Why Have 2024 NCAA Men’s Championships Been The Fastest Ever?

ncaa men's championships
Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Why Have 2024 NCAA Men’s Championships Been The Fastest Ever?

Fans who attended the NCAA Men’s Championships during the mid-2010s might not recognize the meet in 2024. For one, the event lineup has changed, with the 800 freestyle relay and then the 200 medley relay moved to Wednesday night (through 2015, the meet did not begin until Thursday), and since the COVID-19 pandemic, all NCAA relays have been timed finals rather than the previous two-round format.

Oh, and the meet has reached levels of speed perhaps best described as mind-boggling. Every NCAA record has been broken since 2017, with only Jack Conger’s 2017 mark in the 200 butterfly and Caeleb Dressel’s trifecta of records from 2018 still holding up from pre-2020. But more astonishing is the depth of the meet: in numerous events, the times good enough to win a decade ago are no longer quick enough to even reach the A-final.

In the NCAA final of the 50 freestyle Thursday evening, Florida’s Josh Liendo got the win in 18.07, two hundredths clear of Tennessee’s Jordan Crooks, with Cal’s Jack Alexy and Notre Dame’s Chris Guiliano also under 18.5. In the entire event, 14 men broke 19, and it took a time of 18.76 to qualify for the top heat.

Arizona State swimmers Jack Dolan and Jonny Kulow were both part of that A-final mix, and Sun Devils sprint coach Herbie Behm marveled at the transformation of the splash-and-dash. He invoked a comparison to the 2013 NCAA final of the 50 free, also held in Indianapolis, where only two swimmers cracked 19 seconds.

josh-liendo-

Josh Liendo — Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Winner Vlad Morozov clocked 18.63 that night in 2013, a time which would have been eighth in the 2024 final. 2013 runnerup Marcelo Cherighini clocked 18.99, and third-place swimmer Derek Toomey went 19.18. Those times would have placed 14th and 27th, respectively, in this year’s prelims.

The 50 free is merely one out of 13 individual events being contested this week, but the pattern of improvement has been quite consistent. Not in every single event — of course the 400 IM, for instance, will be slower when Hugo Gonzalez and Carson Foster are gone from the college ranks — but most events, enough to qualify these NCAA Championships as the fastest ever.

What has changed to make swimming so much faster and deeper in the years since? Behm attributed the trend not to some amazing advances in swim training or suits or other technology but instead a circumstance of the modern world. Thanks to the internet and smartphones, so much information is available at everyone’s fingertips.

“I think the biggest reason is the mass connection of humans, basically,” Behm said. “From training ideas to technical ideas to everything, we’re getting it instantly, so we’re learning a lot faster. It’s not a lack of getting the information anymore. All the coaches really have everything they need, and the swimmers have it as well, and everybody’s learning a lot faster.”

Behm mentioned Georgia Tech sprint coach Ari Silva, a native of Brazil with whom Behm has become acquainted through online chatting. “Obviously, speaking to somebody from Brazil 10 years wouldn’t have been a common thing, but now, everybody can do it on social media,” he said. “I think we’re spreading information further and faster.”

The coach added that swimmers and coaches can easily watch races from major meets and get a high-definition look at the strategies employed by top swimmers, providing both technical ideas and inspiration. Behm contrasted the experience with his own when Auburn’s Cesar Cielo blasted a time of 18.47, then an NCAA record, in the 50 free in 2008.

“The 50 final was the fastest ever, and 10 minutes later, every high school sprinter in the country had quality underwater videos of what they’re doing,” Behm said. ” I specifically remember being in high school watching Cesar’s 18.4, filmed on the camera of somebody who sat way up in the corner. Very low quality, but I probably watched it 150 times. Now that you can actually see everything, not just a grainy video, it helps coaches and athletes work quickly.”

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Luke Hobson — Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

For another example of what Behm calls “swimflation,” take the 200 free, an event where the NCAA record has gone down three times this week thanks to Luke HobsonLeon Marchand and then Hobson again. Back in 2015, the record was Simon Burnett’s 1:31.20, a mark that had existed for nine years and survived the polyurethane suit era. At that year’s NCAA meet, USC’s Cristian Quintero and Michigan’s Anders Nielsen were the only men to break 1:33 in the final after Texas’ Clay Youngquist also did so in prelims.

One year after that, Townley Haas became the first man to go sub-1:31 in his freshman season at Texas, and the revolution of the event was on, an event long-considered middle distance becoming a sprint. Still, as recently as 2018, any performance under 1:34 was good enough for a top-16 finish. But fast-forward four years, and by 2022, it took 1:32.00 to make the A-final and 1:32.58 to qualify for the B-final.

After a marginal drop-off in 2023, look at the results from this year: six men sub-1:31 in prelims, a time of 1:31.42 for eighth place (Louisville’s Murilo Sartori) and the cutoff time for making it back to the final sitting at a stunning 1:32.15. Remember how Nielsen took second in 2015? His time from that race of 1:32.73 would have gotten him 24th this year.

How about the 100 backstroke? In 2015, two swimmers clocking 44s, 45.61 for eighth place and 46.12 for 16th. This year, 12 men swam sub-45 in prelims, tied for the most ever at an NCAA Championships. Florida freshman Jonny Marshall gaining the last A-final spot at 44.52, a time quicker than what was the American record until 2013. Texas freshman Will Modglin went 44.20 to win the B-final after his prelims mark of 44.58 somehow was not quick enough to make the championship heat.

Of course, the major improvement can be frustrating for swimmers seeking to find an opening into big races, but such is the nature of the sport. What was once good enough now has been left behind, and don’t be surprised to see this year’s times looking pedestrian by the 2030s as swimmers and coaches continue to see up close how to get faster.

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Dan
Dan
18 days ago

Great analysis

Patrick
Patrick
18 days ago

Biggest change: under waters.

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