One One-Hundredth of a Second

Courtesy: Corey He

Out-touching someone in a race is perhaps one of the best feelings you can have as a competitive swimmer. Moreover, if one one-hundredth of a second is the margin of victory that determines the winner — and, in particular, a championship final — the moment becomes so much more special. In fact, this has happened quite a few times on swimming’s largest stage.

Obviously, we’ll never forget Michael Phelps’ magical moment against Milorad Cavic at the 2008 Olympics to win his seventh gold of the meet in the men’s 100 butterfly. Today, we’ll look at several other memorable moments where one one-hundredth of a second decided Olympic glory.

Men’s 100 Freestyle, London 2012

Nathan Adrian’s one and only individual Olympic gold medal came at a time where he was putting together some of his strongest performances. A three-time consecutive NCAA champion, Adrian had already put together two of his fastest swims of his career at the 2012 Olympics: he led off the U.S. 400 freestyle relay in 47.89, and he went 47.97 in the semifinals of the individual event.

Prior to the Games, he had never broken the 48-second barrier. Having now done so twice in the same meet, he was all set to go for the Olympic final.

Meanwhile, the favorite for Olympic gold, Australia’s James Magnussen, was on an absolute tear. At the 2011 Worlds, Magnussen led off Australia’s 400 freestyle relay en route to the gold medal, and he captured another gold in the 100 freestyle just days later. At the 2012 Australian Nationals, he put up a time of 47.10 — the fastest textile suit swim of all-time (at the time).

The 100 freestyle is often touted as one of the more exciting races at the Olympics, and this Olympic final lived up to it. At the 50-meter mark, Adrian turned in third and pressed for the lead on the backstretch. Magnussen, farther behind but known for his remarkable closing speed, began to make his move.

With 20 meters left, Magnussen had overtaken Adrian and held a slight margin over the rest of the field. But with just 10 meters to go, Adrian took his last breath, put his head down, and pulled even with Magnussen as they barreled towards the wall.

In what was a dramatic photo finish, Adrian had out-touched Magnussen, 47.52 to 47.53, turning in the fastest time of his career. In doing so, Adrian had ended a 24-year drought for American swimmers on the top step of the podium at the Olympics in the 100 freestyle. What a race.

Men’s 50 Freestyle, Rio 2016

Not only is this race about a photo finish, but it is also the story of a 16-year-long journey for American swimmer Anthony Ervin.

At the 2000 Sydney Olympics, Ervin would share the victory with another American, Gary Hall Jr., in the 50 freestyle. I guess Ervin does have a thing for close races — albeit, a 50 is always guaranteed to be a close race.

After Sydney, Ervin stepped away from swimming in 2003, but he began a competitive comeback starting in 2011. He finaled in the 50 freestyle at the 2012 London Olympics, ultimately finishing in fifth place — with Florent Manaudou of France winning the gold medal.

After several more strong showings at the 2013 and 2015 Worlds, Ervin found himself in the 2016 Olympic final, one lane over from Manaudou. Despite a slow start, he overcame the initial deficit and ran down the field, out-touching Manaudou and denying the Frenchman an Olympic repeat.

In doing so, Ervin, at the age of 35, became the oldest swimmer to ever capture Olympic gold. A 16-year-long journey capped off with the perfect full-circle ending — by one one-hundredth of a second.

Women’s 100 Butterfly, Atlanta 1996

Out of all the races I’m covering today, this one is the closest: the top three medalists were separated by merely a tenth of a second.

This race was a nailbiter between Liu Limin of China — who was, at the time, the 2nd-fastest woman in history in the event — and two Americans: Amy Van Dyken, the first American woman to win four golds at a single Olympics; and Angel Martino, a former world-record holder in the 100 freestyle.

When you rewatch this race, you’ll make two interesting observations. The first is that butterfliers were allowed to remain underwater past 15 meters. Unlike backstroke, the rule change that limited underwater to 15 meters did not take place for butterfly until 1998. In fact, Japan’s Ayari Aoyama — who was just 14 years old at the time — was leading at the halfway mark, courtesy of staying underwater for over 30 meters on the opening lap.

The second observation is that the race was truly anyone’s race with about 15 meters to go. Though Martino and Aoyama were leading the race at the 50, with 10 meters left, the race had narrowed down to Liu and the two Americans. Liu, however, took a final “half-stroke” and Martino opted for a longer glide — while Van Dyken, who was running third, timed her final strokes perfectly.

When it was all said and done, Van Dyken emerged with the gold in 59.13, followed by Liu in 59.14 and Martino in 59.23.

Maybe it’s just something about 100 butterfly races that have close finishes. If you disagree, just check out the next race below.

100 Butterfly, Seoul 1988

I actually covered this race in a previous article (you can find it here) — maybe I’m biased since I used to be a butterflier, but this is one of my favorite races of all time.

The more I rewatch this race, the more I realize two things. One: Matt Biondi was truly in the lead for 99 meters of the race — in fact, he was well under world record pace for most of the race. Two: Biondi’s last stroke really opened the door for Anthony Nesty to pull off a tremendous comeback win — 53.00 to 53.01.

Biondi would win seven medals at the 1988 Olympics, though this race left him wondering if the result would have been different had he grown his fingernails a bit longer. I’m also curious if perhaps one centimeter of fingernail length translates to one one-hundredth of a second.

Nesty, meanwhile, would collect another bronze medal in the 100 butterfly at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics — today, he coaches at the University of Florida and was recently named head coach of the 2024 U.S. Olympic team. I can’t wait to see what happens at this summer’s 100 butterfly Olympic final.

100 Breaststroke, Seoul 1988

Indeed, we’ve got ourselves TWO races in the same meet where one one-hundredth of a second decided the Olympic gold medal. In fact, this race might even be more exciting than the 100 butterfly from the same Olympics because the top three swimmers were separated by just 0.16 seconds.

Though this race had no clear favorite, Adrian Moorhouse of Great Britain, Károly Güttler of Hungary, and Dmitry Volkov of the Soviet Union were most certainly in the mix. Moorhouse, in particular, had finished just off the podium at the 1984 Olympics, and after a brief retirement, he was now ready to stake his revenge.

The race unfolded in dramatic fashion, with Volkov storming to an early lead and turning under world-record pace — a full body length ahead of both Moorhouse and Güttler. Volkov kept the lead down the backstretch, with Moorhouse and Güttler unable to make much of an impression.

With just five meters to go, Volkov was still in front, followed by Güttler and Moorhouse. Moorhouse made a final surge to the wall, though, and with a half stroke at the finish, managed to take the gold medal in 1:02.04. He was followed by Güttler in 1:02.05 and Volkov in 1:02.20 — in a race that was too close to call for commentators.

After this Olympic final, Moorhouse would go on to set the world record in the 100 breaststroke in 1989, and he would appear in another Olympic final four years later in Barcelona. Güttler would go on to claim the world record as his own in 1993, becoming the first man under 1:01 in the event — he would earn another silver medal in the 200 breaststroke at the 1996 Olympics.

Men’s 100 Butterfly, Beijing 2008

Wait, so it happened twice? In the same race??

Yes — indeed it did. Although this was to determine the bronze medal of the race, I had to include this simply because something like this will likely never happen again.

At the halfway point in the race, Cavic was in the lead — Phelps was in a distant 7th, more than half a second off the pace. On the backstretch, while Phelps slowly ate into Cavic’s lead, a fight quickly emerged for the bronze medal — Phelps and Cavic had pretty much locked up the gold and silver medals, in some order.

In the closing meters, two swimmers emerged from the pack: Australia’s Andrew Lauterstein, and the United States’ Ian Crocker — the world-record holder in the 100 butterfly at the time.

In what became another photo finish in the same race, Lauterstein — who was in 4th at the halfway mark — just managed to out-touch Crocker for the bronze medal, 51.12 to 51.13.

And so it happened — lightning struck twice in the same race. How crazy is that?

Final Thoughts

As of today, one one-hundredth of a second is the slimmest of margins that exist in the sport of swimming. But this has me wondering: should swimming start timing to the thousandth of a second? After all, ties or “dead heats” aren’t exactly the rarest thing in swimming — especially ties for the win.

Perhaps I’ll cover some dead heats in a future article. In the meantime, let me know what you think.

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Michael Morris
29 days ago

I’m new to posting but you got my attention. Michael Morris – responsible for the Omega timing at the Olympic Trials. Feel free to send me an e-mail if you want the powerpoint presentation. Here it is in a nutshell.


An electronic start system starts the race.
The timing system records the finish times using touchpads mounted on the wall.
Applying pressure to the touchpad triggers the finish.

Swimming is measured to 1/100th of a second.
How far do we swim in 1/100th of a second?

The world record for Men’s 50m freestyle is 20.91 seconds.
2.4 meters per second.
More than a body length in a second.

The fastest… Read more »

Steve Nolan
1 month ago

Ervin making the US Team in 2016 got me to actually book a ticket to Rio.

It was insanely worth it.

Jalen T
1 month ago

What Anthony Ervin is more impressive than anything Phelps and Lochte did. Why didn’t media support him like they did the other two?

Reply to  Jalen T
1 month ago

Ervin splashed around and got lucky in a 50 free after roiding up. Phelps and Lochte dominated multiple events and disciplines for decades, pipe down

Tony Svensson
1 month ago

Remember the 400 IM final in München?

Mr Piano
1 month ago

It’s crazy how much things could have changed if Cavic just put his head down. I wonder what Phelps’ legacy in the aftermath of Beijing would have been with 7 golds and 1 silver. Technically it’s superior to Spitz, but it doesn’t sound as nice as 8 for 8.

Last edited 1 month ago by Mr Piano
Steve Nolan
Reply to  Mr Piano
1 month ago

It’s a fun thought experiment to think how often he’d win all 8 if you sim’d the meet a zillion times.

4×2 free, 2/4 IMs, 2 fly*/free were pretty well in hand, so that’s 5 you’re getting more often than not. (Still less often than you’d think tho – gotta multiply all the probabilities together to get the total shot, and even 99% ^ 5 is 0.95. Drop that to him being a 95% favorite in all of them and it’s 0.77 that’d he’d still win all 5.)

Of the rest, medley relay prolly also decent odds, but not as high as the previous five.

Then the last two. HOO BOY. You swim either the 4×1 or 100… Read more »

Reply to  Mr Piano
1 month ago

And if Alain Bernard had not gone out in 21.27.

Mr Piano
1 month ago

And Biedermann got the 400 free world record by 0.01 😔

Last edited 1 month ago by Mr Piano
VA Steve
1 month ago

Great and fun article. I’m interested from someone who knows what the statistical reliability of 0.01 is on touchpads then and now. At least with track we have photo finishes.

Last edited 1 month ago by VA Steve
1 month ago

Hey swimswam! Just to point out a typo. Its not Cavic its Čavić. I know it’s a special letter character, but so is Károly Güttler. Think it’s much better having an original name no matter which country the athletes come from. Great article, keep up the good work!

Last edited 1 month ago by Rush
Boxall's Railing
Reply to  Rush
1 month ago

I don’t know, man…he seemed pretty into going by Cavic in the early 00s when he was breaking HS records and during his time at Cal. Then later leaned into Milorad name.

Reply to  Boxall's Railing
1 month ago

I guess he would since he is born and raised in the US. Not speaking on his behalf, just saying, its not a correct form of his last name. Maybe it’s just poking my eyes since it’s my language, but seams right to use the correct characters. On that note it’s not Sarah Sjostrom it’s Sjöström 😀

Just Keep Swimming
Reply to  Rush
1 month ago

How far do you take that though? We write Chinese and Japanese swimmer names in English letters instead of their correct letters in their languages.

AQUA doesn’t use special characters in any official swimmer names. Sarah Sjostrom, Leon Marchand, Nikolett Padar, Kristof Milak etc. But it is odd they used special characters for one name in the article but not others.

Reply to  Just Keep Swimming
1 month ago

I think rush was just trying to pat on the back and be looked as as cultured lol downvote me but rush comment was so smug

Reply to  Rush
1 month ago

Think it’s much better having an original name no matter which country the athletes come from. 

So should they write Chikunova as Чикунова? Daiya Seto as 瀬戸大也? Zhang Yufei as 张雨霏? Hafnaoui as حفناوي?
Very convenient for us to read.

Reply to  etsan
1 month ago

Well thats an idea! People could learn so much more. I already know more just from this comment, thanks man!