The world record in the event had been held by Tom Dolan for nearly eight years, having clocked 4:12.30 at the 1994 World Championships before lowering the mark down to 4:11.76 at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney.
Vendt, who was the silver medalist in those 2000 Games in a time of 4:14.23, had a personal best of 4:13.89 set at that year’s Olympic Trials coming into the 2002 Nationals, while Phelps, just 17 at the time, had put up a time of 4:14.15 at the Janet Evans Invitational one month prior.
It was truly a race for the ages, as we saw Phelps lean on his butterfly prowess early, opening up a 2.6-second lead on Vendt after the opening 100 meters, and then he extended the advantage on backstroke.
Vendt, 21 at the time, made a charge on the breaststroke leg, bringing the advantage down to about half a second at the 300, and then swam up alongside Phelps on the first 50 of free as the two men flipped virtually even with each other at the final wall.
The roar of excitement from the crowd when they made the turn let you know that something special was taking place.
Phelps used a dynamic underwater to open a small lead, and Vendt nearly pulled even with him down the stretch before Phelps managed to out-sprint him and get his hand on the wall first.
Phelps touched in 4:11.09, and Vendt in 4:11.27, both well under Dolan’s previous world record of 4:11.76.
|55.97 (29.81)||58.57 (31.12)|
|1:27.90 (31.93)||1:31.00 (32.43)|
|1:59.38 (31.48)||2:02.79 (31.79)|
|2:36.06 (36.68)||2:37.92 (35.13)|
|3:13.14 (37.08)||3:13.66 (35.74)|
|3:43.54 (30.40)||3:43.40 (29.74)|
|4:11.09 (27.55)||4:11.27 (27.87)|
This swim was a sign of things to come for Phelps. After qualifying for the Sydney Olympics and placing fifth in the 200 fly, and then winning the world title and breaking the world record in the event the following year, he had now made his first major impact in a different event, one that showed off his incredible level of versatility.
For the next two years, Phelps lowered the world record on five separate occasions, culminating with a 1-2 finish with Vendt at the 2004 Olympics in Athens. There, Phelps won gold by more than three and a half seconds in 4:08.26.
He then lopped more than two seconds off that mark at the 2007 World Championships in Melbourne, and then broke it two more times for good measure in 2008, first going 4:05.25 at the U.S. Olympic Trials in an epic dual with Ryan Lochte before putting together arguably the greatest performance of his career under the most pressure an athlete in this sport could ever face.
With the world watching as Phelps embarked on his attempt to win a record eight gold medals at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, Phelps swam his way to a time of 4:03.84, shattering his previous record by 1.41 seconds and setting a mark that no one has been able to touch since.
While the suit advancement played a small part, the improvement Phelps made from the age 17 to 23 is massive, and it’s interesting to look at where it came from. He dropped over seven seconds in that time, and five of them came over the middle 200, including taking off more than three seconds on the breaststroke leg.
|Phelps, 2002||Phelps, 2008|
|55.97 (29.81)||54.92 (29.19)|
|1:27.90 (31.93)||1:26.29 (31.37)|
|1:59.38 (31.48)||1:56.49 (30.20)|
|2:36.06 (36.68)||2:31.26 (34.77)|
|3:13.14 (37.08)||3:07.05 (35.79)|
|3:43.54 (30.40)||3:35.99 (28.94)|
|4:11.09 (27.55)||4:03.84 (27.85)|
Earlier this month, on August 10, it marked 12 years that Phelps’ 4:03.84 had been on the books, and now we’ve now hit the 20-year anniversary since he first broke the record.
Phelps’ World Record Progression, Men’s 400 IM (LCM)
- 4:11.09 – August 15, 2002 – Fort Lauderdale, Florida (2002 Summer Nationals)
- 4:10.73 – April 7, 2003 – Indianapolis, Indiana (2003 Duel In The Pool)
- 4:09.09 – July 27, 2003 – Barcelona, Spain (2003 World Championships)
- 4:08.41 – July 7, 2004 – Long Beach, California (2004 U.S. Olympic Trials)
- 4:08.26 – August 14, 2004 – Athens, Greece (2004 Olympic Games)
- 4:06.22 – April 1, 2007 – Melbourne, Australia (2007 World Championships)
- 4:05.25 – June 29, 2008 – Omaha, Nebraska (2008 U.S. Olympic Trials)
- 4:03.84 – August 10, 2008 – Beijing, China (2008 Olympic Games)
According to SwimmingStats’ Daniel Takata, there are only two swimmers who have held a long course world record longer than Phelps since FINA started recognizing world records solely in LCM in 1957.
Grant Hackett has held the short course meter world record in the men’s 800 freestyle since August 3, 2001, eclipsing the 21-year mark earlier this month.
Mary T. Meagher leads the way, having broken the women’s 200 fly mark in July 1979 and held onto it for nearly 21 years, and Janet Evans follows, having held the women’s 800 free record from March 1988 until August 2008.
After first clocking 2:09.77 to break the previous record shared by Andrea Pollack and Tracy Caulkins (2:09.87), Meagher lowered the record four more times, bringing it down to 2:05.96 in August 1981. That swim remained on the books until May 2000, when Susie O’Neill recorded a time of 2:05.81 at the Australian Olympic Trials.
Evans set the women’s 800 free mark at the 1988 USA Spring Nationals in 8:17.12, and then lowered it down to 8:16.22 the following summer at the Pan Pacific Championships. It wasn’t until the 2008 Olympics that the record fell, as Rebecca Adlington won gold in Beijing in a time of 8:14.10.
Meagher’s record had stood for 20 years, 10 months and 10 days before it was finally broken, while Evans’ stood for 20 years, four months and 25 days. (Evans actually first broke the record in July 1987, but it was lowered by East German Anke Mohring less than a month later. If it wasn’t for Mohring’s swim, Evans would’ve held the 800 free record for over 21 years.)
For Phelps, he would need to hold onto this record until June 25, 2023, to match Meager, and one more day to have the longest standing record in modern swimming history.
We should also acknowledge that two women held the world record in an event longer than that in the 1930s, before FINA starting recognizing records solely in long course. Dutch swimmers Cornelia Kint (women’s 100 back) and Willy den Ouden (women’s 100 free) held world records for 25 years, 22 days and 22 years, 227 days, respectively.
Longest Standing LCM World Records
Courtesy of SwimmingStats
|100 back||Women||Cornelia Kint||NED||9/22/1939||10/14/1964||25||22||25 years, 22 days|
|100 free||Women||Willy den Ouden||NED||7/9/1933||2/21/1956||22||227||22 years, 227 days|
|200 butterfly||Women||Mary T. Meagher||USA||7/7/1979||5/17/2000||20||315||20 years, 315 days|
|800 free||Women||Janet Evans||USA||3/22/1988||8/16/2008||20||147||20 years, 147 days|
|400 IM||Men||Michael Phelps||USA||8/15/2002||8/16/2022||20||1||20 years, 1 days|
|1500 free||Women||Janet Evans||USA||7/31/1987||6/17/2007||19||321||19 years, 321 days|
|400 free||Women||Ragnhild Hveger||DEN||2/10/1937||8/25/1956||19||197||19 years, 197 days|
|100 butterfly||Women||Mary T. Meagher||USA||4/11/1980||8/23/1999||19||134||19 years, 134 days|
|400 free||Women||Janet Evans||USA||12/20/1987||5/12/2006||18||143||18 years, 143 days|
|200 butterfly||Men||Michael Phelps||USA||3/30/2001||7/24/2019||18||116||18 years, 116 days|
The threat level for this record has been very low for the last decade, with Lochte taking a good run in 2012, going 4:05.18 at the Olympics in London, and then after some strong showings from Kosuke Hagino (4:06.05) in 2016 and Chase Kalisz (4:05.90) in 2017, it didn’t look like anyone was coming close anytime soon as the times drifted off.
That was until France’s Leon Marchand, who happens to be coached by the same man who led Phelps throughout his entire career, Bob Bowman, exploded with a five-second drop at the 2022 World Championships, clocking 4:04.28 for the second-fastest swim in history.
After no one had come within two seconds of the record in 10 years, all of a sudden Marchand finds himself less than half a second back.
With the next major international competition on the schedule slated for July 2023 (World Championships in Fukuoka), Phelps’ record has a great chance to overtake Meagher and become the longest-standing mark on the books.
If it gets there, it will be yet another accolade to add to Phelps’ long list of accomplishments. It’s also the lone individual world record still within his grasp, and while Phelps would be the first one to tell you that records are made to be broken, it would be fitting to see it last another 10 months or so.