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.