Last week during the SEC Championships, Florida sophomores Kieran Smith and Bobby Finke rewrote the distance freestyle record books – settings marks of 4:06.32 in the 500y and 14:12.08 in the 1650y, respectively. At this point, Florida very nearly owns all of the men’s freestyle records, missing only the 200y free (an event in which Kieran Smith is the 4th-fastest all time and still has NCAAs in a few weeks to improve further).
One USA Swimming coach posed the question on Facebook shortly after Finke’s swim, asking “so this is as impressive as Dressel, right?”
Ignoring the question of ‘versatility’ (Caeleb Dressel made history in so many races), on a single event scale that got us thinking about how it does compare to Dressel’s historic swims of 2 years ago.
We thought it would be interesting to try to contextualize what a 4:06 and 14:12 actually mean as far as swimming history goes, and we don’t just mean quote-tweeting Zane Grothe, whose records they beat. Let’s start by going back in time. Way back to a bygone era, long before these swimmers were even born.
The year is 1995. Tom Dolan just broke the records in the 500y and 1650y freestyles himself, setting new standards of 4:08.75 and 14:29.31. The other freestyle records at the time were several years old: Tom Jager‘s 19.05 from 1990 and Matt Biondi‘s 41.80 and 1:33.03 from 1987.
|Event||1995 Record||2020 Record|
In 25 years, the 500 free record has gotten 2.43 seconds faster. Meanwhile the 200 free record has dropped nearly 4 seconds, and even the 100 free record has dropped 1.9!
In percentage terms, this is quite stark: the 500 free record has gotten just 1.0% faster, the mile 2.0% faster, while the 200 free has improved by 4.2%, the 100 free by 4.5%, and the 50 free by a totally nonsensical 7.5%.
But we all know Dressel is an extreme outlier. Let’s compare the 1995 records instead to the second fastest performer:
|Event||1995||2020 – 2nd Performer All-Time||
2020 Rank of 1995 Record
This may be a better way of looking at it. The distance events have improved by just 0.6% and 1.3% in the last quarter century, while the shorter events have advanced by 3.0%, 2.5%, and 3.8% respectively. Dolan’s times still rank in the top 25 performers all-time. Meanwhile, just last year, there were 12 splits in the 800 free relay at NCAAs under 1:32. 19.0 and 41.8 are still very fast times, but 1:33.0 won’t even make some school’s relays. And as of last year, thanks to Carson Foster, the National High School Record (1:32.99) is under 1:33 as well.
While the distance events haven’t improved as much as the shorter ones, how far ahead are Smith and Finke from their competition, as compared to Dressel and Dean Farris? Dressel’s marks are 4.5% (the 50) and 2.1% (The 100) faster than the second best performer. The other three are much closer: Farris’ and Smith’s marks are just 0.4% ahead of second-best, while Finke put a little more distance on the distance event – he’s a full 0.7% ahead of Grothe’s old mark.
Showing the above in a slightly different light, let’s look at the top two times of the year 2020 so far, including the two new records:
|Event||1995 Record||2020 – #1||2020 – #2|
In other words, Matt Biondi‘s 41.80 from 1987 would still be the top time, while Jager’s and Dolan’s marks would be 2nd. It’s only the 200 free that has fallen back a bit – it would be 6th.
Altogether, Kieran Smith’s and Bobby Finke’s swims are incredible accomplishments. And we’re excited to see what they still have in store at NCAAs. The distance events have lagged their shorter counterparts by quite a bit over the last couple decades – to keep up with a 4% level of improvement over 25 years, they would have to shoot for a 3:58.80 and 13:54.54, respectively. Those times might sound completely absurd, because they are completely absurd. But so was 1:29 not too long ago.