World Record Flashback: When David Wilkie Wowed the World in 200 Breaststroke at 1976 Olympics

David Wilkie

From Swimming World Magazine’s May issue, World Record Flashback, a new series, visits the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal and the spectacular performance delivered by Great Britain’s David Wilkie in the 200-meter breaststroke.

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One of Swimming World’s new series, World Record Flashback, travels back more than 40 years to the 1976 Olympic Games. It was in Montreal where the United States unveiled the greatest men’s team in history, a squad which won 12 of the 13 events contested. In the event not captured by Team USA, Great Britain’s David Wilkie put on a spectacular show.

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Call him the forgotten man. Overlooked. Underappreciated. Lost amid an iconic week by the globe’s premier power. Truthfully, it’s an unfortunate circumstance, although not difficult to understand. With the United States overpowering the men’s competition at the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal, David Wilkie became an afterthought who deserved much more recognition.

To gain a full perspective of why Wilkie hasn’t received his proper due through the years, we must first examine what the United States pulled off in Montreal. Not only did the Americans win all but one event, they registered nine gold-silver showings and swept the podium in four events. Because we are in an age of greater representation, we’ll never see anything close.

But for as special and dominant as that team was, Wilkie made sure the Stars and Stripes would not go a perfect 13-for-13 in the gold-medal count. More, the British star produced a performance that was nothing short of breathtaking. It came in the 200-meter breaststroke, and enabled Wilkie to get even with his longtime rival, American John Hencken.

In the years preceding the Montreal Games, Wilkie and Hencken developed a stellar rivalry. They both set world records. They both claimed NCAA titles. They each collected world championships. It can be argued that their matchups constituted the best rivalry of the era, and one of the finest in the history of the sport.

But in Montreal, it was Hencken who landed the first punch, as the American set a world record of 1:03.11 en route to the gold medal in the 100 breaststroke. While Wilkie earned the silver medal in 1:03.43, which was under the previous global mark, the second step of the podium is not where Wilkie envisioned himself.

It would be a stretch to label the rivalry between Wilkie and Hencken as icy, since the men respected one another’s abilities. But Wilkie and Hencken never had much to say to each other, opting instead to stay focused on their individual tasks.

“It’s not exactly a clash of personalities,” Wilkie said of the distance with his foe. “In fact, maybe it’s because our personalities are too much alike that we don’t speak with one another. He’s quiet and so am I. We’re friendly rivals, but there’s not much communication between us. We say one or two words after the race, but I don’t think we’ve ever had a conversation that exceeded 10 words. It’s not because we hate each other. It’s because we respect each other, and we’re rivals.”

David Wilkie

Photo Courtesy: Tony Duffy

Following his silver medal in the 100 breaststroke, Wilkie had several days to regroup for his rematch with Hencken in the 200 breaststroke. Of the two races, the longer event was certainly Wilkie’s best chance at gold, as his stroke and endurance were better served to the 200-meter distance. The question: Could he start with a clean slate?

The answer arrived in emphatic fashion.

During the prelims of the 200 breaststroke, Wilkie unleashed an effort that clearly established him as the gold-medal favorite. Covering his prelim outing in an Olympic-record time of 2:18.29, Wilkie was nearly three seconds faster than Hencken. As important, Wilkie knew he hadn’t expended much energy – and a considerably faster performance was on tap for the final.

Wilkie and his coach used the prelim swim as an opportunity to play some mind games with the American contingent.

“After the heats, David Haller and I walked past the American coach, Don Gambril, and David shouted in a voice that couldn’t fail to be heard: ‘Well, David, a 2:15 tonight, then.’ It was a laugh, but we weren’t joking. We were serious. I was very confident. (Hencken) was three seconds behind me in qualifying and I knew for him to beat me that night, he would have to drop six seconds on his time because I fully intended to swim another three seconds quicker. Logically I knew, after the heats, that there was no way he or anybody else could win.”

Indeed, Wilkie was brilliant during the final. Although Hencken stayed with Wilkie through the first half of the final, Wilkie had too much over the back half, and pulled away over the last two laps. With every stroke, he lengthened his lead and treated the fans in attendance to a legendary performance. When Wilkie touched the wall, the scoreboard flashed a time of 2:15.11, a mark more than three seconds quicker than the previous world record.

Not three hundredths. Not three tenths. Three seconds!

It’s not like Hencken failed to produce his best, either, as his silver-medal performance of 2:17.26 was nearly a second quicker than the existing world record. The American simply ran into a buzzsaw that wasn’t going to be beaten. With his win, Wilkie finally had the Olympic gold he long chased, and he was able to celebrate with Haller and his University of Miami coach, Charlie Hodgson.

“I stopped even being aware of (Hencken), for our contest was over, and it just became a race against the clock and getting as good a time as possible,” Wilkie said. “I knew I had won easily, so I took my time before I turned around to see what time I had done. It felt like 10 seconds. I wanted to capture the whole glory of the moment and finding out my time was going to be the icing on the cake. And when I did look around and saw 2:15.11 on the scoreboard, I couldn’t believe it. When you have broken the world record and your own best by more than three seconds, it’s a great feeling.”

How powerful was Wilkie’s swim? It wasn’t until the 1982 World Championships that the Brit’s record was wiped from the books, taken down by Canada’s Victor Davis in 2:14.77. More, Wilkie’s performance would have won gold at the 1980 Games, taken silver at the 1984 Olympics and claimed bronze at the 1988 Games.

Obviously, the performance was ahead of its time.

“He was absolutely phenomenal,” Haller said of Wilkie. “His swim in 1976 is still probably the greatest individual performance I have witnessed. The most beautiful, fluid technique, powered by the strongest legs in swimming. It was like watching a periscope cut through the water when he charged up the third or fourth lap of a 200.”

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MastersSwimmer
10 days ago

Never overlooked, underappreciated or an afterthought here in the U.K. Still remembered, admired and celebrated by swim fans.

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David Guthrie
10 days ago
Reply to  MastersSwimmer

I think John is too young to remember how big of a star Wilkie was worldwide! Lol

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George Schmidt
10 days ago
Reply to  David Guthrie

Challenge him to a race, David! I don’t think he could beat you these days.

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Chris Murray
10 days ago
Reply to  MastersSwimmer

Amazing to think it all started in the 33-1/3 yard pool at the Colombo Swimming Club .

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David Guthrie
10 days ago

John, thanks for the article on these two iconic swimmers. DW certainly wasn’t overlooked or forgotten by me! He got extra attention after the Olympics because he was one of the swimmers who ruined the USA sweep and he did it in such dramatic fashion, utterly destroying the WR and the field. It was such a beautiful, effortless looking swim and it instantly redefined breaststroke. He was my singular swimming hero then and remained the breaststroker idolized and I modeled my stroke after. The contrast of styles between Wilkie’s upright flowing stride and Hencken’s traditional flat stroke was striking.

Wilkie was arguably the first to use the wave and had an enormous impact on breaststroke technique, most notably with swimmers like Tracy Caulkins who influenced a generation. Interestingly, Steve Lundquist’s flat stroke was more similar to Hencken’s and Victor Davis’ was just like Wilkie’s. It’s also notable that Lundquist was the first American to swim faster than Wilkie’s time from 76.

It’s also notable that in that Olympic 200 final, the bronze went to Rick Colella, who has been busy shredding the record books as a masters star and continues to redefine what’s possible as an athlete. That was one hell of a race.

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Fritz Warncke
10 days ago

I am/was not a breaststroker, but I had the oportunity to be on the Norwegian team during these years, compeating against the Scottish team on several occations. Always fun! Wilkie was a part of the team, and undoutablly a formidable swimmer, but he was also a fun guy to be around. Banquets always a blast🤗

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Quintin
10 days ago

Well written, as usual “ Wilkie was nearly three seconds faster than Wilkie”

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KRW-UM
10 days ago

Charlie Hodgson was a GREAT coach.

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Mike Barrowman
9 days ago

I watched those Olympics as a young child, and remembered the US almost winning every men’s event. And I remembered this utterly stunning 200M breaststroke as being the event that spoiled the perfect sweep.

10 years later my new coach, Jozsef Nagy, educated me on just how phenomenal that swim and swimmer were. The story became an inspiration to me in the same event.

Grateful to SW to bringing the story to life here; I had no idea about the head games between Don & Haller, but I love it!

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Ian Milne
9 days ago

David was world record holder on the 200 IM in 1976 – unfortunately that event was dropped from the Olympics programme that year; otherwise David may well have won that event too.

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Guesswholaddie
9 days ago
Reply to  Ian Milne

Unless you swam it😎

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rob davis
6 days ago

That 200m breaststroke was one heck of an amazing race !

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Robert Macartney
4 days ago

My first thought was to remember that Wilkie’s head had to stay above water except on the turns and those turns got no dolphin kick coming off the wall. If he had been allowed those two things, who knows…

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