Degrees of Dominance (with Peaty, Ledecky, and Sjostrom)

Courtesy of Barry Revzin, resident SwimSwam stat-fiend.

Watching Adam Peaty swim breaststroke, Katie Ledecky swim distance, or Sarah Sjotrom sprint fly, you can’t help but be amazed at just how far ahead of the rest of the world they are. Their dominance is at this point a foregone conclusion – they are racing the clock, the rest of the field is racing for silver. But while they may not have another competitor in the pool, I thought it might be interesting to take a look at a different kind of competition: history.

I took a look at the margin of victory in every Olympic and LC World Championship final from 1986 to the present. I picked 1986 to be after both boycotted Olympics and the GDR drug era, but also because I happened to be born in that year. In order to compare races of different distances, I used percentage gaps. To give a sense as to how percentages correspond to the most recent races:

  • 0.3% is a close but visibly clear win, like Chad le Clos in the 200 fly (0.34%) and Federica Pellegrini in the 200 free (0.39%).
  • 1% is a convincing win, like Sun Yang in the 400 free (1.10%) and Sarah Sjostrom in the 100 fly (1.16%).
  • 1.5% is pretty dominant, a bar that Lilly King’s 100 breast victory approaches (1.39%)
  • 2% is basically a race for second place. This is where Adam Peaty in both the 50 (2.00%) and 100 (2.25%) breaststrokes, and Katie Ledecky in the mile (2.01%).

The overall distribution of percentage margin of victory looks like:

Close wins are pretty common, and there is a pretty steep, rapid drop off. About one in four races had a margin as high as 1%, only about one in ten hit 1.5%, only one in forty hit 2%.

What about those blips at the far end of the graph? How dominant have the historically dominant wins been? The top 10 margins of victory over the last 31 years, to date, are:

# % Swimmer Event Meet
1 3.1% Krisztina Egerszegi 200 Back 1996 Olympics
2 3.0% Michael Phelps 200 IM 2003 Worlds
3 2.8% Leisel Jones 200 Breast 2005 Worlds
4 2.8% Leisel Jones 200 Breast 2007 Worlds
5 2.7% Grant Hackett 1500 Free 2001 Worlds
6 2.7% Adam Peaty 100 Breast 2016 Olympics
7 2.6% Michael Phelps 200 Fly 2007 Worlds
8 2.6% Katie Hoff 400 IM 2007 Worlds
9 2.5% Sarah Sjostrom 100 Fly 2015 Worlds
10 2.4% Ian Crocker 100 Fly 2005 Worlds


Pretty interesting list! Leisel Jones twice in the top 10. Michael Phelps three times in the top 10 (granted, twice as the winner, and the third time as the distant silver-medalist to Crocker’s then-world record swim in Montreal). Surprisingly, despite Ledecky’s regular dominance, she hasn’t quite cut the top ten. Her largest margin of victory, the 800 free at the Rio Olympics, was “just” 2.3%, 15th on the list.

Adam Peaty came pretty close this week to getting himself another entry in the top ten. After the semifinals of the 50 breast, he was seeded a whopping 2.74% ahead of Felipe Lima. He still won by 2%, but will have to wait until the next meet to crack this list. Even Ledecky’s mile, where she was so far ahead that for a while the camera crew just gave up on her and starting showing the race for second instead, even that swim just wasn’t a big enough win.

There are two more races in Budapest that have a chance of rewriting this leaderboard, and both will take place on Saturday:

  1. The women’s 800. Ledecky is seeded 2.3% ahead of hometown favorite Boglarka Kapas. This will be Ledecky’s last swim of a long meet, and she is the prohibitive favorite for the gold. But how prohibitive?
  2. The women’s 50 fly. As amazing as Ledecky and Peaty have been in their respective spheres, when it comes to the 50 fly, Sarah Sjostrom is practically a video game. Sjostrom is seeded 24.76 (a time that would have finished 3rd at US Trials in the 50 free). The second seed, Japan’s Rikako Ikee, is all the way back at 25.51. That’s a margin of 2.94%. But, as absurd as it may seem to say, 24.76 seems like a very conservative. After nearly breaking her own world record in the 100 fly and obliterating the world record in the 100 free, it seems like a better than average bet that she would approach her world record of 24.43, set back in 2014. If she does so, that puts her well over 4% ahead of Ikee.

I, for one, can’t wait to see what happens.

In This Story


  1. Anonymous says:

    Was Mary Meagher’s 2:05 2Fly before 1986?

    • Robbert says:


      • Anonymous says:

        Thanks. Was surprised to not see it on the list

        • N P says:

          Plus, that was at U.S. Nationals, which would not qualify for this list anyway.

          • Robbert says:

            Right, her Olympic swims in 1984 would not have made this list, and her swim in 1988 was a bronze. I have no idea how she did at 1986 worlds.

          • N P says:

            At 1986 Worlds she went 2:08.41, winning by about two seconds. At 1982 Worlds she actually lost to an East German. Her margin of victory in LA ’84 was 3.66 seconds (2:06.90 to 2:10.56), which is roughly a 2.8% margin of victory, which would actually make this list (were it not ’86 and beyond).

          • aquajosh says:

            If it weren’t for East German and emerging Chinese swimmers that were trained by East Germans, she would have won six gold medals in Madrid. Both the flys, the 200 free, the relays, and if you believe Tamara Costache was doping (I definitely do), she would have also won bronze in the 100 free. 1986 was one of her best years of swimming, but thanks to the East Germans and emergence of the Chinese who were introduced to their doping program, she never got her true dues.

            If you go back just a little further, Tracy Caulkins’ 400 IM from Los Angeles 1984 would be on this list. She won by 9.06 seconds! Meagher’s 200 fly from 84 would probably be there, too. She won 2:06.90 to 2:10.56!

  2. Riley says:

    Awesome article, really interesting stuff. Will be fun to see if Sjostrom can top the list in the 50 later this week.

  3. Andysup says:

    I think lochte would be on the list multiple times if it were not for phelps. And phelps would probably have more entries if it was not for lochte.

  4. Philip says:

    Interesting way to quantify just how rediculous Sjöström’s 50 fly record is. That record will probably not be broken in her lifetime.

  5. iLikePsych says:

    When Natalie Coughlin went her 49.99 at NCAAs in 2002, second place was a 53.23. That’s a 6.48% margin of victory. (obviously not as high as World Champs/the Olympics, but no mini meet either).

  6. MaineSwimming152 says:

    “Sarah Sjostrom is practically a video game”

  7. potito says:

    What about Katinka’s 400IM in Rio?

    • N P says:

      That’s only about a 1.8% margin of victory – 4:26.36 to 4:31.15.

      • potito says:

        Wow, thank you for the quick answer and all this amazing data! It looked so dominant but indeed very far from some of these incredible performances!

        • N P says:

          Hosszu’s performance certainly was dominant, and very, very impressive.
          Of note, the most dominant performance in the women’s 400 IM at the Olympics comes from 1968 when Claudia Kolb won the event in 5:08.5; the second place finisher went 5:22.2. Kolb’s margin of victory was roughly 4.25%, which I find astounding.

  8. N P says:

    The closest margin ever between gold and silver medalists in the history of the Olympics (I believe) was in the men’s 400 IM at the ’72 Olympics; Gunnar Larson and Tim McKee. They finished with the identical time of 4:31.98, but the officials used the electronic timing system to judge the race into the thousandths of a second, resulting in Larson out-touching McKee 4:31.981 to 4:31.983. That’s a margin of victory of just 0.0007% – less than a thousandth of one percent. I’m glad they no longer use thousandths to judge races.

  9. Tigerswim22 says:

    Very interesting research. The introduction of a long course World Championship in 1986 certainly gave the best of the best talent an opportunity to showcase their talent, win gold medals, set records, build their fan base, earn endorsements, and create personal wealth (way more so since the start of the Michael Phelps era). Before that, the top talent needed a little good fortune in “timing” their greatness to the Olympic cycle – and then they had to wait every four years to have the world stage to perform upon and the international spotlight focused on their achievements. Nobody could make a career out it – not Mark Spitz, not Debbie Meyers, not Tracey Caulkins, not Janet Evans, etc. I would submit that having two World Championships between Olympic cycles plus the combination of endorsements / prize money together created tremendous opportunities for the present generation of super stars. It also created a good incentive as far as making racing a career is concerned. The addition of 50 meter sprints, distance events, and frivolous relays (my opinion on mixed gender relays) will affect future career medal counts in a meaningful way. I really like Barry Revzin’s article and the attention it gives to showing who (in the most recent era of our sport) truly excelled relative to the rest of the world. Be cool to compare the results of athletes competing at the Olympic Games only. Showcasing the World Championships and the Olympics together is a little like comparing apples to oranges. It’s definite interesting, though. A very compelling analysis. Good job!

    • aquajosh says:

      Long course worlds started in 1973 in Belgrade. That’s when paper suits and the East Germans first made their real emergence. Madrid 1986 was the fifth time it was held.

  10. jcd<3 says:

    That 200IM win in 2003 from Phelps was stupid ridiculous. 3.5 seconds ahead of Thorpe, PLUS he broke his own WR by nearly 2 seconds. Absurd.

  11. Danjohnrob says:

    And the only person on that top 10 list who never won an Olympic gold medal: Katie Hoff; that’s why I was praying she would be able to make a come-back to swim the 4×200 Free Relay in Rio. Que sera sera….

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