Courtesy: Charge Schmerker
We are nearing the 10-year anniversary of the most
ridiculous technology-aided amazing display of world record breaking swimming the world has ever seen. Over the course of a week, a total of 43 world records (in 31 unique events) were broken in Rome. How significant is that? There have only been 48 world records set at the Olympics or World Championships in the 10 years since. As we near the end of the first post super-suit decade there are still 15 super suit records on the books, including a few set in Beijing and also a handful that were squeezed in during the fall of 2009 as the super-suit ban approached. Some of these records have had close calls over the years, while others still have an untouchable feel to them a decade or more later.
We are entering a 24-month period that will see three high-level international swim meets; 2019 Worlds in Gwangju, the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo and the 2021 Worlds in Fukuoka. These three meets each give us a very high potential for world-record breaking swims, hopefully putting to bed some of these super- suited records that many of us would love to turn the page on.
I have done a deep dive into the data of the past 10 years of swimming in the 15 events that still have super-suited records hovering over them. For individual events, I mined the fastest 200 times in each event since the suits were banned. For the relay records I only used the top 50 times for reasons explained later. While using the top 200 times in the last decide does not afford us a chronological view of the progression of times (as a group or individually) towards the respective records, it does allow us to see how the very best swimmers/swims in the past decade have fared in relation to the record, allowing us to gauge both the significance of the current record as well as how the swimming world as a whole may be closing in on it.
Using these top times from the past decade of non-super-suited swims in addition to the existing world record, we can see a very clear picture of just how significant those records are in relation to the historical data since. Statistics were calculated, graphs were made……. and with a little of my own opinions and bias sprinkled in I have ranked the 15 world records in order of how likely they are to being (or not being) broken in the next three years. As a statistical note, standard deviations are typically used to measure how far a value is from the mean value (ex: A SAT test score was 1.2 standard deviations above the mean) but here I use them to compare how far a particular swimmer is from the world record, which is obviously the minimum value. This method is a tad unorthodox, but this allows us to compare the relative likelihood of records being broken across different distances, genders and disciplines.
As it is, I have broken the existing records into four tiers. Within each tier I feel legitimate arguments can be made for the swapping of event rankings, but I have gone ahead and ranked them 1-15 for the purpose of linearity and (of course) a spirited comments section. I wrote all of these with great care and spent hours doing research. If I have missed your favorite up and coming swimmer with huge potential, or missed a swim in the transfer of data from FINA.org, you have my sincere apologies. I also acknowledge that crazy stuff happens and we may see an out of this world swim by any swimmer at any time, but those are really tough to anticipate and to account for in this format. I am not always trying to estimate if a particular swimmer is capable of breaking the record, but rather just the likelihood of the record being broken at all. By someone. Soon. One final note, this is not meant as a prediction of who will win any particular event in Gwangju or Tokyo, simply a general records discussion. So, without
further ado and from least likely to be broken to most likely, let’s dive in and go for a swim.
Tier 2: Place your bets! These records could fall, and soon!
Want a hot take? I believe two of these records could go down this month in Gwangju, and all four might be off the books by the time the water smooths out for the last time in Fukuoka.
Number 7: Men’s 400 Free Relay- USA; 3:08.24
The data: The 50 fastest relays since 2009 have a mean of 191.82 seconds (3:11.82) with a standard deviation of 0.83 seconds. I took only 50 relays because once the list goes past the top 50 you get a lot of relays from PanAms, World Junior’s and other “lower” tier events that I just didn’t feel were relevant to the discussion. The data are still reliable with 50 swims in my opinion, and the sample size large enough for comparison purposes.
*Full disclosure, I had this slotted several spots back until Dean Farris went bezerk in Naples* I don’t need to recap the genesis of this record, do I? Maybe the most memorable swim in history? Unlike most of the previous events, some teams have come reasonably close to this record since 2008 or could have come close if just a few small things had happened. Honestly, it’s just a testament to the insanity of that 46.06 split by Lezak that none of the teams in Rome could crack this record. Since then, France (2012) and USA (2016) have come the closest and remain the only teams to crack 3:10, yet they still lie at 2.03 and 2.05 standard deviations from the record. However, imagine that 2016 USA relay but with 2017 Dressel leading off. Now that 3:09.9 is 3:08.9 and knocking on the door. The “what-ifs” continue with the 2016 Aussie’s had they harnessed Chalmers and McEvoy with a James Magnussen March 2012 swim. Much more far-fetched given the 4-year gap, but this also gives you an idea of the difficulty of this record that you can conceivably get 3 guys going 46.6-47.1 and still not be certain of breaking the record. Therein lies the rub with this record and the reason I initially had it at the top of Tier 3. You must have 4 guys AVERAGE 47.06, including the lead off swimmer. It’s really hard to fathom that occurring anytime soon when there are so few swimmers cracking 47.6 from a flat start (Just 15 total swims by 6 unique swimmers since 2009) , much less 4 from the same country! So how could it happen? I believe you must have a swimmer capable of an individual 100 free world record or close to it. Not to spoil the rest of the list, but I think team USA has just that potential with Dressel. IF he can lead off in a 46.90ish you are cooking with gas. In addition, you have Dean Farris dropping a 47.08 rolling start at the WUG’s in Naples as well as Zach Apple’s 47.7 flat start (and 47.4 rolling) at the same meet, so this record has suddenly entered the realm of possibilities for Team USA. In addition, don’t forget Townley Haas was 47.24 in 2017 (with a very dangerous -0.01 start though) and is historically a very good relay swimmer, and Adrian was 47.00 in 2017. That’s asking a lot of Adrian given the circumstances ( Though he was even faster in 2016), but if he can channel that 2017 magic one more time you are within hundreths of a second of the record. What also makes this relay record so difficult is that you really can’t recover from a bad leg. If Dressel pops a 46.8 but swimmer X goes 47.8 you can’t reasonably make up that time because now you must average 46.7 the last two legs. Three guys can swim perfect and then one mediocre leg can ruin it all.
As for the rest of the field, Australia still has Kyle Chalmers who can challenge that world record right along with Dressel, and Cam McEvoy can pop a 47.00. After that things get murky for the Aussies with Cartwright’s long term status unknown and even then they have no clear 4th swimmer who has shown that they can approach 47-low, so they certainly will have a tougher time chasing this record. Brazil is a team that could also challenge for the record if everything goes just right, but with Santos facing suspension they lack a key swimmer from a team that already had zero room for error. France still has very strong legs in Stravius and Metella, along with Manaudou un-retiring but also lacks the 4th swimmer not to mention that ace #1 that could get them ahead of schedule. Bottom line, this is a record that could go down next month if everything comes together or could also last through another quad. Given the presence of Dressel along with the USA’s depth I’m tempted to say sooner, but with the difficulty of getting everyone that fast at the same time it’s tough to move it further up in the list and why it is tempting to bump it to Tier 3.
Number 6: Men’s 800 Free Relay- USA; 6:58.55
The data: The 50 fastest relays since 2009 have a mean of 425.08 seconds (7:05.08) with a standard deviation of 1.83 seconds. As a reminder, I took only 50 swims for relays because once the list goes past the top 50 you get a lot of relays from WUG’s, World Junior’s and other “lower” tier events that I just didn’t feel were relevant to the discussion. The data are still reliable and the sample size large enough for comparison purposes.
In relays, the appearance of a single generational talent can elevate a relay full of very good swimmers into a record-smashing relay. Ian Thorpe was wearing a full body suit (although not a poly) long before it was cool, but he was also an incredible talent. Thorpe was a Phelps-like swimmer with world class times across disciplines and distances. That full body, Teflon-coated wetsuit sure didn’t hurt either. His rapid development from a 1:46.3 200 freestyler into a 1:44.2 swimmer helped the Aussies drop over 7 seconds off the record in less than 3 years. The Americans took over the record in 2007 and then proceeded to chop nearly 5 seconds off the record in a single night in Beijing. How were they able to do such a thing? Well, it wasn’t just Phelps, although a 1:43.31 lead-off is just the type of boost we discussed teams needing for the 400 Free Relay. However, what followed was Ryan Lochte (1:44.28) and Peter Vanderkaay (1:44.68) dropping splits that every team getting behind the blocks this month in Gwangju would fight each other for, despite being swum 11 years ago. Ricky Berens also had a smooth 1:46.29 that would fit right in with most any medal-contending relay swimming in Gwangju. In Rome the following year, Team USA had three legs swim a combined 1.19 seconds faster than in Beijing, but Phelps was off his mark with a 1:44.49 which resulted in the American’s breaking their own record by a mere 0.01 seconds.
In the years since the Americans have come the closest to breaking their own record. In 2012 they had three solid 1:45.lows paired with a MP 1:44.05 anchor. That swim was 0.62 standard deviations from the world record. In Rio, Team USA was lifted by an amazing 1:44.14 Haas split to finish 1.15 standard deviations from the mean. In 2017 Great Britain rode 1:43.8 and 1:44.6 splits from Guy and Scott to finish 1.72 standard deviations off the record. As we stand today, those are two teams that have the best chance of challenging the record, mostly because Phelps didn’t have an out of this world swim in 2009. He was over a second behind his individual 200 time from three days earlier or else this record would be as distant as the individual 200 Free. Regardless, Team USA has the horses to make this record go down if they can get them all to perform at their peak at once. For the sake of simplicity, let’s exclude Lochte and Dwyer from the conversation for the moment. Team USA still has Jack Conger, Andrew Seliskar, Blake Pieroni and Zach Apple who all have the capability of putting in a 1:45 mid splits and a few of them could possibly get close to or under 1:45 rolling with slight improvements. Then you need Haas to uncork another 1:43 and that record is in serious jeopardy. We haven’t even discussed Dean Farris (not a 2019 conversation though) or Caeleb Dressel and Seliskar showed great improvement in this event at NCAA’s this spring so he might have more improvement left. It’s not hard to imagine a relay that leads off with 1 :45 low from Seliskar, then follows with two 1:45-1:45.5’s from some combination of Conger/Pieroni/Apple/Farris/Dressel and then a 1:43.7 from Haas and you are right under 6:59 and within earshot. Yes, everything has to go right for the Americans, but this is not as difficult in my mind as the 400 Free Relay. None of those times by themselves involve much stretching of the imagination, but getting all 4 together on the same night is the challenge. This is the point where most American swimming fans wish Conor Dwyer would dump his insta-life with a certain underwear model and get back to his 1:45.00 flat start days but it’s hard to blame the guy. He’s living his best life right now by all accounts.
Not to get lost in the team USA discussion, but team GB has two guys who have been sub 1:45 on relays as mentioned earlier. In 2017 they were three seconds off the record, but if they can just get one more swimmer around that 1:45 mark they are in business as well. As it is their #3 and 4 swimmers sit above the 1:46 mark and if they want to break the record that has to change. Australia has two swimmers that can provide the necessary pace in Chalmers and Cartwright, but they have not been proven as fast as the GB duo and like team GB, the Aussies also lack the requisite remaining swimmers to keep up with the world record. Brazil set the short course record in this event last winter but have yet to show they can do it in the big pool individually or collectively. Russia also has some nice pieces such as Malyutin and Krasnykh but not enough depth to go after the record. As it stands you have to give the Americans the best shot at this record in the near future, but it still resides in tier 2 due to the consistency required of three members (avg 1:45.00) in addition to a top-5 all-time split by the 4th swimmer.
Number 5 – Men’s 50 Free: Cesar Cielo; 20.91
The data: The 200 fastest swims since 2009 have a mean of 21.55 seconds with a standard deviation of 0.53 seconds.
Caeleb Dressel is just one of several swimmers that have this record in their sights. In all fairness, Dressel isn’t even the man that’s closest to the record. Ben Proud dropped a monster 21.11 last year to represent the fastest non-suited time in history, just a tick inside Dressel’s 21.15, Manaudou’s 21.19 from 2015, and Fratus’ 21.27 from 2017. Manaudou is just jumping back into the fray after a near three-year break but his times this summer show he can’t be ignored moving forward. For a moment though, let’s go back to the history. Popov’s 21.64 was the standard for almost two full quads and suddenly Eamon Sullivan and Alain Bernard combined to take 0.36 off the record in the span of 6 weeks. Shockingly, the record was not broken in Beijing nor in Rome but at the meets in between. Bousquet took 0.34 off the record in April 2009, then Cesar Cielo took the final 0.03 off the record in mid-December, just days before the suit ban took effect. Since then a few swimmers popped off 21.3’s and 21.2’s before Manaudou’s 21.19 in Kazan, Dressel’s 21.15 in Budapest and then Proud’s 21.11 in 2018. In addition, don’t leave out Gkolomeev, Morozov and Vergani whom have all been under 21.5 in recent years and are all threats to have that one perfect swim.
So, where do we stand? Why is this event only ranked #5 when there are a number if swimmers within 0.20 to 0.36 seconds of the record? Those times are still 1.56 and 1.82 standard deviations from the record. In an event as short as the 50 Free, with zero room for error, a quarter of a second is a lifetime. However, the progress made by Proud and Dressel, the re-emergence of Manaudou (and as Ervin has shown, sprinters can have much longer shelf lives) and the improvements by Bruno Fratus and others give this record a number of legitimate threats as opposed to just one or two. Despite there being a relatively large standard deviation gap between these swimmers and the record, they are showing marked progress towards that record. The scorching time by Proud and presence of Dressel and his in-season swims have this record on notice.
Number 4: Women’s 800 Free Relay- China; 7:42.08 (462.08 seconds)
The data: The 50 fastest relays since 2009 have a mean of 468.13 seconds with a standard deviation of 2.45 seconds.
Well, we finally have it, an event with no outliers! The American women got within 0.39 and 0.53 standard deviations in 2016 and 2017, respectively. At Pan-Pacs last summer the Aussie’s got within 0.83 standard deviations of the record. Although those values are very small, the actual times are still between one and two seconds off the record. As for the record itself, after being broken just 4 times in the preceding twenty-three years dropping just under 12 total seconds, the record was broken three times for an 8.74 second drop in just over two years. With a couple of close calls in the past few years, the US appears poised to make that final leap. Not to sound like a broken record, but a transcendent swim from Katie Ledecky or Emma McKeon would help either squad get the record. The Americans do have the aforementioned Katie Ledecky who was 1:53.73 from a flat start in 2016 or could potentially anchor in 1:53 low, although she hasn’t touched those times since 2016. Say Ledecky leads off in 1:54.00. The Americans can then draw from Allison Schmitt, Katie McLaughlin, Mallory Commerford, Gabby De Loof, Leah Smith and Melanie Margalais to finish off the relay with rolling swims in the 1:55high to 1:56 low range. If they can manage just one of those girls in the 1:55mid range the record is well within their reach.
The Australians also have the firepower to take down this record. Within the past three years they have had flat starts of 1:54.55 from McKeon, 1:54.30 from Titmus, and a rolling 1:56.5 from Madeline Groves. Just shaving a handful of tenths from Titmus for a rolling start leaves them needing a rolling 1:56.4 to match the record. Shayna Jack was 156.37 at their trials this year, so she could very well provide that time. Those times make them an even bigger threat to the record, and my pick as most likely to make it happen this month in Gwangju and we could see both teams break it.
Tier 1 (Check Back Tomorrow!)
About Charge Schmerker
Charge first got his feet wet at the age of 5 with the SugarLand Sharks in suburban Houston. After swimming competitively through high school, he hung up his goggles to attend and eventually graduate from The University of Texas at Austin. Although he swims now only swims for the exercise, he is still an avid fan of competitive swimming.
Charge is currently involved in educational consulting and teaches AP Statistics in Plano, Texas.