David Popovici is the greatest swimmer in the world in the men’s 100 freestyle. He is not only the world record holder (46.86 during the 2022 European Championships), but he has also been below 48 seconds with an amazing regularity. At the 2022 World Junior Championships last week, the 17-year-old Romanian produced no less than five sub-48 swims.
Along the way, Popovici has developed a reputation for rocketing home on the back half of the race. He’s been producing so many 24-low second-half splits this year that he owns nine of the 15 fastest back-half splits of all time in the event, as shown by Swimming Stats’ Instagram.
It seems like soon he will be able to crack the 24-second in the second half of the men’s 100 freestyle. Some time ago, it was very rare for a swimmer close the race below 25 seconds. Do you know who was the first swimmer to do that?
In 1992, Alexander Popov won the men’s 100 freestyle at the Olympic Games in Barcelona. His winning time, 49.02, wasn’t a world record — not even an Olympic record. But he registered a superb back 50 — in fact, it was the first sub-25-second back 50 in history (24.99).
When Popov set the world record in the event during the Mare Nostrum Tour in 1994 in Monaco with a 48.21, again he set a sub-25-second back-half in 24.90.
It was only in 1999 that another swimmer would produce a back 50 in the 24-second territory, when Pieter van den Hoogenband won the race at the European Championships in 48.34 (24.87).
Only Popov and Hoogenband kept producing some sub-25-second back 50 in 2000, including the world record of 47.84 during the 2000 Olympics by the Dutchman (back-half: 24.68).
In 2001, during the semifinals at the World Championships in Fukuoka, Ian Thorpe set a sub-25-second back-half for the first time — a feat that he would repeat at the 2002 Commonwealth Games, the 2003 World Championships, and the 2004 Olympic Games.
In 2003, Michael Phelps became the fourth swimmer with a sub-25 back 50, when he won the US Nationals in 49.19 (24.78).
In the subsequent years, a few swimmers joined Popov, Hoogenband, Thorpe and Phelps, like Jason Lezak and Filippo Magnini. But, for many years, there were very few swimmers who could make it.
For example, in the men’s 100 freestyle Olympic final in 2016, only three swimmers managed to cover the second part of the race below 25 seconds.
Thirty years has passed since Popov and his historic race in 1992. It’s possible we won’t have to wait too much longer to see a sub-24-second back 50.
The first one who came close to it was Phelps in 2008. Leading off the 4×100 freestyle relay at the Beijing Olympics, he set an American record in the 100 free with 47.51 and a back-half of 24.20.
Kyle Chalmers, at the 2016 Olympics, had a 24.23 back 50 during the preliminary heats (final time of 47.90).
But no one has come closer than Popovici. And not just once.
His closing half during the semifinals at the 2022 European Championships was 24.05 (final time of 46.98). He also set two other back 50s below 24.20.
Taking into account that he is only 17, we can expect that he will improve his skills in the next years. How far can he go?