Shouts From the Stands: Best Male Freestyle Sprinter Ever

by SwimSwam 58

April 22nd, 2018 Opinion

SwimSwam welcomes reader submissions about all topics aquatic, and if it’s well-written and well-thought, we might just post it under our “Shouts from the Stands” series. We don’t necessarily endorse the content of the Shouts from the Stands posts, and the opinions remain those of their authors. If you have thoughts to share, please send them to [email protected]

This “Shouts from the Stands” submission comes from D. Michael Connellan:

In March at the D1 NCAAs, Caeleb Dressel became the first man to go under 40 seconds in the 100 Free, clocking a sensational 39.90 in the finals. Being the first to break that barrier brought him universal acclaim as ‘the best ever’ – but is he?

Steve Clark swam for Santa Clara Swim Club and Yale in the early 1960s, and was a member of both the 1960 Olympic team as a high schooler and the 1964 team for which he captured three gold medals and tied the world record in the 100 meter Free. But it was at the 1965 national championships held at Yale in the Payne Whiney gym’s Kiphuth Pool that he swam what many consider his greatest race. In that event he went 45.6 seconds to become the first man to ever go under 46! He was also the first to go under 48, 47 and 21 in the 50. After graduation Clark, who’s in the ISHOF, retired and went on to Harvard Law with his 9 world records unbroken. Today Steve is retired fom the law and helping coach at Marin Co.’s Redwood High.

Clark & Moriarty

So what, you say! 45.6 is a long way from 39.9! But is it? There have been a great many major changes in the sport in the intervening 53 years, and they’ve consistently resulted in faster times. Let’s take a look at seven of these changes:

  • Clark was required in 1965 to hand touch every wall on turns, resulting in much slower turns than Dressel;
  • Modern goggles were not in use until the late 1960s. Clark trained and raced without goggles so his training and underwater vision for turns was quite limited;
  • Underwater swimming wasn’t practiced in Clark’s era meaning he came up much sooner than Dressel on the start and turns, encountering more turbulence and stroking further on the surface, all of which slowed him compared to Dressel.

Kiphuth Pool

Built in 1932, Kiphuth pool was superb for 1965 but hardly state of the art compared to the Freeman Aquatic Center in Minneapolis, with flat walls at both ends and lacking modern non-turbulent lane lines in 1965;

  • Yale’s starting blocks were flat and old-fashioned in 1965, resulting in a slower start for Clark than Dressel;
  • Clark wore a baggy nylon race suit with far more drag than modern suits;
  • Yale had an outstanding coach – Phil Moriarty – and facility for the time, but weight-training, plyometrics and swimming as a science were in their infancy for Clark compared to Dressel’s training.

So if Steve Clark had competed in 2018, or Caleb Dressel in 1965, who would win the mythical title of ‘the best male freestyle sprinter ever’? Do the seven changes add up to 5.7 seconds?  We’ll never know, but it’s worth remembering that swimmers’ times from the decades past may be slower due to rules changes and other advances but it doesn’t necessarily mean that on a level playing field the great swimmers of the past wouldn’t have been just as good.

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This is like comparing babe Ruth vs say Bonds or Arod. Dominance over peers is the only way to measure ie Ruth hit 60 homers in a season when it was extremely uncommon to hit over 20 compared to now when bonds hit 73 but there where many over 50 to 60. That being said, dressel in SCY(and LCM soon) is truly ahead of his time. Tough question. Think biondi would’ve been close to dressel if he was coming up now

40 Flat

And Bonds was drugging hard

pete kennedy

A Quote from my book Kiphuth of Yale A Swimming Dynasty …..”Perhaps one of the most outstanding forecasts Kiphuth made was regarding the 100 freestyle. In numerous discussions with Phil Moriarty and Harry Burke he forecast that sometime in the future, due to improved facilities, diet, increase in number of competitors, etc. a swimmer while go below 40 seconds in the 100 freestyle.”


Comparing dominance over peers is about as good a way as we have to compare athletes across decades, no doubt. But it still has serious flaws — swimming was a much less populated sport back then, in part because the U.S./world population was so much smaller, but also (I think) participation rates were lower. Increases in both overall population and in participation rates make for a much more competitive field now than even just 10-20 years ago, nevermind going back to the 60s. The chances that you simply get lucky and nobody else talented is competing next to you are smaller now than they have ever been. So Dressel being a full second (basically) ahead of the competition in the… Read more »

Ya Yeet

We can also thank the increase in participation rates to the GOAT himself Michael Phelps.

Michael j. Mooney

No doubt..


Dressel’s a good example of how chance can play into unearthing and nurturing rare athletic talents in relatively minor sports. Dressel happened to be born in a mod-sized city that happened to be home to one of, if not the, premier junior swim teams in the world.

Would Dressel be the swimmer he is if he were born in rural Idaho? Probably not. Similarly with Phelps being trained by Bowman from his early teens.

Michael j. Mooney

Best of era hard to compare.Suits and professionalism make a big advantage…Clark way ahead of time..Would have been nice to see Spitz in a couple more olympics. But I think Dressel is just beginning…He may do things unheard of


I saw Yale/sprint and I thought of Righi


Yeah me too, wonder what happened to him…

Michael j. Mooney

Mike troy pretty good too.

Coach Josh

Is it just me, or is 45.6 with a hand touch still really fast today? I mean, what is that with a fast turn and good underwaters? 42 high?

Seems pretty incredible for 50 years ago.

This article asks a question we will never be able to know the answer to, but I love the premise.


since people regularly do that fly with hand touches in a slower stroke, id say its not great today

Coach Josh

If you go 42 in the 100 freestyle today, you are a good swimmer. Not the best swimmer, but you are very fast.

pete kennedy

Most likely you would subject 1.8 for starting block, lane lines ,non turbulence water, and under water ……I base this on Cleveland’s 21. 8 AAU record swim at Yale Carnival and the fact that he did a 22.3 in 1953 NCAA meet at Dillon Pool – Princeton) using AAU not NCAA blocks) including the dive, lane lines etc. then 1.8 for at least .6 on each turn, and finally .8 for goggles and other factors- conditions, so 4.4 minus so 45.6 minus 4.4 = 41.2. Sounds good to me.

Human Ambition

Pete. Could You drop me an E-mail. Mikael at humanambition dot se


Pete, pls

Michael j. Mooney

Suprised he went only 54.7 in 100 meter free….Thought he would have won gold in 64 olympics..

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