Are We In A New Gold Age of Men’s Distance Swimming?

In April, Daniel Wiffen shocked the swim world by ripping a 14:34.91 1500 meter freestyle at the Stockholm Open, making him the fourth-fastest performer in history. Wiffen has made major moves this year, wreaking havoc on the men’s distance freestyle Irish records. Part of what made the swim so impressive was the meet and time of year it was done–it was the only time on the top 10 list that wasn’t done at a senior international championship or international trials meet.

Just a week later though, Germany’s Florian Wellbrock responded at the Berlin Open. He threw down a 14:34.89 to take over as the fastest performer in the world this year and become the fourth fastest performer all-time, just two-hundredths ahead of Wiffen’s time. His swim also makes it two entries on the top 10 list not done at an international championships or trials.

Top 10 Men’s LCM 1500 Performers All Time (As of 5/8/23)

  1. Sun Yang (CHN) – 14:31.02, 2012
  2. Gregorio Paltrinieri (ITA) – 14:32.80, 2022
  3. Grant Hackett (AUS) – 14:34.56, 2001
  4. Florian Wellbrock (GER) — 14:34.89, 2023
  5. Daniel Wiffen (IRL) – 14:34.91, 2023
  6. Mykhailo Romanchuk (UKR) – 14:36.10, 2022
  7. Bobby Finke (USA) – 14:36.70, 2022
  8. Ous Mellouli (TUN) – 14:37.28, 2009
  9. Connor Jaeger (USA) – 14:39.48, 2016
  10. Mack Horton (AUS) – 14:39.54, 2016

After a rather sleepy few years in the post-Sun Yang 1500 free era, men’s distance swimming has exploded. Suddenly, the field is littered with competitors and when the championship heat steps up to the blocks, it feels like the win could come from anywhere. Half of the top 10 performers made the list with times from the last two years. And as of publishing, the slowest time on the list from the last two years is Bobby Finke‘s 14:36.70, which slots him into seventh.

Swim fans have felt frustrated for years at broadcasts cutting to commercial during distance events. But now, it’s even more aggravating as part of what makes this resurgence of men’s distance swimming so interesting is that each competitor has a different race strategy. Typically, Wellbrock and Mykhailo Romanchuk mark each other closely through the bulk of the race until whoever has the most left in the tank makes a move in the closing 500 meters of the race.

Then, there’s Finke who has electrified with his strategy of running down his competitors with incredible closing speed. With Finke in the water, it feels like there’s no lead that’s safe on the final 50. His double gold in Tokyo win in the 800 at Budapest Worlds prompted discussion about if other competitors could respond to that strategy.

In the 1500 at Budapest Worlds, Gregorio Paltrinieri did just that. He barreled out from the start of the race and established a huge lead. But instead of fading, like many expected him to, the lead continued to grow. And not only was he ahead of his competition, but he was ahead of Sun Yang‘s world record paceYang’s closing speed caught up with Paltinieri, but he held on for the win with a 14:32.80, making him the second fastest performer in history.

These electric performances at the Olympics and Worlds, combined with Wiffen and Wellbrock’s historic in-season times have reanimated men’s distance swimming. It’s not just individual swimmers turning in legendary performances where they were racing largely against the clock, it’s the combination of speed and the number of swimmers in on the action.

Over half of SwimSwam readers think that Wellbrock is the favorite in Fukuoka. That’s fair, especially given Wellbrock’s consistency: he’s been on the podium at every major international meet he’s raced at since 2018, and he’s tied with Paltrinieri for the most sub-14:37 swims. But given the wealth of talent we expect to be in the field, it doesn’t seem wise to count anybody out–either from a medal or a historic time.

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25 days ago

Heck yeah we are!!

Tracy S
25 days ago

Grant Hackett still in top 3 after 22 years is outrageous.

Reply to  Tracy S
25 days ago

His SCM 800 Free from 2001 is still unbeaten by another swimmer. It would be the longest standing world record if he didn’t beat it himself in a super suit.

Reply to  Tracy S
24 days ago

Hackett was that good.
Shame he didn’t 3 peat, so close.

Last edited 24 days ago by Robbos
25 days ago

This is a great time for the men’s 800 and 1500, partially because the best are very professional and collegial with each other.

The race to sub-14:30 in the post Y#*!g era is both refreshing and inspiring.

Sam M
Reply to  GTS
22 days ago

I don’t know if it’s a great time for the 800, it’s not nearly as spectacular as the 1500 has been. Haven’t seen one top 10 time for the 800 this season. We’ve seen two top 5 for the 1500

Last edited 22 days ago by Sam M
25 days ago

Based on times, impossible to argue!

26 days ago

This doesn’t even consider the possibility of breakout swims from unheard-of swimmers at the world champs. We swim fans are gonna be eating so good this summer.

26 days ago

This article concentrates on the 1500. What about the 800? There is very little mention of the other pool distance race. Where do these swimmers stack up there?

Reply to  ClubCoach
25 days ago

Yea I agree. Looking at the numbers the 800 is much less impressive than the 1500 at this point.

Reply to  ClubCoach
25 days ago

The 800 field doesn’t feel quite as deep to me as the 1500 so far this year. No one has yet shown they can take the 800 out fast enough to drop Finke, whereas there are 5 different swimmers essentially co-favorites for the 1500. Hoping we see a textile WR in 800 this summer though!

26 days ago

I thought Greg did a very fast 1500 in August 2020? Setti Colli.
Not at a major meet I remember. 14.33

Last edited 26 days ago by Joel
26 days ago

Not so much for the aussies

Reply to  Michael
26 days ago

I think Sam short will be up there after aus trials

Reply to  Swimmerguy94
26 days ago

Think he’s more 400/800 optimised going on the relative competitive of his times. Whilst I can, conceivably, see him drop below 14.45; I’m just not seeing him entering the rarefied air of sub 14.40.

In summation, he’s already contender level at 400 & potentially so at 800; unless we see a jaw-dropper swim (ala Wiffen), I think he’s needing a slower race scenario to contend at 1500.

draft chaser
Reply to  commonwombat
25 days ago

he has a different 400 stroke compared with 800 and 1500 stroke. much longer and less lope. wonder if he can get more of that 400 stroke into his longer events.

Reply to  Michael
26 days ago

Hi Vinay

Reply to  Troyy
25 days ago

Vinay, Ventuku, Mike and now Michael. I thought he’d gotten bored of it but he’s back lol

Tracy S
Reply to  Sub13
25 days ago

Why do they keep wasting their time and our time?

About Sophie Kaufman

Sophie Kaufman

Sophie grew up in Boston, Massachusetts, which means yes, she does root for the Bruins, but try not to hold that against her. At 9, she joined her local club team because her best friend convinced her it would be fun. Shoulder surgery ended her competitive swimming days long ago, …

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