Olivier Poirier-Leroy is a former national level swimmer based out of Victoria, BC. In feeding his passion for swimming, he has developed YourSwimBook, a powerful log book and goal setting guide made specifically for swimmers. Join 1,800 of your fellow swimmers and coaches and sign up for the YourSwimBook newsletter (free) and get weekly motivational tips by clicking here.
Today’s swim fan may better recognize the name of Vladimir Salnikov as belonging to that of the president of the Russian Swim Federation, or from the international invitational that bears his name that takes place in St. Petersburg each year.
But Vladimir Salnikov is more than just those; he was also one of the greatest distance swimmers to grace the pool, carrying a reign of dominance on the mile that carried on for 11 years on the international scene. He broke a lot of barriers in the swimming world, being the first man to swim faster than 15 minutes for the mile, was the oldest Olympic gold medalist in swimming in almost half a century, and in the middle of a raging Cold War showed that sport could rise above politics, even if only for a two week training camp in Mission Viejo.
Here are 7 reasons why you should know who Vladimir Salnikov is —
1. He was the first man under 15 minutes in the 1500m freestyle.
There are those milestones in sport that seem unbeatable or unattainable. For a long time in track it was the 4 minute mile and the 10 second 100. For gymnasts the perfect 10, figure skaters a perfect 6. They are the ghosts that push us in training, the seemingly unattainable mark that most will say is impossible and a few have the gall to chase down.
For swimmers it was the mile and the 15 minute barrier. Even though we expect swimmers to now be able to break this time, at one point in swimming’s history it was the great white whale of achievements. Salnikov would be the first, and he would do it in front of a home crowd in Moscow at the 1980 Olympics, lowering the USA’s Brian Goodell’s world mark by 4 seconds to 14:58.27. (In 1978 at the World Championships in Berlin he would also be the first to break 8 minutes in the 800 freestyle – 7:56.49 – setting him up for a run at 15 mins two years later.)
2. Winning boycotted-Olympic medals wasn’t good enough for him.
With his 1980 win in the books, Salnikov continued training, hoping to get a chance to swim against the world in 1984. While the Moscow gold medal had been thrilling, and he’d posted a time that was head and shoulders above the next fastest swimmers at the time, it simply wasn’t the same. He wanted to win Olympic gold with the whole world there.
However, as history shows, the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc countries elected not to attend the ’84 Games in Los Angeles in an international relations tactic known as “you boycott me, I boycott you.”
Salnikov would have to wait yet another 4 years.
3. Written off by analysts as too old and in decline, on September 25, 1988, he won the 1500 freestyle in Seoul at the age of 28, making him the oldest Olympic gold medal swimmer in over 50 years.
In the two years leading up to Seoul Salnikov’s dominance on the 1500 loosened. He failed to make the podium in Madrid in 1986 at world champs, a dozen body lengths behind the winner, West Germany’s Rainer Henkel. In ’87 he didn’t even make the final at European Championships, and in the run-up to the ’88 Games the Soviet coaches considered him washed up and not worthy of being on the squad going to South Korea. Only because of intervention by the national sports ministry did Salnikov get his spot on the team.
Despite the lack of belief from his own coaches, and the staunchly held belief that he was simply too old at the age of 28 (which at that time seemed pre-historic), Salnikov managed to hold off a field that averaged 22 years of age to win the 1500m free at the Seoul Games in a time of 15:00.40.
(To consider just how mind-blasting this achievement was at the time, he was the oldest swimmer to win a gold medal at the Olympics since Japan’s Yoshiyuki Tsuruta won the 200 breast the first time the Games were held in Los Angeles… in 1932.)
4. He got a standing ‘O’ in the Olympic village after his race in Seoul.
Canadian swimmer Mark Tewksbury, who would later win the 100m backstroke at the 1992 Olympics, recounted in his book Visions of Excellence seeing the normally stoic Russian well up a little bit at the spontaneous act of appreciation and support for an athlete who just wanted to compete against the whole world.
The standing ovation is all the more impressive given that it was given by his fellow Olympians, and that they were athletes representing all sorts of countries and sports. (He was the only athlete in Seoul to be recognized by his peers in this way.)
5. He went undefeated in the 1500m freestyle for nearly 10 years.
In that span, between 1977 and that not-so-hot ’86 performance at Worlds, Salnikov won the most grueling event in swimming over 60 times consecutively at various World Championship meets, European championships and Olympic Games.
6. He trained with Mark Schubert in Mission Viejo for a while.
Russians swimming in California seem commonplace now (see: Morozov, Lobintsev @ USC with Dave Salo), but you gotta remember that in the late 70’s and 80’s the US and the Russians were superpowers that were super friends-off. Salnikov trekked to California to spend time training with Schubert and two of his charges, Brian Goodell (’76 Olympic champ in the 400 & 1500 free, and world record holder in both events for stretches in the late 70’s) and Tim Shaw (who at one point held the world records in the 200, 400 and 1500 free in 1974).
Given that East and West were frenemies on the international stage, it was nice to see that elite athletes from both countries could come together and share in the agony, err, pleasure, that is long distance training.
7. He was known as “The Monster of the Waves.”
This is certified awesome. (“Vlad the Impaler” would have been only slightly more terrifying.)
Salnikov reigned over the grueling distance events for so long, winning gold medals in the same event at the Olympics 8 years apart, while also being the first man to break that mythical 15 minute barrier. Given the consistency he performed at the international stage, and in the face of criticism and doubt from even the high performance coaches of his own country, he more than earned it.
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