How Do The World Records From 1981 Compare To Today?

Some events have progressed tremendously in the last decade. It took 55 and 57-point to make the U.S. Olympic team in the women’s 100 fly and 100 back, respectively. Those numbers are still difficult for me to understand, and seemed utterly unthinkable even a few years ago. Other events just seem remarkably stable.

The 200 fly is one such event. On the men’s side, it took just 1:55.08 to make the team this year. That is roughly the same as 2021 (1:55.34), 2016 (1:55.81), and 2012 (1:55.12). Our very own beret-ed and speedo-ed Mel Stewart (who is never a fan of when I write about him, yet here I go again on my own) won the 200 fly at Trials in a time of 1:55.72. In 1992. That’s consistency.

In contrast, Matt Biondi won the 50/100 free double in 22.12/49.31. The 49.31 would’ve finished 29th and the 50 free time would have finished 11th in prelims and seems pretty unlikely to make the final.

But on the women’s side, the numbers are even more stark. One of the most famous world records in swimming is Mary T. Meagher’s 2:05.96, swum in 1981. Still today, she is the #7 American performer of all time (Alex Shackell with her semifinal swim moving into the #8 spot, didn’t quite pass her in the final this evening).

1981 is 43 years ago. Yet it wasn’t even until the 2020(1) Olympic Trials that the winning time (a 2:05.85 from Hali Flickinger) was under Mary T’s record. Regan Smith was slightly faster tonight, winning in 2:05.70 on the front half of her double with the 200 back.

For how immense this gap is, I thought it’d be interesting to see how the other world records from 1981 would fare at this meet.

Event WR Result
F 200 FLY 2:05.96 2nd in finals
F 400 MEDLEY 4:36.29 3rd in finals
F 1500 FREE 16:04.49 3rd in finals
F 400 FREE 4:06.28 3rd in finals
F 200 BREAST 2:28.36 6th in finals
M 800 FREE 7:56.49 6th in finals
F 100 FLY 57.93 8th in finals
F 200 FREE 1:58.23 11th in semis
M 200 BACK 1:59.19 12th in semis
M 200 FLY 1:58.01 12th in semis
F 100 BREAST 1:08.60 15th in semis
M 400 FREE 3:50.49 11th in prelims
M 400 MEDLEY 4:20.05 16th in prelims
F 100 BACK 1:00.86 18th in prelims
F 200 BACK 2:11.77 18th in prelims
F 100 FREE 54.79 20th in prelims
M 100 FREE 49.36 29th in prelims
M 50 FREE 22.54 31st in prelims
M 200 FREE 1:49.16 34th in prelims
M 200 BREAST 2:15.11 40th in prelims
M 100 BACK 55.49 40th in prelims
M 200 MEDLEY 2:02.78 47th in prelims
M 100 BREAST 1:02.86 74th in prelims

The spread is fascinating. For some events (notably the men’s breaststrokes), the 1981 record isn’t remotely competitive. In the men’s 100 breast, it doesn’t even make the Trials cut! In the 200 breast, only just.

But for quite a few events, the record is still remarkably competitive. It would make semifinals in 4 events and it would even make the final in six. Particularly interesting to me is that the men’s breaststrokes seem to have improved significantly more than the women’s – with the men’s records finishing 74th and 40th while the women’s finishing 15th and 6th!

And Mary T. Meagher, 43 years ago, would have still made the U.S. Olympic Team today. It was only appropriate then that she was the one to present the awards for this event. Perhaps some day she will no longer make the Olympic team, but it was not this day.

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20 days ago

I enjoyed this look back at historic times, but I take issue with one of the notables : Matt Biondi. I looked several times to be sure it said 1981. Matt Biondi was born in October, 1965, In 1981 he was 16 and I believe a spry 6’1” 120 lb. He sprouted and in his senior year of high school he set the national records in the 50 and 100 free (20.5/45.05). As a freshman at CAL in 1984, he improved his yards swimming to 20.10/44.00, propelling him to the 1984 Olympic trials. There was no 50m event in ’84, but his 50.16 in the 100m free was good enough to earn a spot on the 4 x 100 meter freestyle… Read more »

20 days ago

Rule changes for backstroke. Had touch wall with hand and now one stroke in on stomach and flip turn. Plus nobody really did underwater dolphin kick yet.

20 days ago

Did breaststroke involve the rotary style kick back then? As an age grouper in the 80s I learned breast with a knees nearly to chest frog kick that basically stopped all forward momentum briefly, sacrificing drag for power.

Reply to  JJ J
16 days ago

As I remember it, you’d get DQd if your head went underwater at ANY point in the stroke- and obvs no dolphin kick on start/ turns
(better designed pools/ higher blocks/ faster swimsuits/ better knowledge of training/ nutrition/ access to physios/ hours in the gym/ professionalisation of swimmers and coaches / funding etc etc etc etc I’d imagine many elite swimmers worldwide in the 80s were trying to hold down some kind of job too!)

20 days ago

Some events got cut off?

20 days ago

Which of those men’s WRs from 1981 will be the first to be broken by a female swimmer in future?

Reply to  Boknows34
20 days ago

200 Breast and 100 Back seem most likely given the logjam that is building a few seconds out, just a matter of if the next transcendent athlete swims those events as their primary

20 days ago

One of the eternal mysteries for swimming will always be what Mary T would have done that day with a suit, the technical training and all the little details everyone mentioned here. And, I mean… goggles. Popov dumped records at sprint events in briefs, no cap, two leg start etc. with times that are still competitive today. Many people say these things are not important but do matter in such events and at this level. Legacy world records always have to be evaluated according to their circumstances

Troy D Odell
20 days ago

Didn’t they change the rules in the breaststroke where you had to keep part of your head above water. I think that made a big difference in the times from the 1980’s versus now.

Reply to  Troy D Odell
20 days ago

That and allowing a dolphin kick on the turn

Reply to  Troy D Odell
20 days ago

They also now allow a dolphin kick on the pullout.

The unoriginal Tim
Reply to  Troy D Odell
20 days ago

Yes and the backatroke turn git a lot faster as well.

Beverly Drangus
20 days ago

Interesting that the W 200 Br holds up so well when the mens Br events have progressed so far.

Reply to  Beverly Drangus
20 days ago

That’s one of the ones that really stood out to me.

Also the men’s 200 back time still making the semifinals, a decade before flip-turns were allowed.