Epic Swims: Britta Steffen Blows Away the 50 Freestyle World Record in Rome

Germany’s Britta Steffen experienced her breakout performance at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games–in other words, at the perfect time and place. Though Steffen was spectacular in Beijing she did not leave China with any World Records–two Olympic gold medals probably made up for it though.

Steffen won both the 50 and 100 meter freestyle at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. Steffen clocked a 24.06 in the 50, just 0.01 ahead of then-41-year-old Dara Torres of the United States, a new Olympic Record, and a 53.12 in the 100 freestyle, also an Olympic Record and just 0.04 ahead of Australian Libby Trickett.

Steffen’s hunt for a World Record was realized at the 2009 World Championships in Rome where she set a mark that would make her the fastest woman in history for the next eight years.

In Rome, Steffen clocked a time of 23.73 in the 50 freestyle, taking a massive 0.23 off of the four-month-old World Record set by Marleen Veldhuis of the Netherlands who had been 23.96 in April of 2009.

The 24-second barrier remains a major milestone for world-class female sprinters in 2020, and it was especially so in 2009. Until Steffen’s performance in Rome, only two women had ever broken 24 seconds in the 50 LCM freestyle, and each only by 0.03 and 0.04, respectively. Then came Steffen, who demolished the barrier by 0.27.

At the 2000 Sydney Olympics, Dane Inge de Bruijn clocked a 24.13 in the semifinals of the 50 freestyle, a record that would stand for nearly 8 years as other women clamored to become the first to break the 24-second barrier. Veldhuis nearly became that woman on March 24th, 2008, when she clocked a 24.09 at the European Championships in Eindhoven. Though Veldhuis would eventually get under 24 seconds and reclaim the World Record, Australia’s Libby Trickett sprinted to a 23.97 just one week after Veldhuis lowered de Bruijn’s seven-and-a-half-year-old mark, at Australia’s 2008 Olympic Trials. Veldhuis took the record back from Trickett the following April at the 2009 Amsterdam Cup, hitting the wall in 23.96, just 0.01 under Trickett’s three-week-old standard.

It’s worth noting that de Bruijn’s 24.13 from 2000 still ranks her as the 15th-fastest performer all-time in October of 2020. Of the 14 women who have surpassed de Bruijn’s time from Sydney, only 5 of them came in 2008 and 2009, also known as the “Super Suit Era.” De Bruijn’s former World Record no longer ranks among the top-15 performances all-time in the 50 freestyle, and only two of those times are from 2008-2009, with all the others coming well after the suit ban, which shows that women’s sprinting has, at long last, produced numerous performers capable of swimming sub-24 without a polyurethane suit. Nonetheless, de Bruijn’s time from Sydney was epic in its own right.

Steffen’s 50m Freestyle Progression, 2007-2009

Meet → 2007 – World Champs 2008 – Olympic Games 2009 – World Champs
Time → 24.79 24.06 23.73

Top 5 Performances All-Time

  1. Sarah Sjostrom (Sweden), 23.67, 2017
  2. Sarah Sjostrom (Sweden), 23.69, 2017
  3. Britta Steffen (Germany), 23.73, 2009
  4. Sarah Sjostrom (Sweden), 23.74, 2018
  5. Pernille Blume (Denmark), 23.75, 2018

Top 5 Performers All-Time

  1. Sarah Sjostrom (Sweden), 23.67, 2017
  2. Britta Steffen (Germany), 23.73, 2009
  3. Pernille Blume (Denmark), 23.75, 2018
  4. Cate Campbell (Australia), 23.78, 2018
  5. Ranomi Kromowidjojo (Netherlands), 23.85, 2017

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3 years ago

I don’t really think that De Brujin was clean. That said, I remember being blown away by her performance in Sydney. I’ve never seen someone win a 50 Free at such a caliber meet by almost an entire body-length.

Terry Watts
3 years ago

I don’t think I could drive that fast!

3 years ago

Pernille Blume, Netherlands. A classic.

About Reid Carlson

Reid Carlson

Reid Carlson originally hails from Clay Center, Kansas, where he began swimming at age six.  At age 14 he began swimming club year-round and later with his high school team, making state all four years.  He was fortunate enough to draw the attention of Kalamazoo College where he went on to …

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