Commentary by Andy Ross.
Many people watching the past two Division I NCAA swimming and diving championships was left wondering the same question, “how did swimming get so fast?” At the women’s meet two weeks ago, ten NCAA records fell in Indianapolis. At the men’s meet last week, eleven went down. So how did we get here?
Swimming has also seen some untouchable barriers get broken over the last couple weeks. Ally Howe finally cracked Natalie Coughlin’s 100 backstroke record with a 49.69, as Kathleen Baker joined her a couple weeks later with a sub-50 swim. Simone Manuel swam the fastest 100 free in history as she became the first woman to break 46 seconds in the event.
On the men’s side, Caeleb Dressel almost became the first swimmer to break 40 seconds in the 100 free, in addition to swimming the fastest 50 free split in history. While Clark Smith took down the oldest short course yards record with a 4:08.42 in the 500, breaking Peter Vanderkaay’s 11-year-old record.
I’ve been following swimming since about 2004 and never really noticed the exponential growth in swimming times. It really didn’t hit me until I looked up Vanderkaay’s swim. Vanderkaay won the 500 at the 2006 NCAA’s with a 4:08.60; second in that race was Ous Mellouli at 4:12.92. A 4:12! That would not have even made the A-final at last week’s NCAA’s, and that was at one point the second fastest time in the country! Not to mention that the B-final spread in the same 2006 race was a 4:17 to a 4:21 in the prelims; a four second spread compared to the 4:12-4:14 B-final spread this past year. A 4:17 barely scrapes in to the meet in 2017, whereas in 2006 it got you in the championship final. How did we get to where we are now? Because even in 2012, the 8th place time only went down to a 4:16.27 in the 500.
I have a couple of theories for how we have gotten this fast. The first one is the infamous year of 2009. Even though the so-called “epidemic” started in 2008, when Speedo launched the Speedo LZR in preparation for the 2008 Olympics, the shiny plastic suits that followed in 2009 are what stained the carpet in the sport of swimming.
But was the onslaught of world records in 2009 a bad thing? After 2009, there was serious doubt over if swimmers could replicate those times with just textile suits. I’m not going to bore you with statistics about percentages and stuff like that, but it is safe to say that swimming is faster than what it was in 2009, with only two records still standing, Elaine Breeden’s 200 fly and Auburn’s 200 free relay. But, we would not be as fast as we are now without going through the onslaught of records to fall in 2009.
If anything, 2009 set the bar high. All of a sudden, swimmers saw the times they did in the 2009 suits and realized they were capable of replicating those swims in textile. I have read numerous article talking about how 2009 “ruined swimming,” which I, personally, think is completely bogus.
Sure, it skewed the all-time rankings list, but the point of even keeping track of records is to set standards and goals for others to seek to achieve. I mean, look at how much faster the Olympic Trial cuts keep getting. You set a standard for swimmers to try to achieve and set a two-year qualifying period, and you’ll be amazed at what the swimmers will do to achieve that time.
It is the same with 2009. Would we have seen Chase Kalisz go a 3:33 in the 400 IM without seeing Tyler Clary go 3:35 in 2009? Would we have been able to see? My guess is no, but hindsight is 20/20.
The other reason could be Michael Phelps and Natalie Coughlin. Coughlin at one point held six of the possible thirteen NCAA records in swimming. All of her records have now been broken after Howe took down Coughlin’s 100 back record, joining her in the sub-50 club, that now also includes Baker.
Coughlin, as well as Phelps, both hit their prime around the same time in the early 2000s and became cultural icons in the sport of swimming. Ask any swimmer who is under the age of 22 who their swimming idol was growing up and most of them will most likely answer Coughlin or Phelps. Those two set the bar for the kids when they were swimming. Those kids grew up with goals to swim in the Olympics and be just like them, and those kids shocked all the veterans and made the 2016 US Olympic Team.
So, when did the NCAA meet get noticeably faster? It was around 2013 when Kevin Cordes went 1:48.68 in the 200 breast and Vlad Morozov split 17.86 in the 200 free relay. But the depth of the meet was not as impressive. Four years ago in 2013, a 1:34.66 was 16th in the 200 free at NCAA’s. In 2017, a 1:33.58 got 16th, a time that would have been competitive in the A-final in 2013. The high school classes that followed 2013 were what made a huge difference in the speed of the NCAA meet.
The class of 2013 saw the entrances of Ryan Murphy, Jack Conger, Leah Smith and Olivia Smoliga, who contributed immediately at the NCAA level. The class of 2014 saw the emergence of Joseph Schooling, Caeleb Dressel, Simone Manuel and Cierra Runge, who added to the competitiveness of the meet. The class of 2015 saw Townley Haas, Andrew Seliskar, Kathleen Baker and Lilly King, who still have two more years in the NCAA to continue to smash records. All the swimmers in between have made the NCAA championships what it is now.
Those swimmers were around eight or nine years old when they watched Phelps and Coughlin emerge on the world stage at the 2004 Olympics. I was in the same class as Murphy and company, so I can imagine that was the time when they sprouted their Olympic dreams. I specifically remember telling my dad I wanted to be just like Brendan Hansen and swim in the Olympics in the 200 breast. Obviously that didn’t happen, but the 2004 Olympics were inspiring to me and other swimmers my age.
Four years later when we were in middle school, we saw Phelps win eight gold medals in Beijing, as well as Coughlin defend her 100 back gold medal and win six total medals. Even then, I was still inspired to make the Olympics. I think it’s funny because I mapped out how my progression would look between 2008 when I was 13, and 2016 when I would be 21 and in my prime to make the Olympics. (I never got close to the Olympic Trial cut so don’t ask how it panned out). But swimmers like Murphy, Conger, Smith, Smoliga and even Missy Franklin and Lia Neal did make the Olympic team, and I’m sure they were inspired by the same swimmers that I grew up watching.
Olympic swimmers always talk about how they want to inspire the young generations of swimming. I believe it is safe to say we are now seeing the effect Phelps and Coughlin had on the young swimmers growing up in the mid-2000s, because they are destroying the record book and making the NCAA Championships a mind-boggling swim meet to watch. I’m just interested to see the 2028 NCAA’s/Olympics when the Katie Ledecky generation grows up.
All commentaries are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Swimming World Magazine nor its staff.