Chalmers and two-time world champion James Magnussen. McEvoy was a frequent member of Aussie international squads for the 800 free relay, but his best-ever time in that event is 1:45.46.
  • David Popovici, the world-record holder in the 100 free at 46.86 and the only man to ever break 1:43 in a textile suit in the 200 free. The 18-year-old is likely capable of hitting a 21-second 50 after swimming a best time of 22.16 at last year’s European Junior Championships, a meet held in between his peak performances, June’s World Championships and August’s European Championships. But with Popovici currently lacking the raw speed needed to contend for a senior-level medal in the one-lapper, it’s not clear when he will show off the full range of his skills in that race.
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