Sippy Woodhead’s 13-14 National Age Group Records Turn 40

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.


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2 years ago

that tempo is crazy!

2 years ago

Bobby Hackett’s NAG is actually the 2nd oldest NAG. Jesse Vassalo’s 13-14 NAG in the mile was swum in prelims at the 1976 Olympic Trials, which was about a month prior to when Hackett swam his time at the Montreal Games.

He said What?
Reply to  N P
2 years ago

It is amazing to think that Jesse was a national champion at 15 – just a few days after he turned 15 from 14. If his 400 IM race at the 1976 outdoor nationals had been just a few days earlier, he would have been a United States national champion at 14! He was a special kid who was robbed of glory because of the 1980 boycott.

He said What?
2 years ago

I believe that the swimmers had it in their heads that the only was to success (back then) was massive amounts of meters daily – up to 20,000 meters per day (whether you were a sprinter, mid-distance, or long distance). The kids were willing to endure the pain to get what they wanted and were less inclined to question the coach’s authority (as were the parents). It was simply a different era and way of thinking. Of course, the training methods have changed drastically. Maybe Caulkins, Woodhead, Meager, Wickham and a few others were special, but the fact remains those young ladies had a target in front of them and that was the former East Germany and they were willing… Read more »

M Palota
Reply to  He said What?
2 years ago

I agree with what you’ve said, especially the part about the metres: 10K a day was routine. And, yes, they were tough as nails at 14 but so many were done like dinner before they were 18.

Reply to  M Palota
2 years ago

Look up the average onset of puberty from 1970 vs 2010. It’s moved down several years. The reason these kids were so fast was the pure volume that their prepubescent bodies could experience. The reason they were done at 18 is because they never changed the trainings with the onset of puberty and post puberty your body can’t recover from that volume. Looking at biological age of 1970 vs now I’d say our 11 year olds in 2018 are the equivalent of a 14 yr old in 1970. Now who’s going to he more mature and adapt to the higher volumes that a younger person needs? It’s why I believe American distance swimming was so fast back then and now… Read more »

Reply to  Alex
2 years ago

Kids today are not more mature than those in 1970. Some are actually more behind since they grown up in immigrant families that have less money and develop later. A kid from Santa Ana California is going to be about 3 to 4 inches smaller than a kid from Newport Beach where the family has a lot of money. Besides, kids today are no longer maturely faster because kids today compared to the 1970’s come from poorer household incomes. In 1970, it was common to have periods as young as 8. Today, their are not more kids that have periods at 8. You are thinking of the kids in 1950 that had periods on average at 13. Its common for… Read more »

He Said What?
Reply to  M Palota
2 years ago

Absolutely. I was one of those. After years of endless and painful sets of 3000 or 5000 for time, you either kept going or said see ya later.

Reply to  M Palota
2 years ago

A much larger reason for the girls peaking so early was the culture at the time with little opportunity for girls. University swimming wasn’t what it is today and all athletes were amateurs. Men’s careers didnt last past college. This generation of young ladies pioneered collegiate swimming and ushered it into the NCAA and towards what it has become today.

Reply to  He said What?
2 years ago

I’m pretty sure the kids today are equally as willing to do what it takes to achieve their goal times (so tired of this generational nonsense). The training philosophy has changed i.e. more yardage does not mean better for a host of reasons. The times of that generation were no doubt incredible – hat’s off to them!

About Braden Keith

Braden Keith

Braden Keith is the Editor-in-Chief and a co-founder of He first got his feet wet by building The Swimmers' Circle beginning in January 2010, and now comes to SwimSwam to use that experience and help build a new leader in the sport of swimming. Aside from his life on the InterWet, …

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