Cesar Cielo’s World Record in the 50 Free Turns 10 Years Old on December 18th

In the waning days of 2009, as the clock ticked down to the midnight deadline on December 31st for a global ban on the polyurethane supersuits that had brought a plethora (or plague depending on who you ask) of World Records on the sport of swimming.

Of those last-minute World Records that still stand, which as of posting stands at 4 from December of 2009 and 4 from November of 2009, one stands out above the rest as the most iconic: Cesar Cielo‘s 20.91 in the 50 free in long course meters. That record celebrates its 10th anniversary on Wednesday, and is representative of the passing of a decade since the end of the ‘supersuit era’ that caused maybe the biggest upheaval in the sport of swimming since at least David Berkoff’s underwater ‘blastoff,’ and at most since butterfly and breaststroke were declared separate events.

The scars left by that era upon myself (I launched my first swimming website in that period of time) still linger. Any time I read about a sporting achievement from 2008 or 2009, my instinct is to question the context of its historic relevance. Did the Los Angeles Lakers dominated the Orlando Magic in the NBA Finals because Kobe wanted to prove that he didn’t need Shaq to win a title? Because Phil Jackson is the Zenmaster? Or because their shoes were made of 90% polyurethane and the Magic’s shoes were made of only 40% polyurethane? Intellectually I know that 2008 and 2009 were pretty ordinary years in all other sports. Instinctively, those years trigger me.

And only now, in swimming shortest race, the men’s 50 free, are competitors beginning to again approach Cielo’s record-setting mark.

After the suits were outlawed, the record seemed insurmountable for years. Nobody was even better than 21.3 until Florent Manaudou swam 21.19 at the 2015 World Championships.

But now it’s moving within reach. American Caeleb Dressel swam 21.04 at this summer’s World Championships, almost joining Cielo and Frenchman Fred Bousquet sub-21 in the club. Ben Proud made a step forward in 2018 as well, swimming 21.16 at the Sette Colli Trophy. Vlad Morozov swam 21.27 at the Singapore World Cup earlier this year, and the return of Florent Manaudou to the blocks brings a tantalizing possibility.

But for now, the date marks a reminder of what was, and in a decade that was fairly stagnant in innovation and revolutions in swimming until the International Swimming League launched early this year, a reminder that the face of sport is constantly evolving and changing, and that’s part of what makes it fun.

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Mr Piano

Imo Alexander Popov’s 50 free is the best 50 free of all time. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DUOl-XKMPZc

Dude wasn’t even wearing a cap. He didn’t have a wedge for an explosive start. Actually Popov did the super slow and old school start with two feet up front. On top of all of that, dude did it in briefs! He didn’t even wear a tech suit…


Just as a reference for what a boss popov was, this was done just a few years after he was stabbed, damaging his kidneys, lung, and a major artery.


Need to contextualize a little bit here. His start was bad but that’s not due to a rule or technological change. Other people were doing track starts at the time, he could have done better he just didn’t. The wedges that they use now don’t actually make much of a difference. Same with the cap – no reason he couldn’t have worn one back then. The suit would make a difference, but we don’t have great data on the difference between jammers and briefs. I’m sure it’s something but idk if it’s .6 in a 50… that’s a huge margin. Then balance that with the fact it was done in an empty pool as a time trial (like Braden mentions… Read more »

Mr Piano

Yea Popov could have, but for argument’s sake let’s give him an average start today, and a cap. That’s got to be 21.3. If you swim today, you know how insane today’s tech suits are compared to a brief. Put it all together and that’s definitely sub 21. It’s true that he had clear water, but his previous best being 21.91 at the 1992 Olympics, I think he would still be very competitive today, perhaps rivaling Dressel.


Best pure sprinter to me is A. Ervin. Mediocre dive and underwaters, but faster and smoother than anybody over the water. Popov a close second.


i actually agree with another point in that he wasn’t a “tank” ..yes he was tall and lean but the interesting, studyable thing going forward would probably be his flexibility, which led him to essentially, with all standards being converted to modern times, going a time that would today be still unbeatable

Tea rex

On the new speedo “fast skin”: “My own skin is fast enough.” – Alexander Popov


That record is living in fear.


This record will be doing well to become a teen-ager. On the other hand, Zhang Lin’s 800 WR and Liu Zige’s 200 fly WR will likely reach voting age.

Mr Piano

Add in Biederman’s 200 free and potentially Phelps’s 400 IM. 400 free may take a while as well. Crazy how Thorpe was 3:40.08 back in 2002…


100 free is a bit older..

200 free is one that will reach voting age probably
Zhang might even reach retirement age, the men relays are the ones which are almost at danger always, but never get broken.
Zige times is far off beating, even Jiao textile WR is still here

Of the unsuited ones, Pedersen 200 Breast is one that was on the verge of being broken, but still stands..


Liu Zige’s 200 fly WR will reach old age- will outlive me I suspect…

About Braden Keith

Braden Keith

Braden Keith is the Editor-in-Chief and a co-founder of SwimSwam.com. He first got his feet wet by building The Swimmers' Circle beginning in January 2010, and now comes to SwimSwam to use that experience and help build a new leader in the sport of swimming. Aside from his life on the InterWet, …

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