Disclaimer: Swim of the Week is not meant to be a conclusive selection of the best overall swim of the week, but rather one Featured Swim to be explored in deeper detail. The Swim of the Week is an opportunity to take a closer look at the context of one of the many fast swims this week, perhaps a swim that slipped through the cracks as others grabbed the headlines, or a race we didn’t get to examine as closely in the flood of weekly meets.
When FINA outlawed buoyant, full-body racing swim suits in 2010, fans and observers feared that the record books might stagnate, a set of suit-aided asterisks adorning the all-time lists for years.
By and large, that doomsday timeline didn’t come to pass. Within a year of the ban taking effect, several short course meters world records had fallen – a pair of IMs records to Ryan Lochte, both 4×200 free relay records to Russia’s men and China’s women.
In July of 2011, Lochte broke the first long course world record since the suit ban 18 months earlier, going 1:54.00 in the 200 IM. (That record still stands to this day). China’s Sun Yang followed just days later with a 14:34.14 world record in the 1500 free.
But even as the world’s elite swimmers have slowly started to purge the world record books of super-suited swims, one key barrier still remained.
Heading into the Tokyo 2020 Olympics in July of 2021, none of the three men’s relay world records in long course meters had been broken in the 11 years since the suit ban. In most cases, the world hadn’t even approached those world records since the end of 2010:
|World Record (as of July 23, 2021)||
Fastest Swim on Record Since Suit Ban (as of July 23, 2021)
|4×100 medley relay||3:27.28||
3:27.91 – USA (2017)
|4×100 free relay||3:08.24||
3:09.06 – USA (2019)
|4×200 free relay||6:58.55||
6:59.70 – USA (2012)
That makes it all the more significant that, even coming out of the coronavirus pandemic, all three men’s relay winners at the Tokyo Olympics were the fastest swims since the suit ban. The headliner was the United States men’s 4×100 medley relay, which broke the suit ceiling by smashing the world record.
Gold Medal Men’s Relays: 2020 Tokyo Olympics:
- 4×100 medley relay: USA 3:26.78 WR
- 4×100 free relay: USA 3:08.97
- 4×200 free relay: Great Britain: 6:58.58
The British 4×200 free relay put a crack in the dam early in the meet, coming within .03 of a world record relay that included super-suited Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte in their athletic primes. Where both of those superstars split 1:44.4 (Phelps on a leadoff; Lochte on the anchor leg), the Brits held serve with a 1:44.4 from James Guy and a 1:43.4 from Duncan Scott, though the relay fell just short of the world record.
On the final night of competition, though, the U.S. cracked the super-suit relay barrier wide open.
|2009 Relay||2021 Relay|
|Back||Aaron Peirsol||52.19||52.31||Ryan Murphy|
|Breast||Eric Shanteau||58.57||58.49||Michael Andrew|
|Fly||Michael Phelps||49.72||49.03||Caeleb Dressel|
|Free||David Walters||46.80||46.95||Zach Apple|
The U.S. team did it, amazingly, by outsplitting a supersuited, 24-year-old Michael Phelps by seven-tenths of a second. That was courtesy of new star Caeleb Dressel, who split 49.0 for the fastest split in the history of the sport on butterfly. Michael Andrew was the other swimmer to outsplit his 2009 counterpart, going 58.49 to sneak under Eric Shanteau‘s split.