The Curious Case of Martin Espernberger, the NCAA’s Most Specialized Swimmer

Braden Keith
by Braden Keith 28

February 23rd, 2024 College, News, SEC

2024 SEC SWIMMING & DIVING CHAMPIONSHIPS

Tennessee sophomore Martin Espernberger is one of the breakout stories of the 2023-2024 season.

An Austrian by birth, Espernberger had a nice freshman season. He finished 4th at the SEC Championships in the 200 fly, qualified for the NCAA Championships, tied for 8th in prelims, lost a swim-off, and on his third 200 fly of the day slid to 16th place. An Honorable Mention All-American in his first NCAA Championship meet – a worthwhile conclusion to a rookie season.

But this year, he went from a guy on the periphery to a central figure in the 200 fly, which continued into Friday when he won the SEC title in the 200 fly. His 1:40.86 shaved .07 seconds off Camden Murphy’s Pool Record, and climbs to 7th in the NCAA so far this season.

What he’s done in long course, which included a best time of 1:54.69 at the US Open in December, is even more impressive

In fact, after coming into the season with a lifetime best of 1:57.36, he’s been 1:55-or-better five times this season. That includes at last week’s World Championships, where he went 1:55.16 for a bronze medal.

For his efforts, he was named the SEC Scholar Athlete of the Year for men’s swimming & diving, boasting a 3.93 GPA while majoring in electrical engineering.

All of that is great and exciting, though not entirely unique.

What makes Espernberger’s case so curious is the degree to which he specializes in one, and only one, event, the 200 fly.

Where the NCAA is increasingly-dominated by versatile swimmers like Kate Douglass, Alex Walsh, Gretchen Walsh, and Leon Marchand, Espernberger is one of the most-specialized swimmers we’ve ever seen at this level.

Where paradigms have changed so much that breaststrokers set American Records in freestyle (my high school swim coaches wouldn’t know how to process that), Espernberger is…whatever the opposite of that is.

A specialist who does one thing exceedingly well.

At last year’s SEC Championships, he was 4th in the 200 fly, 27th in the 100 fly, and 42nd in the 100 fly. A swimmer who was 4th in one event didn’t even make the C-Final in any of his other events.

This year, he was 42nd in the 200 IM on day 1, 24th in the 100 fly (picking up a point), and the SEC Champion in the 200 fly.

The records probably don’t exist to validate if swimming has ever had an individual SEC Champion whose next-best finish at that meet was as low as 24th, but it doesn’t seem likely. The only recent performance that seems kind of similar to this is David Curtiss, who as a freshman in 2022 won the ACC title in the 50 free. But even there, eh was 16th in the 100 free and 29th in the 100 back.

Versatility vs. specialization is a very different conversation in collegiate swimming than it is in international swimming. In collegiate swimming, a swimmer’s utilitarian, competitive value to a program is measured across all of their races*. An individual NCAA Champion in one event is worth fewer points than someone who finishes in 10th place in all three allowed individual races, even though the individual champion is markedly better at the one thing they do well.

*Which does not necessarily correlate to their human value to a program – a student-athlete who can win SEC titles and maintain a 3.9 GPA in an engineering program provides immense human value to their team.

On an international stage, though, one gold medal is worth more than an infinite number of 10th place finishes. For Espernberger, internationally, any improvements in his 100 fly is probably only in how that speed contributes to his 200 fly. At the US Open, where he swam his best in the 200 fly, he also swam a best time in the 100 fly – of 53.28. That’s about 1.3 seconds shy of even qualifying for the Olympics.

I love the versatility of modern swimmers. I love what it means for lineups and the decision-making of swimming. But as the sport becomes more versatile, the specialist now becomes the odd duck, the unicorn, the curious case. And I love that too.

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Daphna
1 month ago

I can relate to this completely as someone who was a 200 fly specialist (Ivy League champion and former Yale school record holder in the early 2000s), but had a less than impressive 100 fly and zero other speedy events. I was endlessly lapped in practice unless I was doing a fly set, and all of my butterfly times were faster than my freestyle times in the equivalent distance. I think some of us just have technique knack for a certain stroke we can’t universally replicate. Also, in my case being barely 5 feet probably made racing sprints like the 100 fly more challenging. 🙂

JDSwim3
1 month ago

It begs the question of whether he would ever be left off an NCAA roster for lack of versatility.

Bec
1 month ago

Reminds me of Melvin Stewart from the ’90’s

DCSwim
Reply to  Bec
1 month ago

Can’t even really compare, as Mel also had a solid enough 100 fly and 200 free to make those relays at Barcelona.

Happy Slappy
1 month ago

This is silly, the guy is a 3.9 gpa engineer and has a best event. Not very curious.

RIP Wall
1 month ago

This could have been written verbatim about my old teammate Justin Wright. 2016 national champion 200 fly, he used to do our distance sets at least half fly, sometimes 8 grand sets almost entirely fly. He was on the shorter side so did not have a lot of speed but never ever slowed down. So much fun to watch his last 100

Jeb
1 month ago

Didn’t have to roast the guy for having no speed lol

Jeb
Reply to  Jeb
1 month ago

His best time in the 100 fly lcm is 52.8

mds
1 month ago

Another example of Rowdy’s lack of precision about objective considerations in his sport.

In referencing Espernberger and his SEC win after traveling back from competing in Doha, I thought I heard Mr. Gaines say Martin was “20th or something” in Doha, when in fact, as you note, he had won Bronze in his specialty event.

His 100 Fly was interesting in another respect, reflecting his internalized endurance/lack of speed theme. While he was :21.83 on his way to :46.81 for 20th spot in qualifying, in the finals he was the only one in his “C” final over 10 seconds at the 25 and, at :22.09, the only one over :22.00 at the 50. He was 0.34 slower than the 7th… Read more »

Swim Alchemist
1 month ago

Imagine how good he’d be in the 400 Fly.

DCSwim
Reply to  Swim Alchemist
1 month ago

WA needs to do a world distance championships:
400s strokes
800 IM
1k, 3k freestyle
4 x 400 free relay
4 x 200 medley relay

About Braden Keith

Braden Keith

Braden Keith is the Editor-in-Chief and a co-founder/co-owner of SwimSwam.com. 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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