Watching Swimming: What Makes a Race Good?

Editorial content is the opinion of its author and does not necessarily reflect the views of SwimSwam.

Last Friday, SwimSwam published our Swammy Awards Top 10 Swims of the Year. The number one race was the men’s medley relay at the Asian Games. In a year when so many records were set, the reaction in the comments was confusion.

Why that race? The times were fast, but wouldn’t have medaled at the last Olympics. The Asian Games? Not exactly the deepest meet of the year.

So, why was that the choice? Simply put: it was a great race (I played no part in determining the contents of the Top 10 Swims list, but I think it was a worthy choice for the top spot). It was a back and forth race between two top tier countries at a meaningful meet. That’s the best we can ask for as fans of a sport about racing. And that’s what the sport is about. Racing.

I think that can get lost sometimes. People focus so heavily on records and times that the core of the sport is ignored. Records are fleeting due to rule changes and advancements in technology and technique, but winning a race is an achievement that holds up. Mel Stewart is an Olympic gold medalist. He was a world record holder.

Enjoyment is subjective. You like what you like. However, in my opinion, if your only criteria for a good race is times, you’re missing out on a lot of what makes the sport fun. There’s more to being a sports fan than appreciating high level accomplishment.

There are 4 things I think about when considering how good a race was. A good race does well in at least two of these categories. A great race checks at least three and is outstanding in at least one.

1. Stakes: The stakes of the race matter. Does the result matter to the swimmers involved? If two eight year olds bet a chocolate bar on who can win a 50 freestyle, I’m interested. Those two kids are going to do everything in their power to win that race. The winner will be thrilled. The loser crushed. That’s drama.

Older swimmers don’t race for candy, they are motivated by (worse) prizes like medals and places on teams. The absolute stakes don’t really matter. For fans all that’s necessary for compelling racing is that the people involved want it and there’s a chance of failure. It could be the Olympics, a high school state meet, or the guys I knew in college who broke into the pool at 2 am to settle a bet about who would win in a 500 free (security kicked them out around the 300).

2. Narrative: A race’s context matters. Are the competitors long term rivals? Is one an established star and another an up and comer? How does the outcome compare to expectations? Is someone dealing with an injury? What happened the last time these people raced? These types of things can greatly increase the intrigue of a race.

3. Race Quality: Close races, comebacks, back and forth relays. These types of things make the race itself compelling.  Uncertainty about the outcome through out makes a race exciting.

4. Time: Records being broken. Huge PR’s being set. Swimmers doing something exceptional based on context. These things all add to the entertainment value of a race. We get to marvel at the skill of the athletes involved. Even if a race passes every other test, a slow race isn’t quite as interesting. The men’s 100 breast from the Army Navy meet this season was maybe the closest race I’ve ever heard of (4 swimmers within .01 of winning), but it isn’t an instant all time classic because the times aren’t fast enough (also the lack of video doesn’t help). What qualifies as a great time depends on context. It’s different if it’s the Olympics or a high school meet.

Using these criteria makes it easy for me to say that the men’s 400 free relay at the 2008 Olympics is the best race I’ve ever seen. That race was awesome in every category.

Stakes: A gold medal. Stakes don’t get higher.

Narrative: Pre race, it was already a part of one of the biggest Olympic stories ever. Michael Phelps was working on a record 8 gold medals. The U.S. were underdogs, so Phelps’ record attempt was at risk. The French were talking trash in the press (“We’re going to smash (the Americans). That’s what we came here for.” –Alain Bernard).

Race Quality: The race was ridiculously good. Jason Lezak‘s comeback was so amazing he stole the show from Phelps at the Phelps Olympics. Lezak’s 46.06 was impossibly fast. The French anchor Alain Bernard split 46.73. The world record at the time was 47.24. Think about that for a second. Bernard’s swim was good enough that from a flat start it might have been the world record and he’s famous for choking. Bernard was great on this relay. Lezak was Bob Beamon.

Time: The world record was smashed by 4 seconds and the U.S.’s record from this race still stands 11 years later. 5 teams were under the old record. Great Britain were within 6 tenths of the world record and they got 8th. Eamon Sullivan of Australia broke the world record in the individual 100 free on the lead off leg.

But that race was swimming perfection, an impossible standard to hold other races to. Generally, as long as a race is truly outstanding in at least one category and pretty good in every other category it’s memorable. Too often I think swim fans minimize the first three categories for time.

To demonstrate this idea, I applied this structure to a couple of my favorite swim races I’ve ever watched, none of which are memorable because of records. (This isn’t a best ever list or any kind of ranking. It’s just a few races I thought were awesome and an exploration of what I think made them good.)

Men’s 1650, 2016 NCAA Championships

Stakes: NCAA championships. For most of the people at this meet, this meet is the highlight of their season. For many it’s the high point of their swimming careers

Narrative: Clark Smith entered the meet as the favorite having been 4 seconds faster than anyone else all season. However earlier in the meet, he failed to qualify for a second swim in the 500 free. He was the defending champion in that event and had a time from December that was faster than the winning 500 time. The 1650 was a chance at redemption. Behind him the field was pretty wide open. Eventual winner Chris Swanson was 11th the year before.

Race Quality: Smith took this race out like he had something to prove. In the opening 500 he split a 4:20.2 and opened a 2 second lead over PJ Ransford and Akram Mahmoud. At the 550 mark Ransford surged with a 51.5 100 to take the lead. Smith slowly faded. While Mahmoud and Ransford battled it out splitting 26 mids, Smith started splitting 27 lows and disappeared from contention.

Ransford continued to hold a small lead until the 1100 mark when he died. His splits from that point on are painful to read 26.88, 27.03, 27.12, 27.77, 28.06, 28.60, 29.03, 29.12, 29.44, 29.31, 29.52, 27.45. He faded to 13th, one spot behind Smith who Ransford led by eight seconds with 500 to go. Both of Ransford’s first two 500’s were 4:22’s. His final 500 was 4:45.

The epic collapses by Smith and Ransford were only the appetizer in this race. After those two faded, Mahmoud kept splitting 26 mids and seemingly had the race won. With 200 remaining he was ahead by over 4 seconds. With a 50 to go he was ahead by 2 and a half seconds.

Over the final 50 Mahmoud started to tie up a bit, and relative unknown Chris Swanson of Penn closed hard. Swanson split a 24.38 final 50, the fastest in the field, to close out Mahmoud and win by .07.

I didn’t mention Swanson until the very end of this brief recap because that’s how it felt watching the race. The entire race was defined by Smith, Ransford, and Mahmoud. Before the final 50, this was an exciting, interesting race, and then Swanson came out of no where and wins. Rowdy Gaines, commentating on the race for ESPN had so completely lost track of Swanson that at the finish he yelled out “Watch Ransford!” as Swanson lunged to victory.

Time: The times were pretty forgettable. Swanson’s winning time was a huge PR, but it was more than 7 seconds off the NCAA record. It wasn’t even a pool record. 4 swimmers would go under the NCAA record the next year, but in my opinion this was the better race (though that race was amazing as well).

The video below has the ending of the 2016 race queued up. Mahmoud is in lane 5 with the white cap. Swanson is in lane 2 with a blue cap. The camera work is questionable, but the cameraman’s enthusiasm makes up for it.

Women’s 200 Fly, 2000 Olympics

It’s not just big final 50 comebacks that make for a great race. The women’s 2000 fly from the Sydney Olympics featured a wire to wire win and was still incredibly memorable.

Stakes: The Olympics.

Narrative: Misty Hyman was known as an underwater kicking specialist. At the 1998 world championships, she grabbed a huge early lead in the 200 fly final by kicking the first 25 meters underwater. She ultimately faded down the stretch and ended up 3rd behind the Australian duo of Susie O’Neill and Petria Thomas. Hyman’s race was the epitome of the fly-and-die strategy.

By 2000, Hyman’s underwater advantage had been partially neutralized by the 15 meter rule implemented in 1998 post worlds.

In the run up to the games, O’Neil broke Mary T. Meagher‘s legendary 200 fly record, and the Australians started calling her “Madame Butterfly” after the legendary American. Most observers believed O’Neil was in the prime of an all time great butterfly career heading into a home Olympics. How could she lose? Before this race O’Neill hadn’t lost a 200 fly race in 6 years.

After Hyman pulled the upset her first reaction was total disbelief that she had actually won. Once it sunk in, it was unbridled joy. Hyman going absolutely nuts celebrating in front the stunned Australian home crowd was the cherry on top of this historic upset.

Race Quality: This was a race where the pre race narrative mattered a lot. When Hyman jumped out to a huge early lead, no one was surprised. She had done the exact same thing at the world championships two years earlier and faded. Hyman was a front halfer. The Australians were back halfers. Everything was going according to plan. O’Neill started to close the gap on the 3rd 50, but unlike 1998 Hyman never faded.

Hyman pull away with a huge final turn and with 35 meters remaining it became clear Hyman wasn’t going to die. Instead over the final 10 meters O’Neill tightened up to give Hyman an emphatic 7 tenths win.

Perhaps the new 15 meter rule helped Hyman. It’s possible that by using less energy off the start, she had more in her legs at the end of the race. This meant that in an ironic twist, a rule limiting how far swimmers can kick underwater may have handed the best underwater kicker in the world a gold medal.

Time: Hyman’s 2:05.88 missed O’Neill’s world record by .07, but it was an American record.

Here’s the race video. O’Neill is in lane 4, Thomas is in 5, and Hyman is in 6. Embedding is blocked on the video, so follow the link to watch it on YouTube.

Other races that fit

Totally awesome. Not world records.

Let’s swing back around to the Asian Games men’s medley relay from this year. What makes it a worthy best swim of the year?

Stakes: The Asian Games aren’t the Olympics or the World Championships, but in a year of minor meets, the Asian Games are in the top tier. They certainly matter to the Chinese. China barely sent anyone to Pan Pacs to keep their swimmers fresh for the Asian Games. Japanese swimmers often skip Pan Pacs to focus on this meet. They didn’t this year because Pan Pacs were in Japan, but the point is this meet matters to these countries. This isn’t a low tier meet. It may not be the first meet western swim fans think of from this year, but for those involved this is the top meet of the year.

Narrative: China and Japan are the two major swimming powers in Asia. They were engaged in a close race for the top of the medal table. Both countries won 19 gold medals. Japan ended up with 2 more total. 5 of the 8 swimmers had top 10 times in the world last year in their events on this relay.

Race Quality: This is where I regret that the only video I know of from this race has been taken down because this race was phenomenal. For a description of the race here is Jared Anderson’s excellent summary from the original article:

The race was full of twists and turns at every step. Though China’s Xu Jiayu swept the individual backstrokes at the Asian Games, Japan’s Ryosuke Irie came through with a heroic leadoff, beating Xu by almost a tenth of a second to stake Japan to a lead. Breaststroke sweeper Yasuhiro Koseki extended the lead, but 23-year-old Yan Zibei of China bettered his individual 100 breast swim (59.3) by a huge margin, splitting 58.8 to keep his team in the hunt.

Then, 19-year-old Li Zhuhao split 50.6, rocketing China back to a dead heat for the lead. Japan’s Yuki Kobori, though, was no slouch, splitting 51.0 after going 51.7 individually earlier in the meet.

Staring down a Japan lead of just .03 seconds, 23-year-old Yu Hexin anchored for China. Despite losing to two Japanese swimmers in the individual 100 free and only holding a two-year-old lifetime-best of 48.47 and a season-best of just 48.8, Yu blasted a 47.92 split, overtaking Japan’s Shinri Shioura (47.99) by just enough to eke out the win by four one-hundredths of a second.

Time: China’s winning time was the #1 time in the world in 2018, and Japan’s time was #2. While it was well off the world record, China’s time was an Asian record and both relays set national records. Only four nations in the world have been faster than these two swims since the ban of the super-suits in 2010: the U.S., Great Britain, Russia and Australia.

By comparison, let’s look at why some of the record breaking swims from this year weren’t #1. They were still awesome, but we’re comparing great to great, so splitting hairs is required.

Baker’s 100 back WR:

Flaw: Stakes. If Baker had gotten 2nd in that race she would have been annoyed, but still happy to have made the team for Pan Pacs and Worlds. When second is the same as first, it’s a bit deflating.

Adam Peaty’s 100 Breast WR:

Flaw: Narrative. This race was tainted by a timing system mishap. At first the time was 57.00. Then it was revised to 57.10.

Peaty had an odd reaction to the record. He seemed to be almost mad at himself for performing so well. When asked if was upset that the time wasn’t under 57, Peaty said “No, because that gives me another level of motivation. If I’d have achieved it, people would have been talking about Project 55. But it’s a great place to be.”

Ledecky’s 1500 WR:

Flaw: Stakes. This was at a Pro Swim Series event. Ledecky cares so little about the Pro Swim Series that she doesn’t bother to attend half of them. This meet was Ledecky’s first as a pro which added a bit to the intrigue. Also, Race Quality Ledecky is so much better than everyone else in this event that this was a glorified time trial.

Dressel, 17.63:

Flaw: Race Quality. There was never any doubt Dressel would win this. From the opening dive, he outclassed the field. This was an earth shattering performance, but if you turn the clock off this was a laugher.

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Swimmer A
5 years ago

That 1650 from 2016 was wild. I remember watching that live with my jaw on the floor.

Also, if anyone saw the 1500 from SC worlds a few weeks ago, that was an absolute dog fight between Romanchuk and Paltrinieri.

5 years ago

1984 Oly men’s 4×200. Giant actors, back and forth.

5 years ago

It would be cool to be able to watch a video of this “number one race of the year”. It’s hard to get excited about it without seeing it.
I’m sure it was sensational and just like it was described, but I think races without public video should be disqualified from these lists.

Woke Stasi
5 years ago

Wonderful article, Andrew!

I’d throw in the men’s 4×200 free relay at the 1984 Olys. Germany’s Michael Gross had been the talk of the Games with victories in the 200 free and 100 fly — and looked unbeatable. Unheralded American Bruce Hayes chased Gross down in the final 50 to give the Americans a 0.04 second victory. The Americans were then dubbed the “Gross Busters” (the film “Ghost Busters” was that summer’s hit).

A note about the women’s 200 fly in 2000: for some unfathomable reason, the Australian coaching staff put Susie O’Neill on Australia’s preliminary 4×200 relay that same morning. This lengthened her day and probably added to her fatigue in her evening 200 fly swim. (A coaching blunder.)… Read more »

5 years ago

Perkins in the 1500 in 1996 meets a lot of these, absolutely phenomenal swim.

Jay ryan
5 years ago

Goodall Hackett and Holland men’s 1500 Montreal 1976

5 years ago

The article is top 10 swims, not top 10 races, hence the confusion in the comments.


That makes all the difference to me also. Great swims means Ledecky, Couglin NCAA’s, Phelps 8 golds, Dressel NCAA’s. But great races r totally different set of requirements.

tea rex
5 years ago

Some others historically:
Phelps vs Vendt in the 400 IM circa 2001.
Any number of Lochte-Phelps-Cseh-Pereira battles.
Ye Shiwen’s bonkers 400 IM in 2012.
Kukors’ 200 IM in 2009 (she only qualified for worlds when another swimmer scratched).
Either of Ervin’s 50 free gold medals, leaning toward tying with Hall against Popov.
Natalie Coughlin’s 2002 NCAAs for sheer dominance.

PK Doesn't Like His Long Name
Reply to  tea rex
5 years ago

Phelps-Vendt was 2002, fyi. the Fort Lauderdale race at Nats was probably the better of the two since Phelps was losing at the 350 wall in that one, I don’t think he was losing at any point at Pan Pacs.