SwimSwam Rewind: 30 Years of NCAA Championship Swimming Evolution

by Barry Revzin 26

April 18th, 2020 College, National

With the world shutting down, we’re reaching into our archives and pulling some of our favorite stories from the SwimSwam print edition to share online. If you’d like to read more of this kind of story, you can subscribe to get a print (and digital) version of SwimSwam Magazine here. This story was originally published in the 2019 Fall edition of SwimSwam Magazine.

1989 was a long time ago. George H.W. Bush was president. The Soviet Union still existed, and the Berlin Wall was still standing. There was no platform diving at the NCAA Championships. The previous year’s Olympic Games featured the inaugural 50-meter freestyle. (Matt Biondi won the men’s version in a world-record time of 22.14, while Kristin Otto won the women’s version.)

None of the competitors in the 2019 NCAA Championships was born yet, but Eddie Reese was still the head coach at Texas and won the men’s title that year. I guess some things never change.

1989 is also the oldest year that SwimSwam has both the men’s and the women’s results, so I thought it might be interesting to see how much has changed in the past 30 years. We know the sport has gotten a lot faster any way you look at it.

And — spoiler alert! — every 2019 winner would have beaten the 1989 winner. That’s not particularly surprising. But how would the 1989 participants have fared? Would some have done better than others? Would anyone have even scored?

Let’s start with the men.

2019 last place time is listed for events where 1989 winner would have been last in 2019.

Event 2019 winning time 16th in prelims 2019 1989 winning time 1989 time place in 2019 2019 last-place time
50 free 18.63 (Ryan Hoffer) 19.20 (Gus Borges) 19.68 (Brent Lang) 39
100 free 40.80 (Dean Farris) 42.18 (Will Pisani) 42.98 (Shaun Jordan) 33
200 free 1:30.14 (Andrew Seliskar) 1:32.93 (Jacob Molacek) 1:33.82 (Artur Wojdat) 23
500 free 4:08.19 (Townley Haas) 4:14.47 (Khader Baqlah) 4:12.24** (Artur Wojdat) 5
1650 free 14:23.09 (Felix Auboeck) 14:46.35 (Eric Knowles) 14:38.09 (Mariusz Podkoscielny) 5
100 back 43.66 (Dean Farris) 45.37 (Gabriel Fantoni) 47.02** (David Berkoff) 37
200 back 1:36.42 (John Shebat) 1:40.86 (Kieran Smith) 1:44.87 (Jeff Rouse) 37 1:44.34 (Aidan Burns)
100 breast 49.85 (Ian Finnerty) 52.25 (Trent Pellini) 54.02 (Kirk Stackle) 40
200 breast 1:48.70 (Andrew Seliskar) 1:53.81 (Daniel Roy) 1:55.72 (Mike Barrowman) 38
100 fly 44.37 (Vini Lanza) 45.64 (Jack Saunderson) 47.14 (Jay Mortenson) 47
200 fly 1:38.57 (Andreas Vazaios) 1:41.77 (Shaine Casas) 1:44.30 (Mel Stewart) 35
200 IM 1:38.14 (Andrew Seliskar) 1:43.05 (David Schlicht) 1:44.70** (David Wharton) 38
400 IM 3:36.41 (Abrahm DeVine) 3:42.77 (Daniel Sos) 3:44.69 (David Wharton) 22
200 free relay 1:14.46 (Cal) 1:17.88 (Stanford) 1:18.44** (Texas) 22
400 free relay 2:45.12 (Texas) 2:51.95 (Michigan) 2:52.94 (Texas) 22
800 free relay 6:05.08** (Texas) 6:17.00 (Georgia Tech) 6:22.51 (Texas) 20 6:19.14 (Florida State)
200 medley relay 1:22.26 (Alabama) 1:24.83 (Texas A&M) 1:28.36 (Princeton) 27 1:26.57 (South Carolina)
400 medley relay 2:59.70 (Indiana) 3:06.29 (Tennessee) 3:11.60 (Texas) 27 3:11.57 (Harvard)

** – Records set that year.

One of the most telling events for me here was the men’s 100 back. The field was incredible. David Berkoff (Olympic gold medalist) won with a new NCAA record; Jeff Rouse (Olympic gold medalist) and Mel Stewart (Olympic gold medalist) completed the podium.

The rest of the finalists were Andy Gill (finished third at the U.S. Olympic Trials in the 100-meter back, twice), Martin Zubero (Olympic gold medalist), Rick Gould, Gary Anderson (Olympian), and Jay Mortenson (Olympic gold medalist).

All in all, six Olympians who had earned 13 medals, nine of them gold. The winning time, by the way, was 47.02, a record at the time. That time would have finished 37th this year.

My, have times changed.

Overall, we can divide all the event winners into three groups: those who scored, those who were kind of close to scoring, and those who weren’t even close.

The scoring events were the 500 free and the 1650 free, in which Artur Wojdat’s 4:12.24 and Mariusz Podkoscielny‘s 14:38.09 both would’ve finished fifth this year.

The kind of close events were the 400 IM and the 200 free, in which David Wharton’s 3:44.69 and Wojdat’s 1:33.82 would have finished 22nd and 23rd. Kind of close!

The next-highest finish of all the individual events would’ve been 33rd (the 100 free, Shaun Jordan’s 42.98), with the 100 fly (Mortenson’s 47.14) good for second to last and the 200 back (Jeff Rouse, 1:44.87) finishing last.

It’s an interesting distribution. The events that we kind of consider most difficult (the 500/1650 free, the 400 IM) are the ones that have aged the best. Only one of the winning times, Podkoscielny’s mile, would make 2019’s A cut (though Wojdat’s 500 free was only 0.02 seconds off). All the rest would’ve made the B cut (though some not by much).

Of course, not every 1989 swim was the best swim at that time. Looking back even further, we can see how the 1989 records would have fared against the 2019 meet. The record-holder in the short freestyles at the time was Biondi. His records of 19.15, 41.80, and 1:33.03 would have finished tied for ninth, ninth, and 17th. That’s a testament to how great those swims were — the 41.80 would have been an A cut this year.

Of course, that’s not to say that Pablo Morales wasn’t a great butterflyer, even though his records at the time would have been good for only 37th in the 100 and 23rd in the 200 this year. Time flies.

How about the women?

2019 last place time is listed for events where 1989 winner would have been last in 2019.

Event 2019 winning time 16th in prelims 2019 1989 winning time 1989 time place in 2019 2019 last-place time
50 free 21.02** (Abbey Weitzeil) 22.09 (Julie Meynen) 22.05** (Leigh Ann Fetter) 12
100 free 46.26 (Mallory Comerford) 47.99 (Robin Neumann) 48.68 (Leigh Ann Fetter) 28
200 free 1:40.26 (Mallory Comerford) 1:44.62 (Chantal Nack) 1:44.78 (Mitzi Kremer) 17
500 free 4:31.34 (Brooke Forde) 4:39.15 (Sierra Schmidt) 4:39.18 (Mitzi Kremer) 17
1650 free 15:39.22 (Ally McHugh) 16:03.64 (Megan Byrnes) 16:00.04 (Erika Hansen) 14
100 back 49.18** (Beata Nelson) 51.95 (Erin Voss) 54.98 (Kristen Linehan) 54
200 back 1:47.24 (Beata Nelson) 1:53.07 (Keaton Blovad) 1:57.89 (Kristen Linehan) 54
100 breast 55.73** (Lilly King) 59.55 (Sofia Carnevale) 1:02.10 (Stephanie Zunich) 51 1:01.63 (Mackenzie Duarte)
200 breast 2:02.90 (Lilly King) 2:08.73 (Lauren Barber) 2:12.96 (Ann Colloton) 54
100 fly 49.26** (Louise Hansson) 51.99 (Mackenzie Rumrill) 53.24 (Jenna Johnson) 48
200 fly 1:50.28 (Louise Hansson) 1:55.41 (Nikki Smith) 1:56.94 (Julia Gorman) 36
200 IM 1:50.79 (Beata Nelson) 1:56.52 (Vanessa Pearl) 1:59.49 (Angel Myers) 52
400 IM 3:57.03 (Ella Eastin) 4:08.48 (Sinclair Larson) 4:12.29 (Michelle Griglione) 33
200 free relay 1:24.55** (Cal) 1:29.14 (Georgia) 1:28.90** (Texas) 16
400 free relay 3:06.96** (Cal) 3:15.28 (Kentucky) 3:15.48** (Texas) 18
800 free relay 6:47.22 (Stanford) 7:00.34 (Minnesota) 7:07.82 (Florida) 20
200 medley relay 1:34.10 (Tennessee) 1:37.04 (Texas) 1:41.08 (Florida) 28 1:39.10 (Arkansas)
400 medley relay 3:25.24 (Cal) 3:32.17 (Kentucky) 3:38.38 (Florida) 27 3:35.96 (UCLA)

** – Records set that year.

Just like the men, two women’s champions would have scored, two would have come very close, and the rest were pretty far back.

Leigh Ann Fetter set the 50-free mark that year with a 22.05, good for 12th, and Erika Hansen won the mile in 16:00.04, which would’ve finished 14th this year.

The kind of close events for the women were actually very, very close. Mitzi Kremer won the 200 free (1:44.78) and 500 free (4:39.18) that year, and both would’ve been 17th this year.

The next-highest finish would’ve been 28th (the 100 free, Fetter’s 48.68), then a couple more in the 30s. But most would have been last or close to it this year.

Not a single winning time that year would’ve made an A cut in 2019, and three — the 100 and 200 back, swept by Kristen Linehan in 54.98 and 1:57.89, and the 100 breast, won by Stephanie Zunich in 1:02.10 — wouldn’t have even made a B cut.

Just like with the men, the 500 free and 1650 free were some of the best-performing events 30 years later. And actually, I’m not even done with those two quite yet.

The women’s record board from 1989 had some legendary names on it. Some of those records were already quite old at the time, and five would’ve scored at the 2019 Championships. Sippy Woodhead‘s 200 free (a 1:44.10 from 1979) would have finished 12th. Tracy Caulkins’ 400 IM (a 4:04.63 from 1981) and Mary T. Meagher‘s 200 fly (a 1:52.99 from the same year, good for an A cut 38 years later) would have finished seventh this year. Caulkins actually even had one better: Her 500 free from 1979 (a 4:36.25) would’ve finished sixth and still been good for an A cut a full 40 years later!

And last but not least is Janet Evans. Her mile record at the time, 15:44.98, would’ve been third this year, just a few tenths behind Ohio State’s Molly Kowal.

So what can we conclude?

The sport has improved tremendously across the board, but not consistently. The distance freestyle times from 30 years ago wouldn’t have won this year, but they would have scored. The shorter freestyles were a little worse, but still in the ballpark.

But the strokes are practically night and day. Some of the times that would’ve been good for an NCAA title, or even an NCAA record, have slowly drifted back to being just good college times — or even just good high school times. One of the 1989 records (Betsy Mitchell’s 100 back in 53.98) wouldn’t even be a B cut this year.

This can be seen more dramatically in the medley relays. All four winning times would have finished last this year — and, if we ignore the Harvard men’s 400 medley relay, an outlier this year, by a significant margin.

It’s not even necessarily that the freestyle relays did particularly well — the women’s 200 freestyle relay broke the NCAA record in 1989 and would’ve finished 16th this year, the only relay out of 10 that would have scored. But that’s noticeably better than the strokes.

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2 years ago

The breastroke rules are so different that it’s difficult to even make a comparison. Hands parallel with the surface at the touch at each wall, no fly kick off the walls, head had to surface before the second pull started, etc. I believe the head could submerge in 1989, but that was relatively new. Backstroke still had stand-up starts, but the cross-over turn was definitely slower that the freestyle turn in use today… If nothing else, this shows the changes in training. In 1989 every swimmer was basically training like today’s distance swimmer. This was true for age group swimmers all the way through elite college swimmers and beyond. Now every swimmer trains for their stroke and/or distance. The training… Read more »

2 years ago

Here is something really amazing – Matt Biondi’s winning 100 yard freestyle time of 41.87 at the 1985 NCAA’s would have won in 2012.

Everyone who swims at NCAA’s is incredibly gifted and trains very hard. But there are a few true outliers in our sport who are ahead of their time. Biondi was one, Mary T, Dressel, Coughlin, are others.

tea rex
2 years ago

Weird that Harvard won the 100 back both years.
I think 1989 was the inaugural year for the 200 MR, so it was a bit slower than it might have been. Still pretty cool that Princeton won it in 1989.

Brad Flood
Reply to  tea rex
2 years ago

And ’90, with only 1 or 2, can’t recall exactly, of the same swimmers. Rob Orr did an awesome job with that relay!

Ol' Longhorn
2 years ago

My heart’s a flutter seeing Dean’s name there a couple times. I feel verklempt.

Awsi Dooger
2 years ago

Great stuff. There is still room in the distance events and the 400 IM. It’s been glaring even while watching the recent replays of swimming from London and Rio. You know how clips from decades ago sometimes look like the athletes weren’t giving their all? The standards change so we’re accustomed to necessities of the time frame. But it still looks that way in distance events, whether it’s swimming or track and field. That’s why I’m never a skeptic when something shows up like Almaz Ayana’s 10,000 meters from Rio. Sure she broke the world record by 14 seconds. It was a soft record to begin with. Those events simply haven’t attracted elite athletes in bunches who will push and… Read more »

Ol' Longhorn
Reply to  Awsi Dooger
2 years ago

Ledecky is a gem. I watched a replay of Ledecky’s 2012 800 free win from London. She was 15, an unknown. She just went out fast and kept going. Rowdy spent 600 meters saying she went out too fast. Those longer events just aren’t the glory events anymore. Marathon running and even the Tour de France aren’t nearly as popular as they were in the U.S. back in the day. Everyone knew who Frank Shorter, Joan Benoit Samuelson, and Greg Lemond were. Endurance feats are just not attracting media attention, and media attention helps draw people to the sport. Back in the day, the “D” (for distance) lane was the place to be — where the toughest swimmers would be.… Read more »

Konner Scott
Reply to  Awsi Dooger
2 years ago

It also makes me wonder if the distance events have suffered due to the explosion of underwater kicking not affecting them as much.

Leonardo Litovsky
2 years ago

Oof not including Dean Farris 1:29.15, I know he didn’t win but it shouldbe noted

Reply to  Leonardo Litovsky
2 years ago

This ain’t compare new records to old records magazine, pal!

2 years ago

This is the content I’m here for.

Biondi’s records were amazing for their times

Reply to  Charge
2 years ago

Biondi’s 1988 LCM 100 Free world record was unreal (48.42)
No starting block wedge, no real underwater’s, no special suit, didn’t really do a specific weight program, doubtful his nutrition or sleep habits were as regimented as today’s swimmers and yet…. still would have made the 2016 US Olympic team (would have been 4th)

Mr Piano
Reply to  Aquabullet
2 years ago

Biondi would have won at 2016 trials if he had the tech suits and starting blocks of today.

He Said What?
Reply to  Mr Piano
2 years ago

To think there was so much untapped ability in this legend……makes you pause for a fantasy or two.

Reply to  Aquabullet
2 years ago

Exactly. His record “only” lasted 6 years but the record only moved 6 tenths over the ensuing 20 years before the super suits knocked another 0.9 over the course of 16 months.

Amazing swim, and a time that would still be respectable at worlds/Olympics today.

Reply to  Aquabullet
2 years ago

He also played water polo all four years he was at Cal. Inconceivable that a swimmer of his caliber would do that today.

olde coach
2 years ago

Great article. Amazing 500 & 1650 swims by the Polish contingent. I believe Brad Flood coached that distance group at Iowa?

Reply to  olde coach
2 years ago

Brad coached at Iowa where Artur went while Mariusz represented U of Arizona.

Brad Flood
Reply to  olde coach
2 years ago

Thank You for the shout out Olde Coach. 31 years ago! Some days it seems like yesterday; some days, it seems like…..31 years ago! lol

Regardless, it was a special time indeed.