April 10, 1980: The Fastest Day In History

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.

Meanwhile, for the women, Sippy Woodhead went 26.61 in heats, followed shortly after by Kelly Asplund at 26.53, then Jill Sterkel at 26.32. In the finals, Sterkel again broke the record, going 25.96.

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 didnt 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.” 

Mens records broken: 50 free 

Swimmer Session Time
Chris Cavanaugh Heats 23.12
Rowdy Gaines Heats 22.96
Bruce Stahl Heats 22.83 

s records broken: 50 free 

Swimmer Session Time
Sippy Woodhead Heats 26.61
Kelly Asplund Heats 26.53
Jill Sterkel Heats 26.32
Jill Sterkel Finals 25.96

Leave a Reply

Notify of

oldest most voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Eric Moore
2 years ago

Bruce Stahl was my teammate at Santa Monica College in 1977. What a talent, but most of all, a great human being, and a great teammate. My best memory of Bruce was his anchor leg on the 4X100 Free Relay again’st Cypress College, coming from behind to clinch the meet and an undefeated dual meet season. Bruce, thank you for the memories!!!

2 years ago

LOL at that photo…old Rowdy Gaines, a tough guy, huh? 🙂

Swimmer Dave
2 years ago

While, a woman and from Australia, didnt Shane Gould simultaneously hold the WR in all the FR events at one time? or.. maybe she just held them all at one point in time (not AT the same time)

Reply to  Swimmer Dave
2 years ago

That’s who I was thinking of! Couldn’t remember her name, but knew that she had done something ridiculous like that. Technically she was before the 50 so she didn’t have the 50-100-200 like Rowdy, but let’s be honest: if that had been an event at the time, she’d have broken that WR too.

2 years ago

Gaines mentioned the ‘76 Olympics. Now THAT’s a topic I’d like to see an article about! The US men and the East German women are basically the reason why there’s only 2 entries per country per event now.

2 years ago

Yeah, that’s insane. As specialized as the sport has become, I doubt anyone will accomplish that particular triple ever again. Even aside from WRs (textile or otherwise), imagining someone winning the 50, 100, and 200 free at a single WC or OG meet is insane… Either Dressel beating Chalmers, Haas, Rapsys, etc. in the 200 or Chalmers beating Dressel, Proud, Morozov, etc. in the 50… I’d say Dressel has the better shot at the 200 than Chalmers does at the 50, but very hard to imagine either way.

Women’s side is a bit more believable, with Sjostrom having the potential to win each of those (WRs in the 50 and 100 and #4 all time in the 200) and Manuel… Read more »

Reply to  sven
2 years ago

As far as I know, the closest anyone has ever come to pulling the 50, 100, 200 triple were Biondi in ’88 (who went Gold, Gold, Bronze) and PVDH in ’00 (Bronze, Gold, Gold).

For what it’s worth, Thorpe went Bronze, Gold, Gold in the 100, 200 and 400 in ’04, and Meyer and Ledecky both won triple gold in the 200, 400, 800 in ’68 and ’16.

Phelps and the Iron Lady also won gold at three different distances at the OG, but they were in different disciples.

2 years ago

Wondering if anyone has the meet results to this meet I wasn’t able to track any down, my father was at the meet and wanted to be able to relive the moment

2 years ago

Wondering if you have the meet results to this meet, I wasn’t able to track any down!

2 years ago

I checked. Just Rowdy, but in fairness, they didn’t track the 50 until 1976. Given what Spitz was doing in 1970-1972, you’d have to think there is a decent chance he would have done it had they started tracking it a bit earlier. Johnny Weissmuller also really lowered both of those records in the 1920s (3 seconds in the 100 and almost 12 in the 200) , so he probably would have held the 50 record too.

About Jared Anderson

Jared Anderson

Jared Anderson swam for nearly twenty years. Then, Jared Anderson stopped swimming and started writing about swimming. He's not sick of swimming yet. Swimming might be sick of him, though. Jared was a YMCA and high school swimmer in northern Minnesota, and spent his college years swimming breaststroke and occasionally pretending …

Read More »