With the world shutting down, we’re reaching into our archives and pulling some of our favorite stories from the SwimSwam print edition to share online. If you’d like to read more of this kind of story, you can subscribe to get a print (and digital) version of SwimSwam Magazine here. This story was originally published in the 2018 Summer edition of SwimSwam Magazine.
Most swimming fans consider it a historic honor to witness in person the breaking of a world record. But fans at the 1980 U.S. Spring Nationals were treated to history times seven.
In one day — April 10, 1980 — six American swimmers set seven world records in the 50-meter freestyle in an explosion of speed unlike anything before it.
On the men’s side, Chris Cavanaugh had set the world record at 23.70 just two months earlier. He then lowered the mark to 23.66 in prelims, only to see Rowdy Gaines lower the record mere heats later with a 22.96 — for only minutes, though, as Bruce Stahl went 22.83 in a later heat.
Gaines says he didn’t even know at the time that he had broken a world record.
“You have to remember back then the 50 was a relatively new event for all of us, so we didn’t know times very much in that event in meters,” he said.
Sterkel remembers 50s in that era in a similar way.
“I remember when I touched the wall looking at the time and being like, was that good?” Sterkel said with a laugh.
FINA didn’t begin tracking world records in the 50 until 1976, and it wasn’t an Olympic event until 1988. In 1980, most swimmers were treating the 50 like a bonus race.
“I was hoping to have a crack at the 200 freestyle record but didn’t really think about the 50,” Gaines said of the 1980 national meet, held in Austin.
Gaines did break that 200 free world record one day later, in 1:49.16. But his briefly held 50 free record was his first individual world record, even though it had already been wiped away before Gaines even knew he’d broken it.
In fact, Gaines didn’t even know that he was the first man under 23 seconds in the event until we asked him about it for this story.
“Wow, to tell you the truth, I didn’t even know that until you just said it,” Gaines said. “Pretty cool, huh?”
“Today’s barriers are so unimaginable — they make mine look pretty tame in comparison,” he added.
Gaines says that the addition of the 50 free to the U.S. swimming scene in 1980 was a big factor in the April 10 speed explosion and that the new sprint opportunities helped extend the careers of many swimmers.
Count Sterkel in that group. She came out of retirement to win Olympic bronze in the 50 in 1988, the inaugural edition of the Olympic 50.
“I had retired after ‘84. I played water polo through ‘86,” she said. “Then the 50 got added, and I thought, ‘That would be kind of fun.’”
Gaines also credits the members of the 1976 U.S. Olympic team for 1980’s explosion, describing them as “incredibly inspirational” to a lot of swimmers.
“They were and still are my heroes,” Gaines said. “That was the greatest Olympic team in history, and that helped inspire the next group of men and women.”
Men’s records broken: 50 free
Women’s records broken: 50 free