We are nearing the ten-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 ten 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 4: Records that will need something Beamonesque to happen for the record to be broken.
Or is that, Biedermannesque? In 1968 Bob Beamon showed up to the Mexico City Olympics for the long jump, having never jumped longer than 27 feet 4 inches. He fouled his first two attempts and then uncorked a jump of 29 feet 2.5 inches on his final attempt. It is important to note that altitude was a factor in the record (potentially), not unlike swimmers wearing highly engineered sheets of rubber designed to compress their bodies and smooth out their turbulence! Not only was it a personal best by almost two feet, it was a world record by nearly 22 inches! The world record prior to that moment was just under 27 feet 5 inches. The world record had never been broken by more than 6 inches until this jump, and Beamon jumped right past 28 feet and into the 29’s. It would take 12 years before any man would jump over 27 feet again, and it was not until 1991 that Beamon’s record was broken. In fact, the current world record still stands from 1991. When will that record be broken? We will leave that research to the good people over at RunRan.
That brings us to the world record that I believe is least likely to be broken in the next twenty ten two years.
Number 15: The Men’s 200 Free- Paul Biedermann 1:42.00
The data: The fastest 200 swims since 2009 have a mean of 105.59 seconds (a 1:45.59) with a standard deviation of 0.45 seconds. The horizontal line in all the boxplots is the median of all swims, the “X” is the mean.
Look at that gap! Since 2009 Agnel is the only swimmer to even come “close”. This record has not been challenged since Biedermann left us slack-jawed in 2009 by chopping 0.96 seconds off the record set by Michael Phelps a year earlier. Phelps’ time was so fast is still would be the record today, not surprisingly. Yet, Biedermann did what was common in Rome that week, he took an already fast time and made it look pedestrian by taking off chunks of time that normally took decades to achieve. Yannick Agnel (FRA) did give it a run in 2012 with his 1:43.14, but there have only been a handful of men to even crack 1:45 in the intervening years. Of those, Sun Yang is the only one still swimming the event at a high level, but even he has not cracked 1:44. His personal best of 1:44.39 is an amazing swim, but still an astonishing 5.29 standard deviations slower than the world record! You never say never, but I could see this going another decade or more before it’s broken. Looking for potential? Someone to step up and get it done, and soon? Other than Sun Yang, there have been a couple of guys that have given us glimpses of greatness, most notably via flying relay starts. America’s Townley Haas gave us a stunning 1:43.78 in Tokyo last summer and a 1:44.14 in Rio, and James Guy went an equally impressive 1:43.80 in Budapest in 2017. Neither of those times are anywhere close to Biedermann’s 1:42.00 from a flat start or even Agnel’s time in London, and neither man has been under 1:45.00 from a flat start. Yes, I am aware that SwimSwam’s own demi-god Dean Ferris bested Haas’ 200 yard free record back in March (please don’t get your swim converter out, it will only lead to delusional thoughts), but we will have to see if that translates into long course prowess in the next 24 months. For now, Biedermann’s record appears as secure as the Statue of David in the Galleria dell ‘Accademia
Number 14: Women’s 200 Butterfly- Zige Liu 2:01.81
The data: The fastest 200 swims since 2009 have a mean of 126.48 seconds (a 2:06.48) with a standard deviation of 0.69 seconds.
As a note, these boxplots are not made on the same scale, so although this gap looks as significant or even more so than the men’s 200 free, it is not. In October of 2009, Liu chopped 1.6 seconds off the old record which was set twice in Rome in July, and she had already taken over a second off the previous record in Beijing. These super-suit years were true madness! The 200 Fly record which had moved just half a second in 25 years (S/O to Mary T!) moved 3.6 seconds in just over a year, set at various times by three different women! Shipper’s record from Rome would still stand today had it not been for Liu’s 11th hour record but would be much more manageable. All the outliers shown are by retired swimmers or swims by Mireia Belmonte with 2016 being her most recent effort (4.38 standard deviations away). Franziska Hentke (4.98 standard deviations away in 2015) and Alys Thomas (5.25 away on 2018) are the only other active swimmers even close. It’s tough to see what the future of this event holds. 2:01.81 is as mind-blowing as 1:42.00 and swimmers 10 years later are still having a hard time even getting in the conversation. Like the Men’s 200 Free, we haven’t had anyone get within 2 seconds of the record, and it may be the better part of the next two quads before anyone does.
Number 13: Men’s 800 Free- Lin Zhang 7:31.12
The data: The fastest 200 swims since 2009 have a mean of 467.62 seconds (a 7:47.62) with a standard deviation of 2.85 seconds.
Yang Sun came “close” in 2011 missing by merely 6.45 seconds or 2.26 standard deviations. More recently Sun (again) and Detti have been respectably close (2.75 and 3.03 standard deviations away). Six seconds is still six seconds, and with this event being swum less frequently on the international circuit (outside of WC and now the Olympics) it’s hard to see this one falling anytime soon. There is plenty of up and coming up talent in the ranks such as Keisuke Yoshida, Florian Wellbrock and Mykhailo Romanchuk. Honestly, if anyone wants to swap any of the three events in this tier you have legitimate arguments, they are all incredibly tough records.
Tier 3 (check back tomorrow!)
Tier 2 (coming soon)
Tier 1 (coming soon)
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.