It’s been nearly 20 years since Dutchman Pieter van den Hoogenband broke the 48-second barrier in the 100 LCM freestyle for the first time in history, and even in 2020, the 48-second barrier remains the litmus test for aspiring world-class sprint freestylers.
In April, I wrote an article about shocking semifinal swims and somehow overlooked this one, which happened in the second semifinal of the men’s 100 meter freestyle in Sydney. While I stand by every swim on that list, there is no doubt van den Hoogenband’s barrier-shattering 47.84 in Sydney ought to have also been part of the conversation.
Also known as the Flying Dutchman, van den Hoogenband earned his place among the greatest sprint freestylers of all time at the Sydney Olympics in 2000, upsetting some of Australia’s national heroes en route to gold.
Van den Hoogendband, alongside Australian duo Ian Thorpe and Grant Hackett, pushed the 200 freestyle to new heights in the early 2000s. Alexander Popov, the double-gold medalist in both the 50 and 100 freestyles from the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta and the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona remained a threat to the Dutchman in the shorter distances. Meanwhile, Americans Gary Hall Jr. and Anthony Ervin, and Australian Michael Klim, were stirring the pot as potential gold-medal upsets for the 50 and 100 freestyles in Sydney.
Coming into the Sydney Olympics in 2000, van den Hoogenband was one of the favorites in the 50, 100, and 200 freestyles, having swept those events at the 1999 European Championships, defeating Popov in each the 50 and 100. Van den Hoogenband also took gold in the 50 meter butterfly–a non-Olympic event–and contributed to the Netherlands champion 4 x 100 freestyle relay and 4 x 100 medley relay. Van den Hoogenband’s 6 gold medal haul was perhaps slightly overshadowed by Thorpe’s showing at the 1999 Pan Pacific Championships, where the then-16-year-old set individual World Records in the 200 meter freestyle (1:46.00) and the 400 meter freestyle (3:41.83), and also contributed to the Aussie 4 x 200 meter freestyle relay, which also broke the World Record (7:07.80), giving Thorpe three in a single competition, though not as many gold medals overall as van den Hoogenband.
Perhaps van den Hoogenband could have raced the 100 freestyle a total of four times in Sydney if the Netherlands relay wasn’t disqualified in the preliminaries.
In van den Hoogenband’s absence, Australia’s Klim led off in a 48.18 to set new World and Olympic Records in the 100 meter freestyle, knocking 0.03 from Popov’s mark set in 1994.
Three days after the men’s 4 x 100 freestyle relay, van den Hoogenband stepped onto the blocks for the prelims of the individual 100 meter freestyle. Swimming in heat 9 of 10, van den Hoogenband posted a 48.64, setting himself apart as the only competitor to go sub-49 in the morning heats. Klim claimed the number-2 seed going into the semifinals, ensuring that he and the Flying Dutchman would not race head-to-head until the finals. Swede Lars Frolander, the soon-to-be Olympic champion in the 100 meter butterfly, finished 3rd in prelims while Popov finished with the 4th-fastest time in prelims. American Gary Hall Jr., meanwhile, was 5th.
Later that evening on September 19th, 2000, van den Hoogenband set the pool on fire with a mind-boggling 47.84, blowing away every other competitor in the race and taking 0.34 off of Klim’s 3-day-old World Record. Klim, the closest to van den Hoogenband after the semifinals, clocked a 48.80, meanwhile reigning Olympic champion Popov sat a full second behind van den Hoogenband at 48.84.
Van den Hoogenband went on to win the gold medal in the final, his second of the Sydney Olympics, touching the wall in 48.30. Popov, meanwhile, would take silver in 48.69, and Hall bronze in 48.73, just 0.01 ahead of Klim.
The Olympic Record van den Hoogenband set in the semifinals in Sydney would last for 8 years until the men’s 4 x 100 freestyle relay took flight in Beijing in August of 2008. Though van den Hoogenband did defend his gold medal in Athens in 2004, he was not able to match his speed from Sydney four years earlier.
By today’s standards, a 47.84 in the 100 LCM freestyle is a great time, but it by no means guarantees a swimmer an individual medal at the World Championships. Some countries, boast numerous sub-48-second active competitors–the United States alone had 7 in 2019.
Instead of looking at how his time from 20 years ago stacks up against today’s top swimmers, let’s consider how long van den Hoogenband held the World Record: 8 years.
Van den Hoogenband’s World Record was not bested until March of 2008 when France’s Alain Bernard, equipped with a full-body polyurethane-coated swimsuit, posted a 47.60 to become the new World Record holder, also in the prelims in Eindhoven. In the finals, Bernard took the mark lower again, finishing with a 47.50, which stood until August and the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, where it was once lowered by Bernard again and twice lowered by Australia’s Eamon Sullivan.
Bernard became the first man under 47-seconds with a 46.94 at the French Championships in Montpellier in April of 2009, only to have the record broken by Brazil’s Cesar Cielo, who posted a 46.91 at the 2009 World Championships in Rome. Cielo’s record still stands today, though American Caeleb Dressel and Australian Kyle Chalmers could both be capable of breaking it, each having gone 46.96 and 47.08, respectively, at the 2019 World Championships.