The 2008 Olympics had really two themes: World Record swimsuits, and Michael Phelps.
These 2012 Games have shown an unparalleled depth of storylines, not the least of which has been the youth. Maybe the biggest, though, was a monstrous changing-of-the-guard.
There’s still one day to go, but in 24 individual events thus far, the World Record holders were entered in 17 of those races. They didn’t win a single gold, and only two medals total (bronzes from Cesar Cielo in the 50 and Rebecca Adlington in the 800). Three swimmers had to swim in a final as their World Records were broken. That shows that the turnover is not just because of retirements; the younger generation is rising up and taking over.
Here’s what’s even wilder to think about: only two swimmers in this whole meet have been able to repeat gold medals: Rebecca Soni (200 breaststroke) and Michael Phelps (200 IM/100 fly). It’s unlikely that we’ll see a repeat either in the men’s 1500 or women’s 50, the two races on Saturday, either. That’s incredible to see.
Friday’s finals highlighted the youth too. The average age of the four gold medalists was just 20, including 15-year old Katie Ledecky and 17-year old Missy Franklin. Florent Manaudou is 21, but he was the youngest swimmer in the 50 free final.
Twenty years ago, this wouldn’t have seemed so odd. Many of history’s greatest swimmers retired far too young – think Mark Spitz, who was done at 22. Australia’s Shane Gould is perhaps the best example: she won 5 medals at the 1972 Olympics, and then retired when she was only 16.
In the modern day, though, where we’re told that swimmers have the ability to compete older-and-older because of advances in the commercial side of the sport and because of advances in nutrition and body science, it is still the youngest swimmers who have stolen the show.
There are plenty of exceptions. The American male medalists, for example, were almost all in their mid-to-late 20’s. But there are so many examples of swimmers who have exploded. Consider Ruta Meilutyte of Lithuania. She was a 15-year old who dropped 2.5 seconds in the last year to overtake a heavy favorite in Soni. Ledecky was only swimming an 8:36, and now dropped 21 seconds to rank as the second-fastest of all-time.
Swimmers like Meilutyte, American Breeja Larson, Ledecky, and others are making finals and winning medals on their first international teams. In many cases, these swimmers have never traveled outside of the country to compete before, and despite the huge lights of the Olympic stage, they are succeeding.
That’s what makes these young swimmers so exciting. They all “come out of nowhere,” which as 15-year olds they almost, by definition, have to. It energizes the swimming community, and it makes for great stories.
Now this group will have a tall task. They will have to prove if they can come back in Rio and defend their crowns. If another young crew comes in and can knock off this group, with how unbelievably talented they are, then we know we’re seeing a trend.
But for now, we must recognize what we are seeing. While many like to write off the accomplishments of young swimmers as flashes-in-the-pan, this is no longer possible for fear of missing the next great thing. In this modern era, the level of the sport has risen so dramatically that there are no fakers. If you are good, then you are good, regardless of age.