Just the Beginning: Why This Year’s Amazing Performances Will Soon Be Average

This year’s NCAA Championships was amazing. I know what you’re thinking: aren’t they all? The Fastest Short Course Meet in the World (TM) doesn’t often disappoint, and this year was far from that. It seemed that nearly every session had jaw dropping swims, from Morozov’s 17.8 to Kevin Cordes’ complete revision of what a good 200 breaststroke was (1:48? There were many teams at NCAAs that didn’t have an IMer that fast).Still, as I watched, all I could think about was what was coming. It should come as no surprise to readers of this website that there is something of a phenomenon going on in age group swimming at the moment. Swimming is a sport that has seen rapid change in times since it’s inception: the sectional qualifiers of today would have been Olympians in another era based on raw time. However, as time has passed it seemed the pace of improvement had slowed. As good as Morozov’s 17.8 was, many people on deck noted that it was more surprising that we hadn’t seen a 17. split yet with the number of swimmers that gotten to the 18 mid range over the years.

I think we are approaching a point where improvement at the top of events will continue at least at it’s current pace but that depth is actually going to improve faster. Not to harp on the 50 freestyle, but I think that needing only a 19.4 to make the A Final in that event will look like the Stone Age very, very soon. When so many 15-17 year old swimmers are going 19 in that event, with one 14 year old almost there, it’s not hard to envision that in four years you will need an 18 to make the A final.

I use sprinting as an example but it’s not the only one. The NAG record assault we’ve seen this year is totally unprecedented, and it will leave few events untouched once those swimmers reach college age. When Mike Barrowman won the NCAA Championships in the 200 Breaststroke with a 1:53.7 in 1990, it took over a decade for anyone to beat that time. In this case, I don’t see that happening, and not only because Cordes is just a sophomore. Swimmers are going fast enough at 15-17 that they could go sub 1:50 200 breaststrokes in college in the next few years and at least push Cordes.At this point, I feel it’s appropriate to address an important question: why is this happening? Why is improvement moving away from a slowing curve? Some attribute recent fast swims to the the suit era and the way it expanded swimmers’ notions of what was possible. I think there’s something to that explanation, but I don’t think it nearly covers it.

At the risk of sounding self-congratulatory, i think we owe this “talent” explosion to the increased proliferation of results and coverage via the internet. As recently as when I was an age grouper (1993-2000), if you were a good young swimmer you dominated local meets and that was it. For the most part, you had to wait until the Top 16 lists were released (far after your season was over) to see how you stacked up.

Now, age groupers are finding out about others in real time, at this website and through their own hounding searches through the ample live results resources. I believe this has compacted the amount of time between a jaw dropping swim and young swimmers adapting to the new reality of what is “fast”. Likewise, coaches are exchanging information in a way they never have before across some of these same platforms. This doesn’t even begin to address how much these developments have changed international swimming.

As I left this meet (and NCAA Swimming for a while), I couldn’t help but think of two things: how amazing it was and how amazing it will be. Couple that optimistic thought with the fact that University of Cincinnati is bringing back it’s scholarships, that’s a lot of optimism for college swimming. For the Fastest Short Course Meet in the World, it means we aren’t going to be changing that title anytime soon.

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Eric
8 years ago

Chris, I agree with you whole heartedly. I too attributed this new wave of speed to the ‘post-suit effect’, because it changed how we position our bodies in the water… and more importantly train to do so. But the internet, now that you mention it, is spot on.

It started with Floswimming, when you and Garrett got ME hooked on the sport in 2008. Until that point I knew nothing about other swimmers, what they looked like or how they swam/trained/looked in the water. I had no concept of checking results. 2008 happened to be a breakout year for me.

You’re absolutely right. Real-time results redefines what “fast” means. I remember when 19 was fast… now it’s average and par… Read more »

8 years ago

I think the times have definitely changed (pun intended) and information technology has spurred that changed, but surely competitor information alone can’t be the driving force behind such drastic improvements.

Not sure what it might be, but possibly advances in the quality of information available to coaches such as live biometrics, sports psychology, sports medicine….who knows!

One thing is for sure (as is characteristic of the information age) by the time we know, some new factors will be on the scene.

Ben
8 years ago

I’d have to say that science plays a big part in this. 20 years ago you needed yards. Yes, sprinters needed less, but you still needed a third of your season to building an aerobic base. Lots of 10 x 150s and so on. Now, many coaches have come to understanding that you don’t need all the excess for a swimmer who is putting in 800 yards over the course of 4 days…Dave Salo, Brett Hawke, etc.

Also, lengthening out the meet helps, I think. It gives swimmer the ability to focus on one race a day if they want. There are still swimmers who do the double and go lights out, but there will always be outliers.

Eric
8 years ago

Someone I know proposed the idea that Phelps’ performance in 2008 sparked a huge surge in enrollment in swimming, leading to a much bigger talent pool for our sport than normal. We are now 5 years past that and many of those age group swimmers would now be at high school or entering college age. It made sense to me. Just a thought.

miws
Reply to  Eric
8 years ago

I agree with the Phelps argument. He and others made swimming not only wildly popular but more viable professionally.

Gary C
Reply to  miws
8 years ago

We’re getting far better athletes in the sport than we did 20 years ago. Phelps (and the media behind him) helped make swimming “cool” and that’s bringing more kids in to swim and getting more kids to stick with the sport. Same thing occurred in golf with Tiger. Now a kid like a Kris Humphries/Kiki Vandeweghe (for you old-timers) is more likely to stay in swimming than before.

Steve Nolan
Reply to  Eric
8 years ago

I can buy it. That, combined with newer training methods AND the internets AND probably a bunch of other things we still haven’t realized yet.

Steve Nolan
Reply to  Steve Nolan
8 years ago
Swim Coach Brandon
Reply to  Steve Nolan
8 years ago

HAHA! The perfect storm. Classic and well said.

Lane Four
8 years ago

As fast as the swimmers are in yards, I would love to see the NCAA go metric (25 meters). I believe the last time that this was done was 2004 and the results were astonishing. World records at an NCAA swim meet. With the talent already in place and the newer and better ready to step it up, NCAA owes it to the public and the swimmers to give more with world records rather than U.S Open or American records. I understand one of the major arguments against this idea is that not all swimmers have access to 50 meter pools or 25 meter pools for that matter. Somehow this can be worked out if only for the competitive nature… Read more »

Jack
Reply to  Lane Four
8 years ago

I agree, and I would love to see that. However, some schools only have access to a 25 yard pool, not a 50 meter pool with a bulkhead (or 25 meter pool). This might be an issue, as some teams wouldn’t be able to train/compete in the pool that would be used for conference championships/NCAA’s. This is a bigger issue that you make it seem, not everyone does have a 25 meter pool, or can afford building a new pool just for this purpose. However, it would be great to see this happen, I just really doubt seeing it happen any time soon. If it were to happen, I think it would be great to see it long course, not… Read more »

JackedAndTan
Reply to  Jack
8 years ago

It really isn’t a good argument. If you train in a 25 yard pool, it’s not like swimming short course meters is completely different. It’s still water, you just add a stroke per lap. I’ve even tried both in the same day (at a pool that was set up for both SCY and SCM) and once you’re racing, you don’t really notice it.

Lane Four
Reply to  Jack
8 years ago

Agree 100%

8 years ago

It s not a US phenom.Its all around the world.Australians,Brazilians,Russians…
In my country(Brazil) the difference i can tell is one:HEIGHT.
The new generation is a lot taller than old one.Down here, average man size is around five-eight(If i am not Mistaken, is five-ten in US).In the 15-17category, you can see a lot of boys around six-two/six-three, and that didn t happen ten years ago.
Some impressive category times(at that time) has gotten beat by a lot(like guys two seconds faster than Cielo in 100 free and near a full second faster in 50).

Sree
8 years ago

One comment to play devil’s advocate – not my personal belief but one worth keeping in the back of your mind. Was recently having this exact argument with a friend of mine who I grew swimming with and I said how awesome is it how much times have improved at the age group and college level.

His reaction was yes its very impressive but he also seemed very skeptical that “all” of these times were not performance enhanced. He made the point that steroid proliferation had seen a pronounced uptick especially at the high school level and that there are still performance enhancing drugs available that current doping agency testing cannot catch (Never checked to keep him honest on this… Read more »

Ben
Reply to  Sree
8 years ago

Oh I fully agree. You are a fool to believe that top level athletes aren’t doping. Lance never failed a test. Marion never failed a test. I watch all high-level sports assuming they are doping. Look at Dwight Howard pre- and post-NBA Draft. He is much bigger…MUCH bigger. Looking through those glasses, however, I still am impressed with the performances.

Jg
Reply to  Sree
8 years ago

Yes .whilst it was rolled out terribly & their uber accusations may get them sued big time – the Australians drug peeps are after peptides. And yes Chris – the Internet is The factor here. Easy to get .

But it is not only sport for the young – a huge market is peptides & HGH for ordinary people . Your local Rejuvenation Clinic is a hot bed of HGH & peptides & testosterone injections. The corporate world is right up on this & all who can afford it eg Holywood.

Within society you have the big split. Most are fatter& lazier than ever in civilisation but a small minority – 10 % are superbods.

I also think the ever… Read more »

Jg
Reply to  Jg
8 years ago

Further in the fatty bumbahhs vs the elite that so pervades our society I give the example of King Louis 14 .

Meals were a public spectacle where Louis & sometimes Marie Antoinette ( she got fed up & retreated to her toy farm ) sat at a table up front of hundreds of spectators. Course after course was brought out & the people clapped & cheered as Louis guzzled away . it reminds me when I open a mag or even most newspaper sites where the buffed/ touched up bodies of the elite are laid out for us fatsos & proletariat to wonder at.

Here I am going to do an absolute meanie. It is a fact that Michael… Read more »

Swerve
Reply to  Sree
8 years ago

Spotted, Sree…

Coach Old
Reply to  Swerve
8 years ago

As a recently retired coach who helped out on numerous countries’ national teams, I can honestly say nobody is doping at the top level. The athletes at the top are there for a reason–no shortcuts, hard work, dedicated coaches, improved training technology, etc. The ones doping are the ones that are stupid and will never get to the top.

Yes, yes, Lance Armstrong was caught and “never” failed a test. A) different sport. No comparison. B) He got good then resorted to doping after the pressures of winning and C) he became psycho.

Please get to know these athletes before accusing. I agree with DeSantis….swimming is only going to get better. We are living in the golden age for sure.

Ben
Reply to  Coach Old
8 years ago

It’s easy to say that behind anonymity. What are your credentials? How did Ray Lewis bounce back from his injury this year? How do symphony violinists stay calm during concerts? How does our military stay sharp during 36 hours of no sleep? You are a fool to say hard work gets you there. 70% of aerobic capacity is genetic. The mitochondrial density of a child is inherited from the mother. Have you seen Phelps’s mom?

I don’t know the specific athletes, but I know athletes. I remember seeing what mediocre high school football players in small town Nebraska would do to get better. I’ve been on the coaching side as well. I’ve been part of a staff that trained an… Read more »

liquidassets
Reply to  Ben
8 years ago

What evidence is there for a history that Lezak was doping?

Ben
Reply to  Ben
8 years ago

Not Lezak specifically, and I see how it sounds like that. Apologies. The evidence in the past that I’m referring to is when athletes do absolutely ridiculous things (win 7 tours, knock out 70 homeruns, etc.) when they are in their mid-30s or later, they have had some pharmaceutical advantage.

These athletes are amazing specimens. If any of us doped up like these guys we wouldn’t be nearly as good as them. I agree that there is hard work, I agree that there is talent, but when money is involved things get dicey.

MarkB
Reply to  Coach Old
8 years ago

Coach Old – saying “nobody” at the top levels of swimming is doping is naive and too absolute just as believing almost everyone IS doping (Ben).

Ben
Reply to  MarkB
8 years ago

Please watch the ESPN 30 for 30 “9.79”. I am closer with saying everyone dopes than Coach saying no one dopes.

mcgillrocks
8 years ago

records will be broken, and in the stage of evolution our sport is in they will be broken a lot. i find that makes it all the more impressive when great records from the past are still relevant (bobby hackett’s 16&U 1500 record comes to mind. set 37 years ago, no one was within 25 seconds of it last year)

Jg
Reply to  mcgillrocks
8 years ago

The 1500 age group & Bobby are special . Steve Holland’s 15 & 16 years records were pipped & the lasted by Kieren Perkins . Grant could not get Kierens 16 years record & young Mack Horton at 15.03 is almost there but might run out of time.

So in effect – USA just missed 2 generations of young 1500 superstars . 1500 superstars are very rare .

mcgillrocks
Reply to  Jg
8 years ago

another greta record that blew me away was sippy woodhead’s 200 free record from all the way back in 1978. it still stands, and the time of 1:58 would have been in the medal mix in athens some 26 years later. few times by anyone ever could have won medals 20 years later, but a 14 year old could have, despite all the advances in the sport

incredible

Jg
Reply to  mcgillrocks
8 years ago

Yes 1978 was amazing for the burst of young female distance swimmers – Tracey , Michelle , Kim , Sippy .

The Moscow boycott really shut the door . Kim linehan just came from the clouds like Ledecky . The others were internationals at 13.

aswimfan
Reply to  mcgillrocks
8 years ago

Or the 400 free WR (4:06.28) by then 15 yo Tracey Wickham at the same 1978 Worlds.

That WR lasted for 10 years until Janet Evans broke it in 1987, but her World Championships record lasted for 30 (thirty!) years until Manadou broke it in 2007 Melbourne.

About Chris DeSantis

Chris DeSantis

Chris DeSantis is a swim coach, writer and swimming enthusiast. Chris does private consulting and coaching with teams and individuals. You can find him at www.facebook.com/cdswimcoach. Chris is a 2009 Graduate from the Masters of Applied Positive Psychology program at the University of Pennsylvania. He was the first professional athletic coach …

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