The 2003 FINA World Aquatics Championships was a supremely exciting event for swimming fans. Not only did it gave us a preview of what was to come at the 2004 Athens Olympic Games, but the individual performances at those championships proved swimming was still a long way from reaching its potential.
An 18-year-old Michael Phelps set 5 individual World Records, two of which came during semifinals. Neither semifinal mark would last more than 24 hours, however, as Phelps would only continue to improve in the finals, though he wasn’t the only one who got faster heat-by-heat.
The prelims of the men’s 100 meter butterfly at the 2003 FINA World Championships took place on the morning of July 25th. Americans Phelps and Ian Crocker emerged from the prelims as the top-2 seeds going into the semifinals, establishing times of 52.27 and 52.35, respectively. The World Record stood at 51.81, set by Australian Michael Klim in 1999 while the Course Record stood at 52.10 and was owned by the Olympic gold medalist from 2000, Sweden’s Lars Frolander, set in Fukuoka in 2001.
While prelims results were nothing special, even compared to the World and Course Records at the time, the semifinals were electric.
Swimming in heat 1, lane 6 of the first semifinal, Ukraine’s Andrii Serdinov blasted a 51.76 to erase Klim’s 4-year-old World Record. A name perhaps a little forgotten by history because of what happened next, Serdinov is not a name often spoken about the way that Crocker, Phelps, and Cavic are in the late-2000s butterfly discussions.
The next-closest competitor in the heat, USA’s Crocker, was fully 45/100ths behind Serdinov, touching in 52.21 to equal his lifetime best from the 2002 Pan Pacific Championships.
As Serdinov made his way towards the media heat 2 stepped onto the blocks. Not only was Serdinov the fastest-ever in the 100 fly, but he was also one of only five men to ever break the 52-second barrier, joining Aussies Klim and Geoff Huegill, (51.98, 2000) German Thomas Rupprath (51.88, 2002), and American Phelps (51.84, April 2003), who was awaiting the starter’s horn for the second semifinal.
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.
Serdinov would have to try again.
The lane assignments and entry times for the final of the Men’s 100 Butterfly, which took place on July 26th, 2003, were set as follows:
- Evgeny Korotshkin, Russia, 52.55
- Igor Marchenko, Russia, 52.44
- Ian Crocker, USA, 52.21
- Michael Phelps, USA, 51.47
- Andrii Serdinov, Ukraine, 51.76
- Thomas Rupprath, Germany, 52.37
- Franck Esposito, France, 52.49
- Takashi Yamamoto, Japan, 52.55
Crocker blasted out to an early lead, and by 50 meters was fully 1.12 seconds under World Record pace, turning in 23.99. Rupprath and Serdinov trailed splitting 24.31 and 24.39, respectively. Serdinov utilized a relatively high-arm recovery and every-other breathing pattern throughout the race, a stark contrast to Phelps one lane above who appears to breathe on all but three strokes (not counting the two breakout strokes). Rupprath, meanwhile, also demonstrates a high-arm recovery but maintains a two-down-one-up breathing pattern.
With less than 25 meters remaining five men were ahead of or finger-tipping the World Record line. Ultimately, the mark Phelps had set in the semifinals would out-run all competitors except himself and Crocker, though it was Crocker who touched first and took the World Record into uncharted territory with a 50.98, shaving half-a-second from Phelps’ one-day-old record. Phelps nonetheless shaved another 37/100ths from his previous mark to finish 2nd in 51.10, leaving bronze to Serdinov who also went a lifetime best, touching in 51.59.
The 2003 World Championships were a breakthrough for Crocker, who dropped an immense 1.23 seconds from his best time in Barcelona.
Phelps and Crocker would wrestle for the title of world’s greatest in the 100 butterfly for the next five years. Though Phelps usually got the better of Crocker when gold medals were on the line, it wasn’t until 2009 that Phelps once again boasted a faster best-time than Crocker. While Phelps managed a “magic touch” to win gold in the 100 fly at the 2004 Athens Olympic Games, Crocker won the 2005 World Championships in a blazing 50.40 which remained the “textile World Record” until 2016 when Singapore’s Joseph Schooling managed a 50.39 to win Olympic gold.
Finals, Men’s 100 Butterfly, 2003 World Championships:
(Crocker lane 3, Phelps lane 4, Serdinov lane 5; Phelps does not appear to be a medal-contender until around 75 meters when he makes his classic charge near the end of the race.)
Phelps’ dominion of the individual medleys was also secured during these championships. Phelps set a new World Record in the semifinals of the 200 IM and then lowered the mark again by 1.5 seconds in the finals to capture the title by nearly 4 seconds. Australian Ian Thorpe took second in the 200 IM in 2003, swimming a 1:59.66 to Phelps’ 1:56.04. Phelps also won the 400 IM in 4:09.09 and the 200 fly in 1:54.35. Interestingly, Phelps never stood on top of the podium to receive a relay medal in 2003. Though Phelps got Team USA out to an early lead in the 800 freestyle relay, the team was overtaken by Australia and settled for silver. Phelps did earn a gold from the 400 medley relay, though he swam the butterfly leg in prelims, ceding the finals to Crocker, as he would in 2004, though in 2003 the action was not voluntary.