Sarah Sjostrom Throwback Thursday: When A 15-Year-Old Girl Broke Her First World Record in 2009 (Video)

Sarah Sjostrom of Sweden celebrates after setting a new world record in the women's 100m butterfly final at the World Championships in Rome July 27, 2009. REUTERS/Alessandro Bianchi (ITALY SPORT SWIMMING IMAGES OF THE DAY)
Sarah Sjostrom of Sweden celebrates after setting a new world record in the women's 100m butterfly final at the World Championships in Rome July 27, 2009. Photo Courtesy: REUTERS/Alessandro Bianchi (Swimming World Archive)

Sarah Sjostrom Lowers World Record in 100 Fly at Age 15 in 2009

With no swimming going on for the foreseeable future, Swimming World wanted to take a trip down memory lane and re-visit some influential races in swimming history. This week’s race will be the women’s 100 butterfly at the 2009 World Championships in Rome, Italy.

Looking back, 2009 was a controversial year in swimming. After a historic 2008 in which 54 long-course world records were set thanks to the new Speedo LZR racer suit that revolutionized suit technology, other companies stepped up with suits of their own and made a mockery of the record book in 2009.

Leading into the 2009 World Championships in Rome, 15 world records were broken, thanks to the emergence of European-based tech-suits from Jaked and arena. Very few people in the swimming world knew what would happen to the record books come the World Champs in July. Over eight days, an absurd 43 World Records tumbled, sending the soaring art of pioneering crashing to the realms of ‘everyday event’.

The women’s 100 butterfly was the very first event at the Foro Italico, which was the same venue that hosted the 1994 Worlds and 1960 Olympics. The top seed was Marleen Veldhuis of the Netherlands, who was chasing the world record of 56.61 set nine years prior by fellow Dutch woman Inge de Bruijn en route to her first Olympic gold medal in Sydney 2000.

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Jessicah Schipper. Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Seeded 12th on the entries list was 15-year-old Sarah Sjostrom of Sweden, the European Champion the year before at just 14. At the Beijing Olympics in 2008, Sjostrom was 27th in the 100 butterfly and did not break 59 seconds. The disappointment of Beijing was still weighing her down leading into Rome, but she was hardly a thought coming into the meet.

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Dana Vollmer. Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

“Obviously I had high expectations because I came into a World Championships. I wanted to improve because I didn’t do very well in Beijing in my 100 fly,” Sjostrom told Swimming World in June 2019. “I really wanted to improve and show that my gold medal from the European Champs was not just a one-time thing. I wanted to improve and come back and show what I can do.”

The top seeds coming into the meet were Veldhuis, Australia’s Jessicah Schipper and USA’s Christine Magnuson. Without reigning Olympic champion Libby Trickett in the field, the gold medal was up for grabs.

Swimming in the first seeded heat, Sjostrom swam the fastest time in the heats with a 56.76, breaking the championships record of 57.15 set in 2007 by Trickett. That swim turned some heads, but she was just getting started.

No one really knew what to make of Sjostrom’s heat swim. But in the semifinal, she lowered de Bruijn’s nine-year-old world record with a 56.44. All of a sudden, the 15-year-old was the fastest of all-time, taking down the oldest world record in the process.

Leading into the final, Sarah Sjostrom was suddenly a heavy favorite ahead of reigning Olympic bronze medalist Schipper and American Dana Vollmer.

“I didn’t even think I could take a medal. I was surprised I even made the final,” Sjostrom said of her expectations heading into the final.

“I broke the world record in the semi final so it was definitely over my expectations because if I expected results like that then the pressure on me would have been too high.”

The Race

Lane Assignments, seed time:

  1. Gabriella Silva, BRA, 57.42
  2. Jiao Liuyang, CHN, 57.25
  3. Dana Vollmer, USA, 57.19
  4. Sarah Sjostrom, SWE, 56.44
  5. Jessicah Schipper, AUS, 57.08
  6. Ingvild Snildal, NOR, 57.20
  7. Aurore Mongel, FRA, 57.39
  8. Marleen Veldhuis, NED, 57.56

“I remember there was a lot of focus on the suit,” Sarah Sjostrom recalls of the final.

“I was mostly worried that I would maybe rip my suit before the race. … Otherwise I remember I was super nervous because I had broke the world record in the semifinals so I felt like I had a lot of pressure coming into the final. I wanted to improve and I knew there was a lot of pressure to handle.”

Sjostrom wore the controversial arena X-Glide, which was banned by FINA starting January 1, 2010 along with all other polyurethane suits.

In the final, Sjostrom lined up in lane 4 between Vollmer and Schipper. Veldhuis, the world No. 1 before the championships, was in lane eight, and the reigning Olympic silver medalist in the 200 fly, Jiao Liuyang of China, was in lane 2.

“It was my first World Champs,” Sjostrom said. “I went to the Olympics in 2008 so I still had the experience from that and I won the European Championships in 2008. It was not my first international final, but World Champs is different from Europeans. I didn’t swim an individual final in Beijing so it was really big step definitely.”

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Sarah Sjostrom celebrating with a lane-line sit. Photo Courtesy: Swimming World Archive/Reuters

The race unfolded with the outside lanes taking it out. Brazil’s Gabriella Silva in lane 1 was the leader at the 50, Schipper was second and Jiao third. At this point, it looked like Schipper and Jiao would battle it out for gold by virtue of both of their backgrounds in the 200. Sjostrom turned seventh at the 50, and all eight swimmers were under her world record pace.

But Sjostrom ran everyone down, showing the patience and poise of a seasoned veteran, and out-touched Schipper at the wall. In the process, she lowered her world record again, to 56.06, while Schipper won silver at 56.23. Jiao took bronze in 56.86.

The top two were under the world record coming into the meet, which was a common theme at those championships. All in all, Sjostrom broke two of the 42 world records that were set in Rome.

“I was so shocked – I didn’t know how to react when I finished the race,” Sarah Sjostrom said ten years on. “You can see when you watch the race again my reaction is just disbelief in what just happened.”

Vollmer broke the American record, the first American to break 57 seconds in 56.94, but she tied for fifth with Silva. Every swimmer broke their national record in the final except for Veldhuis.

Results:

1. Sarah Sjostrom, SWE, 56.06, WR
2. Jessicah Schipper, AUS, 56.23
3. Jiao Liuyang, CHN, 56.86
4. Aurore Mongel, FRA, 56.89
T-5. Gabriella Silva, BRA, 56.94
T-5. Dana Vollmer, USA, 56.94
7. Ingvild Snildal, NOR, 56.96
8. Marleen Veldhuis, NED, 57.79

Aftermath

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Sarah Sjostrom after winning gold and setting a world record in the 100 butterfly in 2016. Photo Courtesy: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports

It took Sarah Sjostrom six years after the Rome Worlds to achieve a best time in the 100 butterfly, when she finally broke 56 seconds in 2015 with a 55.64. She lost her world record in 2012 at the London Olympics when Vollmer became the first woman under 56 with a 55.98, with Sjostrom finishing fourth in the final. During this time when she struggled to get back to her 2009 form, Sjostrom worked a lot on her freestyle, and she is now a world record holder in the 50 & 100 freestyle.

“I had a rough time but I always felt like I had something to work on all the time,” Sjostrom said. “After that meet I started to work more on my freestyle because I felt like I needed to improve something when I didn’t improve my 100 fly for a while.”

Sjostrom got back to the top of the podium in 2013, winning the World title in Barcelona. It was the start of three consecutive world titles in the event (2013, 2015 and 2017). She solidified her legacy in 2016 when she won the 100 fly gold medal with a world record of 55.48.

Ten years after her incredible swim in Rome, she lost for the first time in five years at the 2019 Worlds when she was upstaged by Canadian Maggie MacNeil.

Today, roughly 12 years after she became a superstar at age 15, Sjostrom has a chance to defend her 100 ‘fly gold medal at the 2021 Olympic Games. In doing so, she would be the first woman ever to do so in the event, after having become the first Swedish woman ever to claim Olympic gold in the pool. Another pioneering moment would simply add to her already impressive legacy, which got underway when she claimed the European title over 100m butterfly aged just 14 in Eindhoven, a year before her first World record at 15 in 2009.

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