The Most Enduring USA National Age Group Records and Why

Chuck Warner, author and coach, is an old friend. Thoughtful and passionate about the sport, he has studied the details behind what it takes to achieve swimming excellence.

Lessons from Legends

During the USA Nationals in Austin, and other meets over the last two weeks numerous USA National Age-Group Records (NAG) have been ripped from the books.

Last year, Jack Conger had the 17-18 year old 200 yard backstroke record at 1:40.41 but Ryan Murphy smashed it last week with a remarkable 1:38.15. Katie Ledecky walloped her year old standard in the mile of 15:40.38 by twenty seconds setting a new 15-16 year old mark of 15:28.36. Ryan Hoffer became the fastest 13-14 year old ever with a time of 20.45 for the 50-yard freestyle. Even Michael Phelps now sits third on the all-time list for the 15-16 boys in the 200 IM behind the new standard set by Gunnar Bentz of 1:45.17.

Those are amazing swims. However two USA NAG records still stand from 36 years ago, the oldest in the USA. Why?

The oldest USA NAGs are from the 1976 Olympic Trials and the 1976 Olympic Games. The first is Jesse Vassallo’s 13-14 year old standard in the 1500-meter freestyle of 15:31.03. The second record is Bobby Hackett’s 15:03.91 for the 1500, set at the Montreal Olympics for the 15-16 boys age-group.

Hackett’s swimming career is chronicled in the book Four Champions, One Gold Medal. A few years after the book was published I asked Coach Bob Bowman if perhaps his 16-year old up and coming super-star Michael Phelps might want to play the role of one of the champions if the book  was made into a movie. Bob said, “Michael has his own movie in mind. One Champion, Four Gold Medals.” Indeed! When our laughter subsided Bob added, “But Michael will never break Bobby Hackett’s national age-group record in the 1500.”

The circumstances that Hackett performed the time add to the luster of this 36 year old mark. The USA men entered the Games with a chance to match the 1948 USA Men’s Olympic Team by winning every gold medal in the Olympic competition. Adding to the challenge, since the ’48 Games, the event program had more than doubled and the NCAA program enhancing the development of swimmers around the world. In the 1500 the reigning world record holder and world champion in the person of Australia’s Stephen Holland stood in the way of the American goal for a gold medal sweep. While the US team had a strong nucleus of veteran swimmers such as John Naber, Joe Bottom, John Hencken and Tim Shaw, they needed ‘the kids,’ like high school seniors to be, Hackett or 17-year old Brian Goodell to beat Holland to reach the team’s goal.

The price Bobby Hackett paid for that record was to keep his cool under pressure and swim the best race of his life at the most important time. But the price also consisted of immense preparation in the form of hard work leading up the Olympic Trials and Games. A staple endurance set for Bob was 100 x 100s yard swims on 1:00. He first completed it in the fall of 1975 and repeated the set several times in 1976.

Bob didn’t have much training in a long course pool, but did train with tremendous fortitude. On the evening before his team flew from New York to the winter US Nationals in California in 1976, he completed 100 x 100s. After practice the team held a good luck party for those going to nationals at the pool. After the party, Bobby’s coach, Joe Bernal ordered him back to the pool. He then completed 2 x 1650s, one of which was butterfly. Bobby was surprised at his coach’s request but thrilled by his performance on the 1650 fly. Does anyone know someone that would react that way?

Bobby Hackett worked very hard, for a long time to swim that fast for 30 lengths of the long pool. Training 15 times per week was not unusual in that Olympic year. Jesse Vassallo was in the same era of a huge endurance commitment at Mission Viejo at the same time, and unlike Bobby, had teammates like Brian Goodell and Casey Converse to chase in practice.

Their commitment might be illustrated with a smile by repeating the story of a chicken and a pig. The two animals are walking through an impoverished village. The chicken says to the pig, “I think we should cook up some ham and eggs for these folks, they are starving.” The pig says, “To you that meal is a temporary inconvenience, for me that’s a full commitment.”

Bobby Hackett was fully committed to being the best swimmer he could be. So was Jesse Vassallo. They were willing to do virtually anything known to the sport in 1976 to get there─which was most especially hard work.

To be the best endurance swimmer for your age for 36 years in America requires more than a temporary inconvenience. For Bob Hackett the full commitment enabled him to beat Stephen Holland in that race, win a silver medal and help his country continue toward their goal of winning every gold medal in the men’s competition – until USA trained David Wilkie derailed the effort in the 200-meter breastroke.

Jesse went on to break world records in the individual medley and in his college years Bob was a part of an American world record setting 800 freestyle relay splitting 1:49.

Years later there is a greater payoff for those that learn the lessons that the great sport of Swimming offers.

Hackett earned entrance to Harvard University and had a great college swimming career. He went on to graduate from the Harvard business school and enjoys a wonderful life and career in corporate real estate today, while sneaking in a little swim coaching for fun. A few years ago, at a swim camp, a young swimmer asked him, “Do you tell people in your work that you are an Olympian?” Bob’s answer was, “No, but I use the same things I learned in swimming to be successful in my work. I determine the most appropriate goals to set, focus to achieve them and work hard.”

Owning a record for 36 years has much more payoff than the record itself. The lessons from the process are enduring as well.

Legendary Mullings:

…next time the most enduring women’s NAGs.

…While Jesse Vassallo was a great miler at 14 he is widely credited with initiating the concept of underwater dolphin kicking. He did it in the 400 IM on backstroke. Watching him at the nationals in the winter of 1984 was Dave Berkoff. Dave turned it into the Berkoff blast and 100 back world records 4 years later.

Chuck Warner has been a swimming coach for more than forty years. His teams have won seven national Y team championships, been runners-up for the NCAA Division II championship three times, been a USA National Team swim coach three times and Big East Conference coach of the year four times. Chuck has authored two books: “Four Champions, One Gold Medal” about the training and race for the 1500 meter gold medal in the 1976 Olympics. “…And Then They Won Gold: Stepping Stones To Swimming Excellence – Volume I” is out now. It is eight short stories of some of the greatest male swimmers in history. The second volume devoted to women’s swimmers is due out next year. He is the founder, President and CEO of Arete Aquatic Services and owner of the ARETE Swim Camp.

FOR MORE INFORMATION ON ORDERING“…And Then They Won Gold” go and access “Books/Media.”

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That is an amazing time record.

It would also be probably one of the most amazing NAG records of the world.. both of them would only be broken by Sun Yang If I am not mistaken (2006: 15:26:05 as a 14 year old and 14:48:39 as 16 year old)

Considering this kind of talent is one (in the whole word) of a generation. this nag records will still be held for quite a long time


“the NAG records will still be held for quite a long time…” Yeah, in the US if not FOREVER. I am betting that no US swimmer in the next 20 years (or more) breaks either Hackett’s or Vassallo’s records. USA Swimming does not value distance swimmers, and neither do the US College programs. Overheard this past summer at an elite level meet attended by top level age groupers: Swimmer: “Coach, are we staying to watch (insert teammate’s name here) swim the 1500?” Coach: “Nah, let’s go. Nobody cares about the distance events.” Also the reason why the US is so far behind the rest of the world in open water as well – everybody only cares about who is sprinting… Read more »


USA Swimming offered a $1 million bounty for someone to break the WR in the 1500 hundred back in the 2000 – 2004 quad. It didn’t work. Do you think there is something more than can do besides offer incentive like that?


I think that the kids who drop the most time in college are the kids who came from club programs where the general “focus” of the club training program was to develop everyone into being good at the 500 free and the 400 IM. That’s not to say there aren’t other goals, but this is a good foundation that is used by a lot of the best clubs in the country.

It’s a lot easier in college to transition into shorter events from this than it is to move up in distance, and I think that is why you see a lot of emphasis on the shorter events in the US.


Really? If that was the case, they sure didn’t advertise it very well! Of course, that was 8-12 years ago now….where was that offer for the 2008-2012 quad? Let me guess, they couldn’t offer the bounty now because they are having to payout on their liability insurance or the out of court settlements for the numerous sexual abuse scandals we’ve heard about recently?

Actually, In the appendix of Four Champions, One Gold Medal there are a variety of suggestions for how to improve American distance swimming. One that was adopted was the $1 million dollar reward. One of the others includes Bobby Hackett’s suggestion of funding swimmers and their coaches when they are younger to travel to major meets if they meet a standard in the mile.


I also figured USA Swimming didn’t offer it in 2008-2012 ’cause they thought they might have someone who could collect. All you also have to look at is a lot of the comments on this article – it specifically talks about the distance NAG records, and yet there are several here talking about 100 fly records and 200 backstroke records. The song remains the same………. Clearly, USA Swimming never paid too much attention to Bobby Hackett’s suggestion of funding for jr. swimmers. Heck, just look at the debaucle they created just a few months ago regarding funding for the US Open Water Team and the “personal coach” funding issues. USA Swimming and their affiliates do NOT care about distance swimming… Read more »


Australia who were the best place for middle and distance swimmers (perkins, Hackett, Thorpe) now is at complete loss also.. It is like a global standard of not having long distance swimmers.. Except Yang the only young who I would put my money on for the future would be Paltrinieri.. Long Distance Swimming is pretty much at a loss by now..


I think that Chas Morton’s 100 butterfly and 200 IM NAG records for 11-12 will be a more enduring records (and they are already very enduring at 28 years). Bobby Hackett is in first place on the all time list by less than a second in the 1500 and as someone else mentioned there has been a faster swimmer at that age in the world before. Chas Morton is more than a second ahead of second place the 100 fly (both LCM and SCY) on the all time list, and I highly doubt anyone internationally has ever beaten that. There are statistical methods to determine and quantify how much of an outlier a particular number is relative to a set… Read more »



Only one.. and that is not something to be ashamed.. the only guy who was faster has everything to be the greatest distance swimmer ever..


watching Sun Yang swim this summer was amazing, and Hackett’s time is certainly incredible, but I’m only trying to make the point that it is not the “best” NAG record that is currently in the books. I would say that winning in a 100 by 1 second is more impressive than winning in a 1500 by 1 second (which is what the differences are if you look at the top 100 times)


If Berkoff saw dolphin kicks for the first time in ’84, when and where did Suzuki (the guy who beat him at the Olympics) see them? Nevermind, Morales (and others) did them in 84 as well… i highly doubt they were inspired by a 14-yearold

The reference to “underwater dolphin kicking” is intended to be as used as a weapon in all strokes and for an extended distance. Jesse was 22 in 1984 when David watched him in Indianapolis in the 400 IM use it in backstroke (even though it was just a few kicks). It looks to me as though Pablo did a few kicks underwater to his advantage but nothing like Dave’s 35 meters… A full chapter on Dave’s amazing career is written in …And Then They Won Gold including his first encounter with the Japanese. He walked away from Seoul (88 Olympics) with the world record by .5 seconds, nearly bettered it leading off the medley relay, but listened to some bad… Read more »

About Gold Medal Mel Stewart

Gold Medal Mel Stewart

MEL STEWART Jr., aka Gold Medal Mel, won three Olympic medals at the 1992 Olympic Games. Mel's best event was the 200 butterfly. He is a former World, American, and NCAA Record holder in the 200 butterfly. As a writer/producer and sports columnist, Mel has contributed to Yahoo Sports, Universal Sports, …

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