How Bobby Finke’s 14:12 Made Me Feel

by Andy Hardt 50

February 24th, 2020 College, Opinion

When watching elite sport, we always imagine ourselves there. You know, I would have found that open teammate, I would have laid off that curveball in the dirt, and you’d better believe I wouldn’t have taken that extra breath right before the finish. Swimming is one of the easiest sports for which to adopt this intrinsic perspective: all of us have won races before, it doesn’t look as fast as it is from above, and speed is relative anyway.

The fantasy does get stretched a little bit by some of the very top swimmers. I don’t watch Caeleb Dressel and think: “Yeah, that’s totally me. I also do that butterfly-stroke-thing on my start because my massive arms are just too powerful to do it any other way. Then after a couple dolphin kicks that rival an actual dolphin’s, I pop up way in front (how convenient!), and just extend my lead until the finish. Sometimes on the last 25 of my 100 butterfly, I’ll just not breathe, because that’s a thing I can do.”

I’ve never had the length and ridiculous turnover of Sarah Sjostrom or muscles on muscles (and ridiculous turnover) of Adam Peaty. I never could dream of Ryan Lochte’s absurd underwaters or Mary T. Meagher’s unrelenting butterfly stroke, and I certainly can’t match the impossible smoothness of Regan Smith or Michael Phelps or Federica Pellegrini or Ian Thorpe.

But that’s not the feeling I got watching Bobby Finke’s 14:12.08 world record* in the 1650 free at SECs this weekend**. The distance events in general, and Finke’s swim in particular, feel approachable in a way that other races do not. And that’s what made it one of the most beautiful races I’ve seen in a long time.

*OK, annoying caveat here…yards time are not technically world records

**Unfortunately, only watched the replay and not the real thing

To be sure, I don’t mean that all distance swimmers make me feel this way. Sun Yang was the stallion who sat astride the swimming world. Janet Evans swung her arms high into the sky, summoning Zeus’ thunderbolt to smite her competition. Felix Auboeck does the same thing now, and he’ll take on Finke at NCAAs next month. And let’s agree not to even mention Katie Ledecky.

But Finke’s swim: first, let’s talk about the splits. He averaged 25.82 per 50, swimming fairly even from split to split, but not crazily so. On one hand, whoa! He’s the first ever to average sub-26, and he did so emphatically. But on the other hand, well, many thousands of swimmers can keep up with that pace for a little bit. If you can swim a 50 at that speed, or a 100 (or even a 200 for men), you’re a good swimmer certainly, but you’re not usually a particular standout in the sport. We can plop a decent age-group swimmer next to Finke, and they’ll keep up long enough to say hi. An endless relay of high schoolers could totally take him down.

Plus, can’t you relate to how Finke swam the race, if you add many, many seconds to his time? He went out kind of hard, but wasn’t quite in the lead at the 50. He took over by the 100, and then put down some ridiculous splits as he pulled away: 51-point for each 100 until halfway. Then he started to struggle. The 12 strokes per length became 13, which became 14. His stroke was clearly less powerful than it started out. He would slip in an extra breath before the turn: to the right if he was close to the wall, and to the left if he was farther away. The 51-point 100s became 52s. But Finke kept fighting. His kick was strong throughout, but it really came alive in the second half. His already-high cadence held, and increased. And with more of a gutsy drive than a sprint finish, he hit the wall, more than a full lap ahead of his competition, and half a length ahead of the Grothe ghost he set out to chase. It was, by any standard, an enthralling and beautiful swim.

So how does Finke’s record race differ from how you or I might swim? Well, not much, if you think about it in just the right way. He’s 6-foot-1; that’s not that tall! Certainly not a 6’ 6” beast like Kieran Smith. Sure, Finke’s kick is excellent, his stroke is excellent, his turns are smooth and efficient. Well, of course they are, what did you expect from a world record holder? He’s got that high body position and snappy turnover, which anyone can do, just not for a whole 1650. And he had the same problem we all have when we go out fast: he slowed down.

Finke doesn’t have unbelievable speed: his 500 PR is “only” 4:10.86, and he didn’t make Florida’s 800 freestyle relay. He obviously does have unbelievable endurance, the hardest skill to really feel from behind a computer screen. Plus, we also know that swimmer who’s an even more extreme miler than he is. And Finke has another humanizing mark on his record: last year he swam 14:23.01 as a freshman at SECs, at the time the 5th fastest 1650 ever swum. His NCAA finish a month later? Only 12th.

It makes you almost believe, almost head over to the pool just to check, because what if something crazy happened last night and that’s you now? If I squint until my eyes are closed, I can see myself in his place. The easy speed early in the race, check. The ever-building suffering, the stroke that begins to weaken and flail just a little bit; you build up your kick, you build up your resolve, and you fight against the taunt of your slipping splits, your slipping spirits. But you give it what you’ve got, you give it 100%, because you, like every coach who’s ever tried to inspire, like every swimmer whose glory days are far enough in the past, you will put everything you have into what you already know is the best swim of your life. Bobby Finke swam the fastest time in history this weekend. And he swam it the way I would have done, if only in my own mind.

I want to make one thing clear at the end of this essay: I’m not trying to say that Finke’s swim is any more approachable that any other yards record, or that his abilities are any more human than the superheroes whose legacies he has now been approved to chase. I’m just trying to say that it felt that way to me. I swam every stroke of that race with Bobby Finke. And I celebrated more than he did, because, honestly, I wasn’t even that tired.

You see, I’m pretty sure I could have gone even faster.

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Brennan Gravley
1 year ago

It made me feel worthless when he lapped me at the 1000.

Reply to  Brennan Gravley
1 year ago

Dropping almost 20 seconds and getting a medal as a freshman is definitely something to be proud of!

Greg Reed
Reply to  Brennan Gravley
1 year ago

Same

ClubCoach
Reply to  Brennan Gravley
1 year ago

Brennan, you had a fantastic race!

612
Reply to  Brennan Gravley
1 year ago

The real question- do you Finke or Funke?

Johnson
Reply to  612
1 year ago

He brought that Florida Gregg Troy’s p funk

Johnson
Reply to  Johnson
1 year ago

Gregg Troy

Switzer
Reply to  Brennan Gravley
1 year ago

Watched it in person. As an old Gator D man, you both did great. At least you were not next to him then it would have been like practice.

Luke Stuart
Reply to  Brennan Gravley
1 year ago

It made me feel embarrassed when he lapped me the second time

Scooter23
Reply to  Brennan Gravley
1 year ago

You had a great swim Brennan. Your ability to maintain that high stroke rate inspired me.

applesorangesandbananas
1 year ago

But, can he do it long course?

DLSwim
Reply to  applesorangesandbananas
1 year ago

I sure hope so!

ClubCoach
Reply to  applesorangesandbananas
1 year ago

He’s actually a better long course swimmer…

Really
Reply to  applesorangesandbananas
1 year ago

Didnt he swim along side Wilimovsky in the distance events at 2017 World Champs?

Chop
Reply to  applesorangesandbananas
1 year ago

Not 14:12 but I am sure he will be competitive.

Human Ambition
Reply to  applesorangesandbananas
1 year ago

Lap Brennan?

Taa
1 year ago

I had a Bobby Finke moment when I swam a 400IM at a masters meet against a heat of 70 year old lap swimmers

Reply to  Taa
1 year ago

There are 70 year olds swimming 400 IMs? I need to go to the gym…

Pvdh
Reply to  Lauren Neidigh
1 year ago

Rumor has it they’ve just hit the breaststroke leg

Reply to  Pvdh
1 year ago

Hahaha. I might still have time to catch up.

FormerLonghorn
Reply to  Pvdh
1 year ago

Just to put the “old guys” in perspective, Rick Colella, who is now 68, went a 4:30.64 400yd IM at 66, and a 5:13.36 400m IM.

orangesandapples
Reply to  Taa
1 year ago

They lapped you?

Taa
Reply to  orangesandapples
1 year ago

Haha no I lapped the whole field and won by over 45 seconds. Afterward I climbed out of the pool and stood on the starting block and flexed like a greek god. I proceeded to yell insults at the old swimmers as they came into the wall until some men in white coats approached me and took me away.

Applesandoranges
Reply to  Taa
1 year ago

I swam masters nationals in FTL in the mid 1990s. There were a couple of guys in their 80s and maybe 90s, who were discussing swimming the 200m fly. The older guy was swimming it but the younger one wasn’t. Heard the older guy call the younger one out for not swimming it.

For what it’s worth, I swam on a relay with my father who passed away a few years later. My mom was there as well. We also swam Swim Miami together on Key Biscayne. He damn near beat me after I swallowed too much too much oil, er, water.

Dcswim
1 year ago

Absolutely superb article

IU Swammer
1 year ago

I relate to this. With an amazing 50, I can’t say that could have been me. I was never close to a sprinter. But with this mile, one of the first things I did was look at the splits to see how long I could have kept with him. I would not have made it to the 500, but that overlap somehow familiarizes the race in a way I can never be familiar with what it’s like to break 18 in the 50 yard free. It doesn’t take anything from the otherworldlyness of the swim, but it makes it feel more personal and relatable.

Sam H
1 year ago

Great job Andy!

DLSwim
1 year ago

Very well written article, but I don’t think this was written from the perspective of a distance swimmer. If you’ve ever swam the mile at a high level, I don’t think there’s a true appreciation of the magnitude of this achievement. I, for one, did not watch the video of that race and thought “I could do that”. No sir, as I watched Finke go out in an 8:34 at the 1000, and lap the field of some of the best swimmers in the country, I was thinking “Holy mother of g_d, how is this possible?!” I dare anyone reading this to do 15×100’s @ 1:00 and hold 51’s on all of them, just to put this in perspective. No,… Read more »

Andy Hardt
Reply to  DLSwim
1 year ago

This is a good point, and I don’t want to diminish the jaw-dropping aspect of the swim. I worried a little bit that my framing would make it seem like it was actually no big deal, which is not what I meant at all. After all, the race sucked me in so deeply that it inspired me to spend half my Sunday writing about it.

I actually was primarily a distance swimmer, and I have so much appreciation for that time. 51.6 pace is absolutely filthy. SwimSwam’s Swimulator time converter pegs it as equivalent to 14:37 long course, and the “Classic Converter” (which I don’t quite believe) converts it to a 14:29. Another way to think about it: he went… Read more »

Horns up
Reply to  Andy Hardt
1 year ago

Andy, I am not a former swimmer just a swim fan and as I read the article I really felt your angle and your appreciation for the magnitude of the accomplishment was not missed in my eyes. I don’t think anyone who knows much about swimming at all could lack appreciation. And the fact that you took the time to write this type of article says a lot. I actually have never read an article like this about any other swim that I can recall in all of my years following this site. So to me, it is the biggest compliment to Finke that you chose to write the article from a different, more emotional perspective. Well done.

Barbotus
1 year ago

One of the best opinion pieces here in quite a while. Nicely done.