Mathematically Speaking: How Do Smith/Finke Records Compare To Dressel?

by Barry Revzin 74

February 25th, 2020 College, News, Opinion, SEC

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
50 Free 19.05 17.63
100 Free 41.80 39.9
200 Free 1:33.03 1:29.15
500 Free 4:08.75 4:06.32
1650 Free 14:29.31 14:12.08

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
50 Free 19.05 18.47 51st
100 Free 41.8 40.76 41st
200 Free 1:33.03 1:29.50 71st
500 Free 4:08.75 4:07.25 6th
1650 Free 14:29.31 14:18.25 18th

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
50 Free 19.05 18.98 19.07
100 Free 41.8 41.81 41.82
200 Free 1:33.03 1:30.11 1:32.05
500 Free 4:08.75 4:06.32 4:10.77
1650 Free 14:29.31 14:12.08 14:45.03

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.

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4 years ago

There’s no comparison. Depth is nothing in distance free vs sprints.

4 years ago

Premature to compare 2020 times to completed/past seasons, when only one major conference men’s meet has been held and NCAAs has not competed yet.

14:45 won’t be the “No.2 time” to compare to past years, etc.

4 years ago

Dressel’s 50 free record is the most impressive in the NCAA in my opinion, at least on the men’s side. On the women’s side, Franklins 200 free has to be my pick just because if the fact that it survived the runs of Manuel, Ledecky, and Comerford, but of course any of Ledecky’s freestyle records are up there as well

JP input is too short
Reply to  Nswim
4 years ago

I’m torn between his 50 free and his 100 fly.

I forgot about Kalisz’s 3:33 IM though… that’s up there.

4 years ago

Very interesting, thank you SwimSwam. I think the main advances in swim training have come about in the anaerobic realm – race pace and USRPT training, Even Urbanchek’s color system allowed coaches to compartment aerobic and anaerobic training (to the extent that energy systems can be separated.) Perhaps this led to more anaerobic training. The result is that sprint times have come down faster than distance times.

Even the ridiculous distance training coaches forced on their swimmers in 1970s and 1980s was profoundly effective for the 1500 freestyle. Recall that the great Brian Goodell won the 1500 at the 1976 Games in a 15:03.9, which would have got him into the finals of most Olympics thereafter. I think the winning… Read more »

Reply to  Mikeh
4 years ago


4 years ago

I remember watching Dolan swim the 4:08 back in 1995. At the time it seemed superhuman. Still does, actually.

Barbell Biomechanics
4 years ago

What an outstanding swimmer Tom Dolan was! I really like putting old records into perspective like this, it really helps you appreciate the talent of these vintage athletes.

4 years ago

The technical changes in swimming have more impact the shorter the distance:
– Starting blocks
– 15 m’ underwaters
Add the additional coaching emphasis on athleticism, especially in starts and walls. and that’s where much of these differences are made.

Reply to  swifter
4 years ago

It is mainly a timing issue. The big drops in distance events happened the generation before. 1975 NCAA cut 16:30, 1976 NCAA cut 15:56.

4 years ago

This is explained by the big evolution on strength training for swimmers that took place in the last 30 years. In and out of the water.