Trying To Contextualize The Absurdity of Gretchen Walsh’s 47.42 In The 100 Fly

by Barry Revzin 80

March 26th, 2024 College, News

If you were lucky enough to stream the women’s 100 fly final at NCAAs (or, even better, watch live), you had a full 47 and a half seconds to take in that show. You got to see Gretchen Walsh touch at 21.75, a split that was already quicker than the fastest 50 in history, and then had enough time to regain a semblance of composure before seeing her finish more than a second faster than anybody else had ever been.

If you were like me, however, and due to questionable life choices only learned about the result by reading a headline – you had to absorb the enormity of that 47.42 instantaneously. And that left me reduced to mouthing incomprehensible sounds that are somewhat reminiscent of Qbert dialogue.

But the question I have to ask myself as a swim nerd is less “Is this swim mind-boggling?” but more “How can I compare it to other mind-boggling swims?” That’s what I did six years ago with Caeleb Dressel‘s 17.63 so I thought it would be only appropriate to do the same thing again for Gretchen Walsh. But with a twist. Pat Forde (among other achievements, famously the father of NCAA champion Brooke Forde) tweeted this out in response to Walsh’s swim:

The impressive thing about Walsh’s swim to me though is not that it wasn’t that long ago that breaking 50 was a huge deal. I think breaking 50 is still a huge deal. After all, only one other woman (Emma Sticklen) broke that barrier in the final this year and only three did last year (Kate Douglass, Maggie MacNeil, and Torri Huske – all under 49 even).

It’s still a pretty rare feat. So I thought it would be interesting to compare the 47.4 not to the second fastest performer ever, but instead to count a little further back. How does Gretchen Walsh compare to the 16th fastest performer (to round out the B final) and how does that comparison in the 100 fly stack up across all the other SCY events?

If we do so, we get this table:

Event 1st Time 16th Time Gap
M 50 Free Caeleb Dressel 17.63 Kristian Gkolomeev 18.64 5.73%
W 100 Fly Gretchen Walsh 47.42 Farida Osman 50.05 5.55%
W 50 Free Gretchen Walsh 20.37 Arianna Vanderpool-Wallace 21.34 4.76%
W 1650 Free Katie Ledecky 15:01.41 Cierra Runge 15:40.17 4.30%
W 100 Free Gretchen Walsh 44.83 Camille Spink 46.69 4.15%
M 400 IM Leon Marchand 3:28.82 Kieran Smith 3:37.31 4.07%
W 100 Back Gretchen Walsh 48.1 Rachel Bootsma 50.03 4.01%
M 200 IM Leon Marchand 1:36.34 Ron Polonsky 1:39.96 3.76%
W 200 IM Kate Douglass 1:48.37 Julia Smit 1:52.31 3.64%
W 100 Breast Lilly King 55.73 Heather Maccausland 57.74 3.61%
M 100 Fly Caeleb Dressel 42.8 Kharun/Albiero/Kusch 44.32 3.55%
W 500 Free Katie Ledecky 4:24.06 Ella Eastin 4:32.89 3.34%
M 200 Breast Leon Marchand 1:46.91 Jassen Yep 1:50.40 3.26%
W 200 Breast Kate Douglass 2:01.29 Anna Belousova 2:04.80 2.89%
M 100 Free Caeleb Dressel 39.9 Guilherme Santos 40.99 2.73%
W 200 Fly Regan Smith 1:48.33 Olivia Carter 1:51.19 2.64%
W 200 Free Missy Johnson 1:39.10 Dana Vollmer 1:41.53 2.45%
M 100 Back Luca Urlando 43.35 John Shebat 44.35 2.31%
M 200 Back Hubert Kos 1:35.69 Carr/Vyatchanin 1:37.87 2.28%
M 100 Breast Ian Finnerty 49.69 Nichols/Miller 50.82 2.27%
W 400 IM Ella Eastin 3:54.60 Melanie Fink 3:59.85 2.24%
M 200 Fly Jack Conger 1:37.35 Gabriel Jett 1:39.27 1.97%
W 200 Back Regan Smith 1:47.16 Alexia Zevnik 1:49.09 1.80%
M 200 Free Dean Farris 1:29.15 Dylan Carter 1:30.75 1.79%
M 1650 Free Bobby Finke 14:12.08 Erik Vendt 14:26.97 1.75%
M 500 Free Leon Marchand 4:06.18 Zalan Sarkany 4:09.19 1.22%

First, a 5% gap just to 16th is absurd.

Second, I did not do this retroactively. The fair comparison would be to compare Caeleb Dressel‘s 50 free in 2018, not in 2024, giving everyone six years to attempt to catch up. But, nevertheless, Dressel’s 50 free reigns supreme even with added time. But Gretchen Walsh‘s performances in the 100 fly (and 50 free and 100 free) still appear monumental.

Third, no seriously. 5%. How is that even possible? Imagine going 49.9 in the 100 fly or 18.5 in the 50 free – times that are not just good but historically good – like swim nerds can rattle off by name the very short list of everyone faster than you – and being just not even close to the record.

Leon Marchand has achieved many things in his career so far, but even he’s not 5% ahead of the 16th fastest performer. Yet. His times to shoot for this coming weekend are 3:26.96 in the 400 IM, 1:45.14 in the 200 breast, and 3:57.32 in the 500 free. Now, I’d like to be bold here and claim that the 3:57 is clearly not going to happen. But somehow I don’t feel so confident about the 3:26…

Fourth, there is some remarkable staying power in some events. Natalie Coughlin (50.01) is still in the top 16 in the 100 back. Erik Vendt is still 16th in the mile. Janet Evans is still 15th in the mile all these years later. Even as the records themselves have dropped significantly out from under them.

Fifth, I think this approach does give at least some sense of how bunched up people are in events like the men’s 200 and 500 freestyles compared to some of the ones that are more spread out. But I really had to hurry to get this article out before Arizona State does something at Men’s NCAAs to assuredly ruin the fact that they’re bookmarking 1st and 16th in the 500 free right now.

Lastly, you might notice one Missy Johnson as the record holder in the 200 free and one Melanie Fink on this list as the 16th performer in the women’s 400 IM. I thought I’d leave that in as a shout-out to USA Swimming’s decision to retroactively apply swimmers’ name changes to their results after they retire. Going through this list, there were a few swims that were definitely incorrect (such as an alleged 48.71 in the 100 fly from somebody who I don’t think has broken one minute in the event) so I appreciated the added complexity of the unfamiliar names. On the other hand, I now know that Erika Brown got married and changed her surname to Connolly. Mazel Tov!

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TJ Liston
2 months ago

100 fly? 100 free? Beamonesque

2 months ago

Major factor here is that women’s swimming is not as deep as mens.

2 months ago

I think the context should be how far ahead a performer is at the time of the record being established. As you said, Dressel’s record has had 6 years for others to catch up.

In Walsh’s case, take the 16th (or 24th or 32nd) time from ALL SCY events in the 2023-24 SCY season, which would included Sectionals, HS, LSC, and Junior/Senior/US Open meets.

2 months ago

It’s great to confirm Gretchen Walsh supremacy with valid math. I could tell in real time that something incredible was happening. I’m sure you could use five different metrics and reach the same conclusion. Gretchen was and is awesome!

The thought crossed my mind that selecting the 16th place swimmer has an issue worth considering. Certainly not all 16th place swimmers, but there have been 16th place swimmers who simply cruised their B-Final to get the one point. This tactic exaggerates the deviation.

tea rex
Reply to  JonathanNC
2 months ago

It’s 16th-place performer all-time. Everyone on here is listed with their lifetime best.

Reply to  JonathanNC
2 months ago

It’s 16th place all time, not at the NCAA meet that year.

Bob dinkleberg
Reply to  JonathanNC
2 months ago

Me when I don’t read

Reply to  Bob dinkleberg
2 months ago

Good point! Obviously several other people could see this in plain view.

Sweet Sweet Peter Rosen
2 months ago

Would be fun to see Gretchen time trial a 100 fly doing 2 dolphin kicks off wall, like pre 2000 swimmers. Can she break 50?

Phelps Swims 200 breast rio
2 months ago

What can she do for 100 fly lc? Maybe Mel can chime in on this. For comparison, Mel swam 47.39 at NCAA in 1989.

Iceman Yawns
2 months ago

Cool…now do it long course and then we can talk because unlike any of these other swimmers like Coughlin Marchand or Dressel she isn’t favored for gold in any events right now

2 months ago

Now if only she could do swims like these in LCM… ugh I really want to see her make the Olympics