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.
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.