Who Is The Second-Best All-Around Male Swimmer Of All Time?

Guest editorial by John Craig

PHOENIX, Arizona, September 2. AFTER Ryan Lochte's summer season, the question arises, who is the second-greatest al- around swimmer of all time? Bear in mind, the emphasis here is on all around. Mark Spitz, until recently considered the best male swimmer of all time, is obviously still the second-best swimmer.

Most lists of all-time greats put the primary emphasis on Olympic glory. For purposes of this discussion we'll count that, but not give it the same primacy it normally gets. Rather, the criteria are, how many strokes and what range of distances was the swimmer world class at, what was his longevity as a world class competitor, how many records did he break, and finally, how much difference was there between his events?

This last criterion is one not normally considered, but would take into account unexpected range. For instance, we've seen swimmers win the 50 free, 100 free, and 100 fly at the NCAAs. And we've seen swimmers win the 500, 400 IM, and 1650. But we've never seen a swimmer win the 50 free, 100 breast, and 1650. Even though such a swimmer would have won no more events, his achievement could arguably be considered more impressive simply by virtue of his greater range.

After Michael Phelps, which swimmer has shown the most strength across the widest range of events? The candidates would include Spitz, Lochte, Gary Hall Sr., Ian Thorpe, Michael Gross and Tamas Darnyi. (This article is going to exclude swimmers from the first half of the twentieth century just because it's so hard to make comparisons going that far back; swimming was almost a different sport then.)

Spitz set more than thirty world records in two strokes, at distances ranging from 100 to 400 meters. Early in his career he barely missed a world record in the 1500. But he never really explored his range the way he might have. In his junior year in high school he set an American record in the 200 IM, but never swam the event at a big long course meet. At Olympic training camp in 1972 Spitz beat all the American backstrokers while leading off an exhibition medley relay – but never pursued that stroke seriously either. Part of the reason for this is that his competition schedule wouldn't have allowed it. (This is basically the same reason Phelps has never pursued the backstroke as seriously as he might have – because there's only one of him.) Plus, in Spitz's day it would have been almost embarrassing to swim much past college – it just wasn't done back then. So he quit at 22, leaving the rest of us to wonder what might have been. Still, world records in five different events show amazing range.

Ian Thorpe swam a 2:00+ for the 200 fly as a 16 year old, at around the same time he was going a 3:46 for the 400 free. Had he pursued the 200 fly, he might have made a serious run at the world record, then at 1:55+. Thorpe also went a 100 back in 55+ at one point, but never really pursued that, either. He did try his hand at the IM, but waited until '03 to do it at a major meet, the world championships in Barcelona. He went a 1:59+, a creditable swim, but that was the summer Phelps not only became the first man to break 1:58, but took the record all the way down to 1:55.9. At Thorpe's peak, in '01, he set the WR in the 800, in his one serious attempt at that; but then he never went beyond 400 meters again. His overall performance at the World Championships in Fukuoka was probably the most dominating performance by a male swimmer since Spitz in '72. And he did win a bronze at the 100 free in Athens. But he didn't show quite enough versatility to be a contender for this title.

Michael Gross set world records in the 200 and 400 free, and 100 and 200 fly (only one less event than Spitz). He won a total of three individual golds at two Olympics. He was unquestionably one of the all-time greats, but because he stuck exclusively to those four events, he's not quite a contender for this particular title either.

If all-around greatness is measured by ability at the IM, then Tamas Darnyi is, apart from Phelps, unquestionably the best IM swimmer of all time. He is in fact actually tied with Phelps in terms of Olympic IM gold (but loses to him in number of world records). The only other men to pull off the double-double (which Darnyi did in '88 and '92) are Roland Matthes, Alexander Popov, and Kosuke Kitajima. (Phelps, of course, pulled off a double quadruple.) But apart from one bronze medal in the 200 fly at the world championships, Darnyi didn't really pursue other events. The IM is the ultimate measure of all-around swimming ability, but someone who just sticks to the IM and does little else is not necessarily the best all-around swimmer.

Gary Hall Sr. is a strong contender for best all-around. His career spanned three Olympiads, from 1968 to 1976, and he won individual medals at all three, though he never won gold. He set numerous world records in both IMs, and also set a WR in the 200 fly in 1970. At his peak, in 1970, he was roughly seven seconds ahead of the second best 400 IMer in the world. Any international comparisons of the best swimmers should exclude short course yards swims, but Hall's most impressive accomplishments may have been in yards. At one point, in the spring of 1971, he had the American records in the 200 yard IM, fly, and backstroke, as well as the fastest time on record in the 200 free, a relay leg of 1:38.3, (Spitz's listed AR at the time was 1:39.5). Hall's biggest weakness was breaststroke, but he was so good in the other strokes that he could afford this one weakness. (In later eras, the top IMer wouldn't have been able to afford such a weakness.)

Finally, we come to the current candidate, Ryan Lochte. Lochte has one individual Olympic gold medal to his credit and three individual world championship titles. But he hit his peak this year, with world number one rankings (so far) in four events: both IMs, and the 200 free and back. He also seems to run into the Phelps problem (i.e, there's only one of him) otherwise he might have challenged for the top spot in the 200 fly. So far, Lochte has set two individual long course world records, far less than some of the others mentioned here, but the comparison is a little unfair because he is hitting his peak in the first post-tech suit year, so that number would probably be higher had tech suits never been allowed (or were they still allowed).

The most impressive thing about Lochte is his range: there has never been another top-ranked 400 IMer (besides Phelps) who was also a world-class sprinter. (Lochte is ranked #22 in the 100 free with a 48.8, only.7 off the leading time.) Again, yards comparisons are semi-moot here, but at the 2007 US Open championships in December, Lochte won both the 50 free and 400 IM, a never-before-seen combination. There also has never been another swimmer – beside Phelps – who held the world number one ranking in three separate 200 meter events. (The year is not over, but at this point it seems unlikely that any of those times will be toppled at the Commonwealth Games.) And Lochte, like Phelps, is a world class breaststroker. Both men have swum early season 100 LCM breasts in 1:02+, and both have swum the 100 yard breaststroke in 53+. That may be the rarest combo of all: world class breaststrokers are rarely world class at other strokes, and vice versa.

Who wins? There's no easy pick here; Spitz, Darnyi, Hall, and Lochte all have legitimate claims. But this writer picks Lochte, based on his versatility and lack of weaknesses. But it's a close call.

John Craig's (nonswimming) blog is justnotsaid.blogspot.com.