Medals may not be awarded for swims during semifinal heats, but if they were, some swimmers might have been able to skip their finals altogether, collect their prize, and go home.
Fortunately for fans (and Olympic broadcasters), that is not the case.
Here we will count down some of the most amazing semifinal swims of the past 20-ish years. Please note that this post largely draws from the Olympics, World Championships, and even U.S. Olympic Trials–we simply don’t have the time to scour every semifinal heat from every major meet over the better part of the last two decades, so we’ve narrowed it down to these three major competitions.
Many World Records were broken in 2009 at meets big and small all over the world, including, of course, the World Championships in Rome. Naturally, some of these swims did take place during semifinals. However, we have only included one of these performances as it was from arguably the most hyped-up race of the entire year.
Furthermore, while we have now-and-then witnessed fantastic swims in prelims we are not including those performances on this list (unless the race is 400 meters or more and there is no semifinal, in which case we could make an exception).
10. Andrii Serdinov/Michael Phelps, 2 Consecutive 100 Fly World Records, 2003 FINA World Championships
Swimming in heat 1 lane 6 of the first semifinal, Ukraine’s Andrii Serdinov blasted a 51.76 to erase Michael Klim’s 51.88 from 1999. The next-closest competitor in the heat, USA’s Ian Crocker, was fully 45/100ths behind Serdinov, touching in 52.21.
As Serdinov made his way towards the cameras heat 2 stepped onto the blocks. Michael Phelps had been 51.8 three times in the past two years, each time missing Klim’s World Record by mere hundredths.
As Serdinov celebrated Phelps charged down the pool, his back-end speed propelling him ahead of the minutes-old record Serdinov set in the first semifinal. Phelps touched in 51.47, taking 29/100ths off Serdinov’s mark and 34/100ths off Klim’s time from 1999.
Crocker would win the gold medal the following day in the final, taking the World Record down to a 50.98.
9. Milorad Cavic, 100 Fly World Record, 2009 FINA World Championships
The 2009 World Championships in Rome were to serve as a rematch between Serbia’s Milorad Cavic and American Michael Phelps. In the final of the 100 fly at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Phelps defeated Cavic by 1/100th of a second to secure his 7th gold medal. One year and a lot of talk later and Cavic was primed for revenge. Phelps, on the other hand, was out to prove his victory in Beijing was rightfully earned and not an issue of Cavic hitting the touchpad first but “too lightly.”
While both men wanted to best one another head-to-head in the final of the 100 fly and win the gold medal, each was also vying to become the first human to swim the 100 LCM butterfly in under 50-seconds.
Phelps posted a 50.22 at the 2009 US National Championships, besting Crocker’s time from 2005 and sending a warning to the rest of the world. Cavic waited until the semifinals in Rome before sending back his retaliation.
In the second semifinal, Cavic blasted a 50.01 to steal the World Record from Phelps. Cavic was also knocking on the door of a 49-second 100 LCM fly swim, something nobody had ever achieved at that time.
Though Phelps would win the gold medal in the final, posting a 49.82 to Cavic’s 49.95, Cavic was amazingly dominant in his semifinal heat. Furthermore, the underwater camera angles provided in the video below give us a beautiful view of Cavic’s exceptionally precise and powerful stroke.
8. Dara Torres‘ 50 Freestyle American Record, 2008 U.S. Olympic Trials
At 42-years-old, Dara Torres was on a mission to prove that her best days as an athlete were still ahead of her. At the 2008 U.S. Olympic Trials In Omaha, Torres made the team by winning both the 50 and 100 freestyles. Torres was so on top of her game that she broke the American Record in the 50–twice!
First, in the semifinals of the 50, Torres popped off a 24.38 to take the top-seed going into finals. Then, in the last race of the entire 2008 U.S. Olympic Team Trials, Torres blasted a 24.25 to lower her 1-day-old record and secure herself another individual event in Beijing, along with the 400 freestyle and medley relays she would also contribute to.
7. Alexander Dale Oen, 100 Breaststroke Olympic Record, 2008 Beijing Olympics
Norway’s Alexander Dale Oen put 2004 Olympic champion Kosuke Kitajima on high alert after his semifinal swim of the 100 breaststroke at the Beijing Olympics. Registering a time faster than Kitajima had ever gone before, Dale Oen set a new Olympic Record in 59.16, missing Brendan Hansen‘s World Record by 0.03.
Dale Oen would go on to win silver behind Kitajima in the finals, touching in 59.20 to Kitajima’s 58.91. Though Kitajima took the Olympic Record away from Dale Oen in the final, Dale Oen goes down in history as the first man to ever break the 1:00 barrier in Olympic competition in the 100 breaststroke, which he did in the prelims in 59.41.
Dale Oen races in heat 2 lane 4. Skip ahead to 7:45 if you want to get right to the race.
Dale Oen’s prelims swim and first Olympic Record:
6. Lilly King‘s Finger-Wagging 100 Breaststroke, 2016 Rio Olympics
The 2016 Rio Olympics were tense–not only were the Zika virus and general safety in Rio De Janeiro on everybody’s mind, but there were many unresolved issues regarding the involvement of the Russian Olympic Team following the revelation that Russia had engaged in a state-sponsored doping scheme for years leading up to 2016. Russia’s athletics team was not allowed to compete in Rio, though many did not think this punishment was enough–some thought a full-ban on Russia was necessary for the 2016 Games.
Wherever you stand on those issues, the fact remains that Russia had a presence in the pool and collected medals while wearing their nation’s flag, a fact that did not sit well with everyone, athletes included.
One of the most iconic moments of the Rio Games was the feud between Russian Yulia Efimova and American Lilly King. Efimova posted a 1:05.72 in the first of the two semifinal heats to produce the fastest time of the competition up to that point in the women’s 100 breaststroke. With heightened confidence, Efimova held high her index finger to show that she was the one to beat–something King took immediate notice of.
King dove in for the second semifinal and produced a time of 1:05.70, just barely edging out Efimova for the top spot going into the next day’s final. King won gold the following day in a new Olympic Record time of 1:04.93 leaving silver to Efimova who finished in 1:05.50. While King’s performance was inspirational, her outspokenness and zero-tolerance stance on doping is what cemented her place in Olympic history–as did her retaliatory finger-wag in the ready room before her semifinal swim.
A race video for neither the semifinals nor the finals was available, so this exposé by NBC Sports is the best we have instead.
5. Sarah Sjostrom, 100 Fly World Record, 2015 FINA World Championships
Sarah Sjostrom had broken the World Record in the 100 fly during semifinals before–at the 2009 World Championships, Sjostrom put up a 56.44 to break her first World Record. Sjostrom would lower that time to a 56.06 in the finals, though three years later American Dana Vollmer would become the first woman to break the 56-second barrier, winning Olympic gold in 55.98 in London.
Vollmer remained the only woman to ever go 55 until the 2015 World Championships when Sjostrom put up a 55.74 in the semifinals. Sjostrom lowered her time again to a 55.64 in the finals to win gold, successfully defending her world title from 2013.
4. Caeleb Dressel, 100 Fly World Record, 2019 FINA World Championships
After missing Phelps’ World Record by 0.04 at the 2017 World Championships in Budapest, Caeleb Dressel‘s first individual World Record was long overdue by the 2019 World Champs in South Korea. Dressel had posted a 50.36 100 fly earlier in 2019 and looked ready to make history in Gwangju.
After swimming a relaxed 50.28 in the prelims, Dressel blasted a 49.50 in the semis to shave 0.32 from Phelps’ 10-year-old mark. Though Dressel’s performance wasn’t necessarily a surprise for those that have been following his career it was still a lot of fun to watch!
3. Katie Ledecky, 1500 Freestyle Prelims World Record, 2015 FINA World Championships
As there are no semifinals for events that are 400 meters and longer, we had to look to the prelims of the women’s 1500 freestyle from the 2015 World Championships for this race.
In Kazan, Katie Ledecky posted a 15.27.71 in the morning heats of the women’s mile, an improvement of 0.65 over her own World Record from the 2014 Pan Pacific Championships.
The distance and duration of the race make this performance even more impressive. All the other swims on this list are either 50, 100, or 200 meter races, and if an athlete already owns the World Record in a race they are less likely to go “fast” in the qualifying heats–or at least, faster than they must to qualify for the final.
Ledecky was nearly 27 seconds ahead of the second-fastest qualifier and would go on to win the final the next day by 15 seconds and lower her World Record again, hitting the wall in 15:25.48.
2. Adam Peaty‘s 56.88 100 Breaststroke, 2019 FINA World Championships
Adam Peaty accomplished the goal of “Project 56” during the semifinals of the 100 breaststroke at the 2019 World Championships. Having been 57.10 in 2018, Peaty felt overdue for a 56-second performance.
Even though viewer confidence in Peaty’s ability to go a 56 from a flat-start was high, the sheer dominance of the swim and the distance he created between himself and the second-best-ever sets this performance apart.
As to be expected, Peaty took the race out with great speed and turned 0.12 under record pace at 50 meters, though it was the final 25 meters that propelled him to the wall ahead of his own World Record line and got him solidly under the 57-second barrier. Not only is Peaty the first man to ever break 57 in the 100 LCM breaststroke but he is the only man to ever break 58-seconds.
1. Regan Smith, 200 Backstroke World Record, 2019 FINA World Championships
At 17-years-old Regan Smith established herself as one of the greatest swimmers competing today. In the semifinals of the 200 backstroke at the 2019 World Championships, Smith blasted a 2:03.35 to shave 0.71 from Missy Franklin‘s 2012 World Record, an other-worldly performance in its own right. Smith’s time also came as a lifetime best by nearly 3 seconds, the same margin she would have over the other 7 women going into the finals.
Smith would win the gold medal in 2:03.69, though she took it out extremely fast, flipping at 100 meters in a blistering 59.45, nearly a second faster than she was out in semis and over a second faster than Franklin was out in her 2012 Olympic gold medal effort. Australian teenager Kaylee McKeown took silver in 2:06.26.
Smith had never been under 2:06 before that semifinal. Then, upon finishing she became one of only 4 women to ever break 2:05 and the only to do so since 2013.
On the final day of racing, Smith was given the opportunity to lead off Team USA’s 400 medley relay. Though she did not swim the 100 backstroke individually in Gwangju, Smith proved she was the only choice for this race when she hit the wall in 57.57, shattering Kathleen Baker‘s 2018 World Record which had stood at 58.00. The American women won the race and set a new relay World Record in the process, and Smith earned her second gold of the 2019 World Championships.
Prelims Bonus: Hayley McGregory and Natalie Coughlin Set 2 Consecutive 100 Backstroke World Records, 2008 U.S. Olympic Trials
2008 was a turning point for swimming. Though 2009 saw more World Records broken, 2008 ushered in a new level of speed in the pool. The 2008 U.S. Olympic Trials saw their fair share of World Records lowered, though the women’s 100 backstroke was the only one reset more than once.
Swimming in heat 15 of the prelims, Hayley McGregory blasted a 59.15 to shave 0.06 from Natalie Coughlin‘s World Record, which had only stood since February. As the top-seed coming into the meet, Coughlin was in the water next. Just moments after McGregory’s big swim, Coughlin put up a 59.03 to take back the World Record.
Both Coughlin and McGregory easily made it through the semifinals. Coughlin won the final with another new World Record, hitting the wall in 58.97. Margaret Hoelzer punched her ticket to Beijing with a second-place finish in 59.21, equalling Coughlin’s former World Record that had been broken twice the day before in prelims. McGregory finished third in 59.79. Hoelzer would go on to win the 200 backstroke at the 2008 Olympic Trials, setting a World Record of 2:06.09 in the process.
Coughlin went on to win gold in the 100 backstroke in Beijing while Hoelzer picked up the bronze. Hoelzer also won the silver medal in the 200 backstroke in Beijing, losing her World Record to Zimbabwe’s Kirsty Coventry, the defending champion from 2004 and also the 2008 silver medalist in the 100. Circling back to the theme of this article, Coventry set new World and Olympic Records in the semifinals of the 100 backstroke in Beijing, stopping the clock in 58.77 to shave 1/10th from Coughlin’s mark. Coughlin, however, managed to swim faster than Coventry the following day with the gold medal on the line, though she never got the World Record back.