Roger Bannister’s Historic Feat Compares to Alan Ford’s 100 Free Barrier-Breaker

Alan Ford with his coach, Bob Kiphuth ISHOF Archive

By Bruce Wigo.

In remembering Roger Bannister, the first man to break the elusive 4-minute barrier in the mile run, I’ve been asked for a comparable feat in the world of swimming. But first, we might examine Bannister’s accomplishment. The first official record time for the mile was when Londoner Charles Westhall ran the distance in 4 minutes 28 seconds in 1855.  It took runners NINETY-NINE YEARS! to drop a mere 28 seconds — and a four minute mile remains respectable run.

It’s hard to compare running to swimming, where records are ephemeral because of the incredible advances in technique, starts, turns and training that have taken place over the last hundred years.  Take for example the first official world record for the 1500 meters (metric mile) freestyle, set by another Brit, Henry Taylor, at the 1908 Olympic Games in a time 22 minutes and 48 seconds.

The 22 minute barrier was cracked in 1923, Murray Rose swam through the 17 minute barrier in 1957, and Vladimir Salnikov was first under 15 minutes in 1980 — a mark Katie Ledecky has a reasonable chance of breaking, and if not her, it will fall! Every new record set creates a new target to shoot for, so in this sense, swimming and running are quite different.

While Janet Evans and Mary T. Meagher’s records and swims were incredibly durable, there is only one mark historically comparable to Bannister’s in the eyes of the public – the record for the 100 Yards freestyle. That’s because the “unbeatable” record was set by Johnny Weissmuller, the 1924 and 1928 Olympic Champion who was viewed as one of the greatest athletes of the so called Golden Age of Sport.

From 1923 to 1927, the man known as the “Human Fish,” took the record in the century swim from :54.2 to :51.0 seconds flat.  Over the next 15 years, the mark was tied by four different swimmers, but not broken. His record was viewed as unbeatable. So, when Yale freshman, Alan Ford, swam :50.7 in February of 1943, and broke the 50 second barrier with a time of :49.7, the next year, he became a national hero. His time would survive until 1952.

Now Caeleb Dressel and others are on the verge of breaking the :40 second barrier for the same event. A barrier unfathomable in the era of Johnny Weissmuller and Alan Ford.

Today, we expect records in every stroke and every event to be broken.  Perhaps when or if we ever reach a point when records start lasting longer than a few weeks or years, we will see a record in the same light as the magical 4-minute mile or the 50 second barrier in the 100-yard free.

Ford breaks record

Photo Courtesy: ISHOF Archive



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  2. avatar

    If they only had goggles.

  3. avatar

    Love these historical articles … but let’s keep factual comments straight.

    In 1956, Murray Rose swam the first 1500 LCM under 18 minutes (not 17) at 17:59.5 on Oct. 30, 1956. And with some other folks breaking the record between his marks, he lowered the bar to 17:01.8 on Aug. 2, 1964, but he didn’t break 17.

    That honor fell to one of the most outstanding, but less remembered, swimmers in U.S. history. Roy Saari swam 16:58.7 at the 1964 US Olympic Trials. Saari went 9 for 9 in NCAA Championships swimming for USC, but despite his 1500 world record, the only Olympic Gold he gathered was in the 4 x 200 Free Relay.

    The first under 16 minutes was John Kinsella, at the 1970 US Nationals in Los Angeles in 15:57.10. It took only 6 years to cover that “minute” of improvement

    The next minute (actually :54.5 seconds) was almost as quick with Brian Goodell lowering the mark to 15:02.40 just 6 years later. In the 40 years since Goodell’s mark, it has come down barely over 30 seconds.

  4. avatar
    Bruce Wigo

    Thanks Dunc1952, it was my mistake re: 18 not 17. My intent was not to give a history of the 1500, but some background reference to Bannister. Thanks for the great history of the 1500 progression.

Author: Daniel D'Addona

Dan D'Addona is the lead college swim writer for Swimming World. He has covered swimming at all levels since 2003, including the NCAA championships, USA nationals, Duel in the Pool and Olympic trials. He is a native of Ann Arbor, Michigan, and a graduate of Central Michigan University. He currently lives in Holland, Michigan, where he also is the Sports Editor at The Holland Sentinel.

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