The Women’s 400 Free World Record Was Ripe to be Smashed

When Li Bingjie broke the World Record in the women’s 400 short course meter freestyle on Thursday, it was not a surprise because “the record was untouchable.” Rather, it was a surprise because all eyes were on the Katie Ledecky-Summer McIntosh battle in Toronto this week and not Bejing and the Chinese National Championships.

The 20-year old Chinese swimmer swam a 3:51.30 on Thursday at the Chinese Swimming Championships, which knocked 2.6 seconds off Australian Ariarne Titmus‘ old record of 3:53.92. Titmus’ previous record was set at the 2018 FINA World Short Course Swimming Championships.

But there are a ton of compelling arguments that this record should have been smashed.

For one, Li is entering the prime age for female middle-distance freestylers. Unlike sprinters, who have historically peaked much later into their 20s, most of the world’s great female distance swimmers peak in their early 20s. Titmus set her 400 free World Record at 21 years old. That was already 6 months older than Ledecky’s age when she set her most recent World Record, in the 1500 free in 2018.

And that’s not even close to the only reason.

Comparing the 200 Free World Record to the 400 Free World Record

Prior to Friday, the beneath is what the World Records in the 200 and 400 freestyles looked like:

200 Free 400 Free
LCM World Record 1:52.98 3:56.40
SCM World Record (Prior to Thursday) 1:50.31 3:53.92
Gap 2.67s 2.48s

The gap in the 400 free has now grown to 5.30 seconds, almost exactly twice the gap in the 200 free (where the long course World Record was set in a supersuit).

Should the World Record gap between long course and short course in the 400 free be twice the gap in the 200 free? I don’t know. There are a few valid examples to compare. In 2002, Franziska van Almsick set the World Record in LCM in 1:56.64 and Lindsay Benko set the World Record in SCM in 1:54.04. The World Record gap in the 400 free by 2006 was about 3.5 seconds, but in general, underwater swimming, and therefore short course, has probably progressed more since then.

An alternative parallel: the men’s 200 free World Record gap from LCM to SCM is 2.63s. The 400 free gap is 7.82s. And one more: the women’s 200 IM gap is 4.26, while the 400 IM gap is 7.42s.

So it’s inconclusive about exactly what the ratio between 200 meter and 400 meter World Records should be from long course to short course, but one thing is abundantly clear: the gap in the 400 should be much bigger than the gap in the 200. It now is for the women’s freestyles.

Titmus Set the World Record Pre-Prime

Titmus’ current best time in the 400 long course free is the World Record, 3:56.40. At the time of her Short Course World Record, though, her best long course time was only 3:59.66 (a time she matched in her first long course championship swim after the 2018 SC World Championships).

So since breaking the 400 SCM free World Record, Titmus has improved by 3.26 seconds in long course. That drop dwarfs the 2.6 seconds by which Li break her short course World Record.

And Li is no slouch in long course either. She finished 3rd at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games in the 400 free, behind Titmus and Ledecky.

Li is the 8th-best performer in history in long course with a 4:01.08. This 3:51 in short course is definitely better than her 4:01 in long course, so if Li pops a 3:59-or-better next summer, then this short course swim makes even more sense.

Katie Ledecky Has Only Raced Short Course Meters twice

With due deference to the current long course World Record holder in the 400 free Titmus, Katie Ledecky is the person who changed the game for women’s distance swimmers, and she has only raced in short course meters twice — once at the 2013 Duel in the Pool, and once at a 2019 ISL meet, where she was definitely not rested or prepared in any special way.

Ledecky pushed Pellegrini’s World Record in the 400 long course freestyle down by 3.7 seconds by 2016. It took another six years for Titmus to shave .06 seconds off. Peak Ledecky in a short course 400 free, tapered, would almost certainly have been 3:51-or-better.

And for that matter, Titmus, if she were racing on home soil at this year’s Short Course World Championships, would probably be 3:51-or-better too. But she isn’t. In fact, Titmus has only raced the 400 free in short course 5 times since breaking the World Record: twice in ISL season 1, once at a virtual meet during COVID in November 2020, and twice at the 2018 Australian Short Course Championships.

With the world’s two best 400 freestylers ever largely avoiding short course meters racing in their primes, it stands-to-reason that there was some room in this record.

The best long course 400 freestyler to ever seriously swim short course is Federica Pellegrini. She wasn’t quite as good in short course as long course, but the first woman to break 4 minutes in long course swam several Short Course World Championship meets in her career. She was even the World Record holder in the 200 free in short course for almost six years.

US Coach Mark Schubert Is in China

Remember that Li spent time in the United States training under Mark Schubert, former coach of Janet Evans, one of the greatest female distance swimmers ever. With Schubert currently on a leave of absence from his training group in the US to work with athletes and coaches in China, this result could be in part due to Schubert’s influence. While exact details from Chinese swimming are always hard to come by, Schubert is in Hebei Province, where Li trains. It’s not clear if he’s directly coaching her on a daily basis, but elevating swimmers like Li and their coaches is the job that he in China to do, so he at least has a hand on this result.

World Record Progression, Women’s 400 SCM Freestyle

# TIME SWIMMER DATE EVENT Location
1 4:02.59 Cynthia Woodhead Apr 1979 ? Austin, Texas, USA
2 4:02.05 Astrid Strauss 8 Feb 1987 Bonn Arena Festival Bonn, Germany
3 4:00.03 Claudia Poll 18 Apr 1997 World Championships Gothenburg, Sweden
4 3:59.53 Lindsay Benko 26 Jan 2003 World Cup Berlin, Germany
5 3:56.79 Laure Manaudou 10 Dec 2005 European Championships Trieste, Italy
6 3:56.09 Laure Manaudou 9 Dec 2006 European Championships Helsinki, Finland
7 3:54.92 Joanne Jackson 8 Aug 2009 British Grand Prix Leeds, UK
8 3:54.85 Camille Muffat 24 Nov 2012 European Championships Chartres, France
9 3:54.52 Mireia Belmonte 11 Aug 2013 World Cup Berlin, Germany
10 3:53.97 Wang Jianjiahe 4 Oct 2018 World Cup Budapest, Hungary
11 3:53.92 Ariarne Titmus 14 Dec 2018 World Championships Hangzhou, China
12 3:51.30 Li Bingjie 27 Oct 2022 Chinese Championships Beijing, China

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Swammer
3 months ago

Off topic, but is the SwimSwam Breakdown coming back?

Troyy
3 months ago

Good analysis that’s basically what I’ve been thinking about this WR.

Little error in the article: 2018 Australian Short Course Championships was before the meet where Titmus set the WR. She’s swum SC 400 free at three ISL meets and that virtual SC champs since setting the WR.

4:05.72 18 2018-10-26 Australian Short Course Championships
3:59.19 18 2018-10-26 Australian Short Course Championships
3:58.58 18 2018-12-14 Hangzhou
3:53.92 18 2018-12-14 Hangzhou (World record)
3:57.61 19 2019-10-06 ISL Indianapolis
3:58.34 19 2019-10-13 ISL Naples
3:56.21 19 2019-12-21 ISL Las Vegas
3:54.58 20 2020-11-27 HP Virtual Short Course QLD

ajthomas
3 months ago

Prediction: This WR will not make it through the weekend

Yozhik
3 months ago

Some arguments are really incoherent. For example, East Asian woman swimmers are peaking rarely after 20. If there is some example of that that I don’t know then it is rather exception then the rule. So the case with Li Bingjie of improving significantly now at the age of 20 who flourish at 15-17 setting various national and Asian records and showed no progress after is strangely unusual and was completely unexpected. I wouldn’t make any far going conclusions based on this case only.

nuotofan
3 months ago

I have considered the 11 SCM WR holders cited in the article and their PBs in the 400 free LCM: the average gap is 6.86 seconds, obviously with a remarkable variance between the 2.48 seconds of Titmus and the 9.78 seconds of Li Bingjie. Above the 9 seconds of gap there are also Mireia Belmonte (9.32 seconds), Lindsay Benko (9.22 seconds) and Wang Janjiahe (9.17 seconds). I’ve not considered Federica Pellegrini who has perhaps the slimmest gap between her 400 free PBs (3.59.15 in LCM and 3.57.59 in SCM, just 1.56 seconds). Assuming the average gap of 6.8 seconds, with a 400 free LCM WR of 3.56.40 the SCM WR could be under 3.50 with a swimmer “equally strong” (and… Read more »

There's no doubt that he's tightening up
3 months ago

For mid-distance free, I think the one that is the closest to the “true” gap between LCM and SCM is the men’s 400 free. Both Agnel’s 3:32 and Thorpe’s 3:40.08 are god level swims.

For the others, the LCM mark is more impressive than the SCM one (though as the article notes, this 3:51 is a massive step in the right direction).

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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