This week, the oldest USA Swimming National Age Group Record for girls will turn 40, an almost-unfathomable feat, given the rate at which the sport in general has improved since then.
At the 1978 World Aquatics Championships in West Berlin, Sippy Woodhead, who at the time was just 14-years old, won gold in the 200 free and silver in the 400 free in times of 1:58.53 and 4:07.15, which remain to this day the fastest ever done by an American 13-14 swimmer.
The 200 free will officially hit its 40th birthday on Wednesday, August 22nd, while the 400 free hit its birthday on Friday, August 24th. In that 400 free, Woodhead lost to Australian Tracey Wickham, who wasn’t much older: only 15.
At the time, Woodhead’s 200 free was a new World Record, as was Wickham’s winning 400 free. While that global standard has come down by 5-and-a-half seconds in the 200 and almost 10 seconds in the 400, no American swimmer has yet been faster before her 15th birthday.
The late 1970s and early 1980s were a golden era of sorts for young American female swimmers. Besides her, that 1978 World Championship team had a 15-year old Tracy Caulkins win 5 gold medals, and not long after, a young Mary T. Meagher would put up teenage times that also stand untouched to this day.
Even in a rubber suit, Missy Franklin, who in spite of her current battles with injury is and was one of the best teenage swimmers in history and the 15-16 record holder, couldn’t get Woodhead’s mark.
Woodhead’s records are just now becoming in danger again, with Claire Tuggle‘s 1:58.59 from US Nationals now just .06 seconds a way from the record. Tuggle doesn’t turn 15 until July of next year, so there’s a very real chance that the 200 won’t survive to its 41st anniversary.
As for the 400 free, it might stand a little longer. Tuggle is the next-closest current competitor in that race as well: she ranks 4th all-time in the age group with a 4:10.11. Becca Mann swam a 4:08.65 in 2012, and Katie Ledecky swam a 4:09.30 at the 2012 Missouri Grand Prix. Ledecky aged up a month after that swim and was already 15 by the time she swam 4:05.00 at the 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials.
The oldest boys’ record still on the books are both in the 1500 free, and both from 1976: Jesse Vassallos swam 15:31.03 for the 13-14 record at the 1976 Olympic Trials, while Bobby Hackett swam 15:03.91 at only 16 a month later at the Olympics. Decades later, Hackett’s swim still would have been good for 4th at US Nationals.
Reaching around the world, the fastest-ever female 13-14 200 freestyler in Australia is Ellese Zalewski, who swam 2:00.51 in 2006; the fastest 400 freestyler is Remy Fairweather, who swam 4:08.63 in 2012. The current World Record holder in the 200 free (and pre-Ledecky record holder in the 400), Federica Pellegrini, wasn’t even on the same planet as Woodhead at 14: her first sub-2 minute swim in the 200 free didn’t come until she was 16.
On average, long course records are much older than their short course equivalents, probably due to the advancements in underwater swimming having a bigger impact on short course racing than long course. The oldest SCY national age group record still standing is Mary T.’s 1981 mark of 1:52.99 in the 200 yard fly.
The enormity of the mountains that these swimmers built that have, in many cases, yet to be climbed can’t help but make one wonder what they would have down with modern suits, goggles, nutrition, pool designs, and training techniques. Or, if there’s something from that generation that is lost, that doesn’t fit the mold of the 21st century athlete, be it the coaching style, or some other immeasurable quality that played into the hands of these young athletes, where they wouldn’t necessarily catch the same spark in a 2018 swim team.
Watch highlights from the meet, including the last 50 of Woodhead’s 200 free, below:
Whatever the case, this week, as the Jr. Pan Pac Championships kick off in Fiji, we can sit in awe, and imagine what it would’ve been like to see a 14-year old girl swim times that still qualify as world class today, but set in the late 1970s. The records will, eventually, be broken, but how long they’ve stood will always be remembered.