Seliskar and Bentz Break Through to the Other Side in 200 IM at Junior Worlds

Commentary by Jeff Commings

PHOENIX, Arizona, August 27. BREAKING two minutes in the 200 long course individual medley is a very tough thing to do. Only 85 people in the entire world have done it in the history of the sport before today, and of those, 15 are American. Of that list of 85, 30 had done it in the rubber techsuit era in 2008 and 2009 (not discounting those swims, but simply highlighting them).

At the top of that list is Ryan Lochte’s world record of 1:54.00 from the 2011 world championships. Sitting in 85th spot is Joe Schooling with his 1:59.99 from this year’s world championships.

Two more people were added to that list today at the world junior swimming championships in the final of the event in Dubai. First to do it was Andrew Seliskar, who has been aiming for that sub-2:00 barrier all summer. In prelims today, Seliskar posted a 1:59.91 to be the top seed for finals. That time broke his own 15-16 national age group record of 2:00.21 from the junior nationals a couple of weeks ago, a swim that erased a Michael Phelps standard.

Seliskar was able to improve his time in finals, but his 1:59.84 was only good for fourth place in one of the best races of the meet so far. Yes, four men 18 years old and younger went under two minutes in the 200 IM in one race. Has that ever happened? Probably not.

Winning the race was Seliskar’s teammate Gunnar Bentz, who also had a sub-2:00 swim on his mind. Bentz, however, is 17 years old, and he has a very tough mountain to climb to reach Phelps’ 17-18 national age group record of 1:55.94. But it’s still a major milestone that was needed to get the win. Semen Makovich of Russia had already been under two minutes before this meet, putting up a 1:59.91 at the European junior championships last month. He swam faster today with a 1:59.50. In third was Japan’s Keita Sunama, who had also broken two minutes in this race. His 1:59.78 at the Japan Open stood as his lifetime best before today. Sunama was third in Dubai with a 1:59.74.

Every swimmer has found success with breaking a major barrier. Whether it’s that dreaded 1:00 barrier or even 30 seconds in the 50 freestyle for a motivated age-group or Masters swimmer, the line in the proverbial sand is what keeps swimmers going day after day, dryland workout after dryland workout. And once they cross that line, they feel tons lighter.

For five years, I had been chasing the 1:00 barrier in the 100 long course backstroke. The first time I flirted with it was in 1997 when I swam a 1:00.55. Four years later I swam a 1:00.33. I was getting closer, but as I was getting older, I wondered if I had the capacity to put together the swim of a lifetime.

In 2002, I posted a 59.86. Two years later, I got down to 59.21. I had broken through the barrier, and it seemed easy to do each year. Though I’m likely not going to get under 1:00 anymore, as my age is catching up to my ability, the opposite is true for these four teenagers now sleeping in their beds in Dubai with dreams of what is possible.

Sunama is already a force in Japanese swimming, and could break through the IM stranglehold currently held by Kosuke Hagino and Daiya Seto. Makovich is currently Russia’s top 200 IM swimmer, and though that could sound ominous for the country’s chances to be competitive internationally, it’s great that they have a possible weapon in their already-strong arsenal by the time the 2016 Olympics begins.

Bentz raced in the championship final of the 200 IM at last June’s nationals, and now that he’s gone 1:59, these appearances in finals will become more regular. As for Seliskar, the sky is the limit as well. With a 16-year-old (Seliskar) and a 17-year-old (Bentz) making big waves for the United States today, it’s obvious the 200 IM will always remain a strong event for the United States.

Props also to Canada’s Evan White for almost breaking the barrier. In second place after breaststroke, White posted a 2:00.31 for fifth place. That lowers his own age group record and makes him the second-fastest Canadian in the event this year behind Andrew Ford’s 2:00.30.

As is the case with many of the top finishers so far at world championships, the performances these five put up today are foreshadowing some great possibilities in the three years leading up to Rio.

Jeff Commings is associate producer of SwimmingWorld.TV and the host of “The Morning Swim Show.” He broke the two-minute barrier once … in the 200-yard breaststroke.