The Solitude Of Prime Numbers: What We’ve Learned From The Newest Three World Records

In Italy, borrowing the title of a famous book, we use the expression “the solitude of prime numbers” to talk about the isolation and loneliness that characterizes the number 1, the best in their field. It is the feeling that no one has ever done what you have done, and therefore never felt your emotions, making you incomprehensible to the rest of the world. Well, if there is one thing I have understood from watching the last three world records, it is that perhaps the number 1 can no longer feel lonely.

Let’s do a test: close your eyes and think of the first World Record in swimming that comes to mind. The most incredible one, the one that has stayed in your heart, that has thrilled and amazed you. Whether it was Federica Pellegrini’s 200 freestyle in 2009, Adam Peaty breaking the 57-second barrier, or Marchand just a couple of years ago in the pool in Fukuoka, I am sure the image you have in mind at this moment has a common characteristic with all the others. 

There is one single athlete, alone.

There is a physical distance, in meters, which can be more or less depending on whether the World Record is for the 100 or 1500, but that distance exists and is noticeable to the naked eye, at normal speed.

It is a real, measurable distance because speed is nothing but space divided by time. But it is also a metaphorical distance, visually representing what it means to do something that no one has ever done before. It elevates the individual who is swimming like never before to something distant from all the others in the water.

If we watch the race on a screen, this distance puts the new World Record holder beyond that line that represents the previous record. And on that side of the boundary, they are alone. Because excellence can belong to many, but supremacy belongs to one.

What has been seen in the pools of Brisbane and Indianapolis during the Olympic Trials for Paris 2024 is shattering this rule. The three world records swum by Ariarne Titmus in the 200 freestyle, Gretchen Walsh in the 100 butterfly, and Regan Smith in the 100 backstroke, each with their own peculiarities, have in common an image completely different from what we expect from a World Record: the other athletes are extremely close to them.

In the case of the 200 freestyle swum on June 12, it is even more evident because Mollie O’Callaghan, who until 2 minutes earlier was the world record holder, swims in the lane next to Titmus and breaks the previous record too. 

Beyond that line we see on the screen, there were also her strokes.

Gretchen Walsh’s opponents in the 100 butterfly didn’t break the previous record, but they didn’t fall far short either. Walsh set the New Record in the semifinals, erasing a legendary performance by Sarah Sjostrom from Rio 2016, when the Swede won in 55.48, leaving the Olympic silver one second behind.

One second. That glaring distance the public sees between making history and everything else.

Walsh’s record comes in a completely different context, with two other athletes entering the list of the best performers of all time within minutes. As if the leap in quality that hadn’t been made in 8 years was now happening, involving more athletes, from the same country, present in the same pool.

Torri Huske finishes her 100 butterfly in the final swimming 55.52, a time that until the day before would have been just 0.04 seconds off the WR. Regan Smith, a backstroke specialist, swims 55.62, a time with which she would have won every world championship ever held, except for 2017. So the image we have of Gretchen Walsh swimming 55.31, slower only than herself from the day before, fails to astonish, to amaze, to create a distance between her and the rest, because the “rest” are just tenths away from her.

The image is slightly different in Regan Smith’s backstroke, reclaiming the World Record in 57.13, a time that sends chills down your spine just writing it. She wins by a margin, it’s true, but Katherine Berkoff, right behind her, jumps to 4th place in the all-time rankings. Rankings that now only see performances swum in recent years. The women’s 100 backstroke will be one of the most anticipated races in Paris in 2024, the distant challenge between Australia and the United States has already begun, and it’s a bit of a shame that there will be only 2 athletes per flag, as the values on the field could lead to a final with 4 Aussies and 4 Americans.

What is most striking about these three new world records is that they arrived a month before the big event of the four-year cycle, and all the athletes involved seem to have room for improvement. The new record holders, of course, but also those in their shadow, a step away from that imaginary line.

Plus, these records came during National Trials. It means that the “others,” who are behind the new world record holders but so close they could touch them by extending an arm, are National teammates, sometimes even training partners.

Many world records will fall in Paris 2024, that’s out of the discussion, and although there haven’t been any on the men’s side in this lead-up to the Games, in July,  David Popovici, Pan Zhanle, and Jack Alexy will compete shoulder to shoulder in a 100 freestyle that could see all three go below the current World Record.

Likewise in middle-distance, where legendary WRs could fall, possibly by 2 or 3 different swimmers.

Whether this is a cause or a symptom of a new swimming era is too early to say, but the specialization that the entire sports world is heading toward is palpable, making excellence the new standard and making our dear prime numbers definitely less lonely.


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17 days ago

June 12, not July.

18 days ago

I’d prefer “Top of the World” for the title:

Andy Hardt
18 days ago

To the commenters below: “prime” absolutely can mean one, in a certain sense. Think “first” or “best”, more often rendered as “primary”.

The reason prime numbers are called what they are is because they are a product of one number (themself) when fully factored. Think of a building: the number 1 is on the ground floor alone. 2, 3, 5, 7,… make up level 1; then 4, 6, 9,10,… make up level 2, and so on.

18 days ago

To me, the 100 fly record feels a little different. In the 200 free, I can see Mollie & Arnie going back & forth until one or both of them break 1:52. Likewise, it feels like both Regan & Kaylee are heading sub-57. But right now it feels like there’s only one woman on the planet who might be able to pull off a sub-55 100 fly. No disrespect to Torri, Regan, or Maggie. I think each of them has the ability to win any given race, but if Gretchen is on her game and executes the race right, she seems pretty untouchable.

18 days ago

0,1,2, and 3 are all prime numbers. When might 2 and 3 (and 5, 7, 11,13,17, etc) receive equal note?

Reply to  Scrub
16 days ago

0 and 1 are not prime numbers by definition

Beginner Swimmer at 25
18 days ago

🦘🇳🇿 Aussies been dead SILENT 🥶 since bathtub product 🛁🧼 Gretchen broke the WR 🤫🤫🤫

Last edited 18 days ago by Beginner Swimmer at 25
Reply to  Beginner Swimmer at 25
18 days ago

lil bro do you need another timeout

Reply to  Beginner Swimmer at 25
17 days ago

Sometimes just letting the results speak for themselves instead of calling some specific Aussies out is all we need to do. The annoying people who spoke of bathtubs can be seen from both Aus and Usa.

Reply to  Beginner Swimmer at 25
17 days ago

I honestly don’t think the Aussies care about the 100 fly all that much…all their best 100 flyers are swimming freestyle events…and THOSE events, they are speaking volumes with their actions…

I think USA has the breaststroke and fly locked down in paris (King is a second or more faster than Aussie’s best, and Walsh is over a second faster than whoever Aussies will put in fly). Backstroke is kind of a dead heat between Regan and Kaylee. Freestyle, you’re either putting Simone or Douglass on that anchor in the 400 medley, and I feel strongly either will go low 52/high 51…which is more than enough for what we need to win the 400 medley relay. IF you were to… Read more »

Last edited 17 days ago by jim
18 days ago

Ryan Lochte, 2011, over Michael Phelps…
but since when has 1 been a prime number?

18 days ago

I think he’s calling this “The solitude of prime numbers” in reference to the book by the same name. Its theme is loneliness and being an outsider.

Just a thought, may be wrong.

Fraser Thorpe
Reply to  SJS
18 days ago

You’re definitely right and showing up all the “well ack-shuallys” 🤓 in the comments…

Samuel Huntington
Reply to  Fraser Thorpe
18 days ago

G Walsh can smash her fly record. Sub 55 coming.

About Aglaia Pezzato

Aglaia Pezzato

Cresce a Padova e dintorni dove inizialmente porta avanti le sue due passioni, la danza classica e il nuoto, preferendo poi quest’ultimo. Azzurrina dal 2007 al 2010 rappresenta l’Italia con la nazionale giovanile in diverse manifestazioni internazionali fino allo stop forzato per due delicati interventi chirurgici. 2014 Nel 2014 fa il suo esordio …

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