The Top 10 Performances of 2022: David Popovici Knocks Off 13-Year-Old World Record

David Popovici -- Photo Courtesy: Andrea Staccioli / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

The Top 10 Performances of 2022: David Popovici Knocks Off 13-Year-Old World Record

A packed calendar of long course international racing in 2022 provided plenty of opportunities for the world’s best swimmers to unleash quick performances, and they did exactly that. Six long course world records were broken this year between various domestic-level meets, the FINA World Championships, the Commonwealth Games and the European Championships. Within this list, we will rank the 10 best performances of the year with a heavy focus on long course meters, the premier format for pool racing. Each swimmer is only eligible to appear on this list once, and those earning spots range from 25-year-old veteran Katie Ledecky to a man who broke a world record before turning 18.

1: David Popovici, Romania — 100 Freestyle — European Championships (46.86 WR)

Despite having plenty of elite performances to choose from, David Popovici’s resounding effort in the blue-ribbon event was an obvious choice for the No. 1 spot on this list. That’s because this Romanian teenager was only 17 as he knocked off Brazil’s Cesar Cielo’s 100 free world record of 46.91, a mark set back in the polyurethane suit era of 2009. The 13-year-old mark was threatened, but not beaten—even with swimmers like Caeleb Dressel and Kyle Chalmers in the mix.

No, it was Popovici—who burst onto the scene in the months before the Tokyo Olympics, but just missed winning a medal—who got the job done. He won the 200 free and 100 free in dominant fashion at the World Championships in Budapest in June, and he returned to top form at the European Championships in Rome in mid-August. There, he swam a mark of 46.98 in the semifinals, just seven hundredths off Cielo’s mark, and one day later, he got down to 46.86 for the new record. Popovici does not overwhelm his competition on the opening length, but his finishing speed is unrivaled by any other swimmer in history.

And if Popovici had not made the list for his 100 free, his performances in the 200 free surely would have made the cut. Popovici swam as fast as 1:42.97 this year, joining only Paul Biedermann and Michael Phelps in the sub-1:43 club. No swimmer had gone under 1:44 in a decade, and now, Popovici has put himself within striking distance of another legendary record from the tech suit era, Biedermann’s 1:42.00.

2: Ariarne Titmus, Australia — 400 Freestyle — Australian National Championships (3:56.40 WR)

CG22 Ariarne Titmus Gold 400m free Photo Delly Carr

Ariarne Titmus — Photo Courtesy: Delly Carr

For the first time ever, a swimmer broke a Katie Ledecky world record. Ariarne Titmus had already notched a pair of head-to-head wins over Ledecky in the biggest moments, first at the 2019 World Championships in surreal, come-from-behind fashion, and then again at the 2021 Olympics, as the two engaged in one of the all-time great showdowns: Ledecky had swum the second-best mark of her career, but it was not enough to stop this Australian from claiming Olympic gold.

This year, Titmus and Ledecky did not meet for a rematch, with Titmus opting out of the World Championships, but at Australia’s national championships in May, Titmus willed her way under Ledecky’s world record, the 3:56.46 that had been so far ahead of its time when the American swam that mark at the 2016 Olympics. Ledecky broke the world record by almost two seconds that day, and Titmus spent years inching closer and closer to the mark until she finally achieved it. Titmus was under world-record pace for most of the race, and she held on to touch in 3:56.40, six hundredths under Ledecky’s previous mark.

3: Thomas Ceccon, Italy — 100 Backstroke — World Championships (51.60 WR)

A virtual unknown prior to the Tokyo Olympics, Thomas Ceccon made his presence felt quickly on the biggest stage when he finished fourth in the 100 back final, a tenth away from bronze, and won two relay medals with his Italian teammates. The arrow was pointing up for Ceccon, and there was little doubt he had the talent to grow into a consistent international presence, but it took less than a year for Ceccon to become the fastest 100 backstroker ever.

And not by a little bit!

In his first individual World Championships final, Ceccon flipped just behind American world-record holder Ryan Murphy at the 50-meter mark, but then he posted the quickest back-half split ever (26.46), annihilating the field. The 21-year-old finished in 51.60 to beat Murphy’s six-year-old record by a quarter-second. Murphy took silver in 51.97, one of the fastest times of his career, but he could only acknowledge the stellar effort by his Italian rival.

Prior to Ceccon’s performance, the men’s 100 back world record had belonged to American swimmers almost exclusively since 1976. The only non-American record breakers during that time were the Soviet Union’s Igor Polyansky, who held the record for five months in 1988, and Spain’s Aschwin Wildeboer, who owned the mark for a week in 2009 before Aaron Peirsol reclaimed it. Other than that, the record spent 46 years in U.S. hands, but now it’s Ceccon who is king of the two-lap backstroke sprint.

4: Kristof Milak, Hungary — 200 Butterfly — World Championships (1:50.34 WR)


Kristof Milak — Photo Courtesy: Giorgio Scala / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

In June, Kristof Milak provided a special moment for his home nation by producing the fastest 200 butterfly performance ever as the fans in Budapest roared. Milak entered the World Championships as one of the strongest favorites in any event after breaking Michael Phelps’ 200 fly world record in 2019 and then winning Olympic gold one year later. The question was whether Milak could become the first swimmer ever under 1:50 in the event.

Almost, but not quite.

Spurred on by the crowd, Milak was out in 51.89 at the halfway point, almost a second under his own world record pace, and he was more than a second beneath the pace with 50 meters to go. His closest competition was already almost three seconds behind. Milak would tighten up on the final length, but he still knocked more than three tenths off his previous record. The 22-year-old would go on to complete the butterfly double in Budapest with a gold in the 100 fly, and he added three gold medals and two silvers at the European Championships.

5: Zac Stubblety-Cook, Australia — 200 Breaststroke — Australian National Championships (2:05.95 WR)

There can be no debate now that Zac Stubblety-Cook is the world’s premier 200 breaststroker. He arrived at his first Olympic Games last year among the favorites, but as his rivals faltered, he surged. In 2022, Stubblety-Cook sustained that momentum as he crushed the field by more than a second at the World Championships with a 2:07.07 to secure his first world title. But months earlier at the Australian Championships in May, Stubblety-Cook had become the first man in history to go under 2:06 in the 200 breaststroke, clocking 2:05.95 to break Anton Chupkov’s world record (2:06.12 at the 2019 World Championships).

Chupkov was known for his incredible closing speed when he set the global mark, so when Stubblety-Cook fell slightly behind the Russian’s pace with 50 meters to go, the chance of a special record appeared slim. But the 23-year-old Aussie put in a 31.63 closing split to get the job done and take the 200 breast to never-before-seen heights.

6: Leon Marchand, France — 400 Individual Medley — World Championships (4:04.28)

During his first season racing in the United States at Arizona State University, Leon Marchand transformed from an Olympic finalist-level swimmer to the world’s dominant individual medley performer. Marchand hinted at his ridiculous potential at the NCAA Championships, when he won a pair of national titles while swimming the fastest time ever in the 200-yard IM. Then, on the first day of the Budapest World Championships, Marchand put a real scare into the only surviving Michael Phelps world record.

At the halfway point of the 400 IM final, Marchand trailed American Carson Foster by a half-second, but then he split 1:07.28 over 100 meters of breaststroke—by far the quickest split ever recorded—to put himself under Phelps’ pace from the 2008 Olympics by more than a second.

However, Marchand is not at the same level of Phelps as a freestyler, and he would fall off the pace, but his final time was a shocking 4:04.28, the second-quickest mark ever—and his lifetime best by five seconds! With that swim, Marchand joined Phelps as the only swimmer ever to break 4:05, and he officially stamped his golden status with a second world title in the 200 IM four days later.

7: Summer McIntosh, Canada — 400 Individual Medley — Commonwealth Games (4:29.01)/U.S. Open (4:28.61)


Summer McIntosh — Photo Courtesy: Swimming Canada/Ian MacNicol

Hyped as a future star when she narrowly missed out on a medal at the Tokyo Olympics, Summer McIntosh established herself among the world’s most elite swimmers in 2022 before reaching her 16th birthday (Aug. 18). Her record of success this year was simply astounding: two gold medals plus a silver and a bronze at the World Championships in June, then six medals, including two gold, at the Commonwealth Games in late July/early August. She now has joined Ariarne Titmus and Katie Ledecky as the only swimmers under 4:00 in a textile suit in the 400 free, and she became world champion in the 200 butterfly.

But the most astounding performance by McIntosh came in the 400 IM at the Commonwealth Games, where she became the third-fastest performer in history, her time of 4:29.01 ranking behind only Olympic champions Katinka Hosszu and Ye Shiwen. McIntosh was not pushed in the race, winning gold by almost eight seconds. Four months later, McIntosh delivered an even quicker time at the U.S. Open in Greensboro, N.C., as she joined Hosszu and Ye under 4:29 with her time of 4:28.61. McIntosh had even less serious competition in this race as she won by more than 13 seconds. Her versatility, speed and endurance has put one of the toughest world records in swimming on alert for upcoming years.

8: Katie Ledecky, USA — 800 Freestyle —World Championships (8:08.04)

In the distance freestyle events, Katie Ledecky has created an impossible standard to match for any swimmer, especially herself. The 800 free is the event where Ledecky began her career with a stunning Olympic gold medal as a 15-year-old in 2012, and she is undefeated over 16 lengths of the pool in the decade since.

This year, Ledecky became the first swimmer in history to capture five consecutive world titles in one event, as she won gold in the 800 free by more than 10 seconds over Australia’s Kiah Melverton.

Ledecky never seriously threatened her world record, the otherworldly 8:04.79 from the 2016 Olympics, but she did swim her fastest time in more than four years and the fifth-fastest mark in history at 8:08.04. As Ariarne Titmus bolstered her own status as history’s No. 2 performer this year, she still sits five-and-a-half seconds adrift of the ever-dominant American, who owns the top 27 performances all-time. Meanwhile, it was another magnificent performance at the World Championships for Ledecky as she swept gold medals in the 400, 800 and 1500 free for the fourth time in her career.

9: Gregorio Paltrinieri, Italy — 1500 Freestyle — World Championships (14:32.80)

Gregorio Paltrinieri of Italy celebrates after winning the gold medal in the 800m Freestyle Men Final during the FINA Swimming Short Course World Championships at the Melbourne Sports and Aquatic Centre in Melbourne, Australia, December 17th, 2022. Photo Giorgio Scala / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

Gregorio Paltrinieri — Photo Courtesy: Giorgio Scala / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

Gregorio Paltrinieri was counted out. After missing the medal podium at the World Championships in the 800 free and barely qualifying for the 1500 free final as the seventh-fastest swimmer in prelims, his chances of winning a medal seemed low.

But this Italian who first won a world title in the 30-lap race in 2015 was up for the challenge. With the focus on reigning world champion Florian Wellbrock and Olympic gold medalist Bobby Finke, Paltrinieri chose to attack the race from the start, and he built up a lead that extended to over six seconds. He never looked back.

Paltrinieri was actually under Sun Yang’s 2012 world-record pace for most of the race, and although he could not quite keep pace with Sun Yang’s finishing speed when he set the record of 14:31.02 at the 2012 London Olympics, Paltrinieri finished in a time of 14:32.80, the second-fastest mark in history and under his previous European record of 14:33.10. The gold medal was Paltrinieri’s fourth win in the 1500 free at a global-level competition, but his first in five years.

10-Tie: Alex Walsh, USA — 200 Individual Medley — World Championships (2:07.13)

10-Tie: Torri Huske, USA — 100 Butterfly — World Championships (55.64)

The last spot on this list goes to a pair of Americans who made their Olympic debuts with fine performances in 2021, but leveled-up to gold-medal status in 2022.

Torri Huske missed the Tokyo podium in the 100 fly by one hundredth, but with her top rivals either absent or struggling this year, Huske took full advantage, as she surged to an American record (55.64) and a world title by a half-second.

Alex Walsh, meanwhile, finished with a silver medal in the 200 IM Olympic final, barely behind Japan’s Yui Ohashi, but the World Championships final was a one-woman show. Walsh turned in the fastest splits in the final on butterfly, backstroke and breaststroke, winning the title by almost a second-and-a-half, her mark of 2:07.13 making her the fifth-fastest performer ever in the event.

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1 year ago

Great job, David. Great list, with the top five all world records. But…

In ranking these swims you seem to have almost put the a subjective value of the event above the objective value of the performance. (100 LCM Freestyle as the “…blue ribbon event…” making it and “obvious” choice for swim of the year). “Subjective” is always an appropriate journalistic basis for issue analysis, but for non-fast twitchers everywhere, I must lodge a degree of protest. I speak out on behalf of swim nerds everywhere supporting a more “Objective” evaluation. Two matters you mention which I agree merit some degree of consideration are the fact that Popovici was dealing with a super-suit record, and also that he was, by the calendar, a boy in a true “man’s” event. But note that Milak also has a next closest competitor in a super-suit. The level of importance to allocate to these issues is justly a subjective, but here worthy, exercise, of course.

To value the quality of a performance of the year, my arguably more objective criterion would be to rationally compare the new record not against the previous swims of the current record holder but against the next best all-time performer. (total seconds of swim #1 / total seconds of swim #2; the lower the calculated ratio reflecting the relatively superior performance, here rounded to 4 places).

Popovici 100 free LCM – 46.86 / 46.91 (Cielo, 2009) = 0.9989
Titmus 400 free LCM – 236.40 / 236.46 (Ledecky, 2016) = 0.9997
Ceccon 100 Back LCM – 51.60 / 51.85 (Murphy, 2016) = 0.9952
Milak 200 Fly LCM – 110.34 / 111.51 (Phelps, 2009) = 0.9895
Stubblety-Cook 200 Brst LCM- 125.95 / 126.12 (Chupkov, 2019) = 0.9987

On this basis we re-order the 2022 world record rankings as follows:

Milak 200 Fly LCM – 110.34 / 111.51 (Phelps, 2009) = 0.9895
Ceccon 100 Back LCM – 51.60 / 51.85 (Murphy, 2016) = 0.9952
Stubblety-Cook 200 Brst LCM- 125.95 / 126.12 (Chupkov, 2019) = 0.9987
Popovici 100 free LCM – 46.86 / 46.91 (Cielo, 2009) = 0.9989
Titmus 400 free LCM – 236.40 / 236.46 (Ledecky, 2016) = 0.9997

As Ledecky holds multiple positions on the top of the all-time list in the 800 and 1500, it is also reasonable to consider analysis of her year’s best against the #2 all-time performer in considering the outstanding performance of 2022.

Ledecky 800 LCM, 2022 488.04 / 493.59 (Titmus, 2022) = 0.9888
Ledecky 1500 LCM, 2022 930.15 / 938.88 (Friis, 2013) = 0.9907

One could fairly argue that measured against the rest of the world all-time, Ledecky’s 2022 800 LCM and 1500 LCM were the best and third best performances of 2022, with Milak landing between them and serving as the male performance of the year.

Then if you wanted one last tweak to consider, redo the calculations for Popovici and Milak against the all-time best non-suit year (2008, 2009) performances:

Milak 200 Fly LCM – 110.34 / 112.09 (Phelps, 2007) = 0.9844
Popovici 100 free LCM – 46.86 / 46.96 (Dressel, 2019) = 0.9979

With this effort to eliminate the supersuit effect, Milak now has the overall swim of 2022, even surpassing Ledecky’s 800 LCM. And Popovici moves ahead of Stubblety-Cook by the barest of margins.

Milak!! Milak, 2022 King!! Yeah, to all 200 Flyers, with lesser fast twitch ratios!!

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