Courtesy: Charge Schmerker
Prior to the 2019 World Championships in Gwangju, I took a statistical look at the still-standing world records set during the Super-Suit era. The goal was to determine which records were most and least likely to go down during the Gwangju-Tokyo-Fukuoka time frame. With Tokyo finally approaching a year late, I thought I would honor the 2019-2021 timeframe and update the list prior to the Olympics. I will forgo the statistical analysis and rely more on “feel” this time.
At the time, I broke the records into 4 tiers: (articles linked)
Tier 1: Records that were very likely to be broken during the Worlds/Olympics/Worlds time period. These were near money-back guarantees in my mind.
Tier 2: Records that had a pretty good chance (let’s call it at least 50/50) of being broken.
Tier 3: Records that could reasonably be broken if things went just right. In other words, there was a chance, just not a strong one. Could be broken in the next 3-5 years.
Tier 4: Something special was going to need to happen here to crack these records. 10,000:1 odds, something Bob Beamon-like had to go down. (The youngsters may need to google that)
Here’s the rundown of where things stood prior to Gwangju. Records broken since then have been crossed out.
15) Men’s 200 Free: Paul Biedermann 1:42.00
14) Women’s 200 Fly: Liu Zige 2:01.81
13) Men’s 800 Free: Zhang Lin 7:32.12
12) Women’s 200 Free: Federica Pellegrini 1:52.98
11) Men’s 400 Free: Paul Biedermann 3:40.07
10) Men’s 400 IM: Michael Phelps 4:03.82
9) Men’s 200 Fly: Michael Phelps 1:51.51 Kristof Milak 1:50.73
8) Men’s 200 Back: Aaron Peirsol 1:51.92
7) Men’s 400 Free Relay: USA 3:08.24
6) Men’s 800 Free Relay: USA 6:58.55
5) Men’s 50 Free: Cesar Cielo 20.91
4) Women’s 800 Free Relay: USA 7:42.08 Australia 7:41.50
3) Men’s 400 Medley Relay: USA 3:27.28
2) Men’s 100 Free: Cesar Cielo 46.91
1) Men’s 100 Fly: Michael Phelps 49.92 Caeleb Dressel 49.50
Milak taking down the 200 Fly record was obviously a stunner. I had that in tier 3 but did correctly note that if it were going down, it would be Milak. I’m not sure how many thought he would take nearly a second off a record and nearly two seconds off his previous personal best. But THAT happened.
The Men’s 100 Fly was the easy and obvious number one choice with Dressel sitting just a few hundredths off the record, and Dressel did not disappoint.
I also correctly picked both the USA and Aussies to likely pick off the Women’s 800 free relay record with Australia taking the win and record. In retrospect, with two teams that had a good shot, it should have been Tier 1. Emma McKeon provided a solid 1:54.9 anchor but it was Ariane Titmus leading off in a 1:54.27 that put the Aussie’s ahead of schedule. Katie Ledecky did not have the ability to give Team USA the edge as she battled illness in this meet. The Americans did break the existing record as well, but the Australian women came out on top.
The records that got a scare but were not broken were the Men’s 100 Free (Dressel 46.96) and the Men’s 50 Free (Dressel 21.04). Dressel was absolutely on fire in this meet as he broke the 100 Fly record, nearly broke both the 50/100 free records, and put in the requisite work in the medley relay to set his team up to break that record.
Speaking of relays, I noted that in the 400 Medley and 400 Free relays that the pieces were there for the USA, but they had to all hit at the same time. This was prophetic. In the 400 Free relay the USA got a stunning 46.86 from Zach Apple, Blake Pieroni threw in a 47.49 and then they got a 47.08 from the timeless Nathan Adrian to clock a 3:09.06, just over eight-tenths off the legendary time from Beijing, but it was Caeleb Dressel that swam a “pedestrian” 47.63. A few days later he would drop the 46.96, and if you sub that time in place of his 47.63 you sit just 15 one-hundredths off the record.
In the medley relay, the USA had subpar (by their standards) Back and Free legs and missed the record and the gold as Duncan Scott had a Lezak-type moment to steal the win in Gwangju. Team GB was still nearly a second off the record though. The US finished in 3:28.45, just over a second off the record. Ryan Murphy was a second off his personal best, nearly half a second off his semifinal swim in the 100 back, and Nathan Adrian was 0.60 off his relay split from earlier in the week. I know I’m playing a game of “ifs and buts” here, but the pieces for team USA were and are clearly there.
So now what?
Let’s re-rank these records using the same four tiers. Some of these records will go down in Tokyo, but which ones?
12) Women’s 200 Fly: Liu Zige 2:01.81
China’s Zhang Yufei went a 2:05.44 at Chinese Nationals back in May. USA’s Hali Flickinger went a 2:05.85 at the US Trials. At the 2020 TYR PSS meet in Des Moines, USA’s teen phenom Regan Smith went a 2:06.39, although she was 0.60 slower at trials. These are all very respectable times, but they all sit more than 3.5 seconds off this record. Maybe one of these swimmers, in the moment, may have the juice to get this down into the 2:03 range which would be an astonishing swim…. and still around 2 seconds off the record. I should have had this record as my most difficult to break the first time around. It is seemingly untouchable in the near-term.
11) Men’s 800 Free: Zhang Lin 7:31.12
At 2019 Worlds Gregorio Paltrinieri swam a 7:39.27 in route to winning gold. No swimmer has broken 7:40 since. Then 16-year-old Franko Grgic of Croatia swam a 7:45.92 at 2019 Junior Worlds. Jack McLoughlin went a 7:42.51 at Aussie trials a few weeks back. I do hold out some hope that the Olympic premiere of this event may provide the stage for a time that at least makes the existing record look up from its morning coffee with a curious glance. The problem with a distance race like this (the same goes for distance track) is that when the Olympic gold is up for grabs, swimmers tend to swim a more strategic race rather than swim for a record. This record looks comfortably safe for the foreseeable future.
10) Men’s 200 Free: Paul Biedermann 1:42.00
Five men have been under 1:45 in 2021 including 17-year old Hwang Sunwoo of South Korea who recently hit a 1:44.96. Tom Dean (20) hit a 1:44.58 at British trials. There is youth on the rise in this event with these two swimmers, as well as 16-year old Romanian David Popovici. Popovici just went 1:45.26 at Euro Juniors and has plenty of room for improvement as he develops further. In addition, Danas Rapsys swam a 1:44.38 just a few years ago as well. Yet, the only person under 1:44 since this record was set was Yannick Agnel way back in 2012. There is young talent here on the rise, but we still sit over 2 seconds off Biedermann’s mythical 1:42.00. This one still feels like it has an Olympic cycle or more left on it.
9) Men’s 400 Free: Paul Biedermann 3:40.07
Sun Yang won this event at 2019 worlds with a 3:42.44. He will not compete in Tokyo and likely not until Paris in 2024. Does it even matter in terms of breaking the record? Since 2019 Worlds only Elijah Winnington (AUS, 20), Jack McLoughlin (AUS, 26), Gabriele Detti (ITA, 26), Mack Horton (AUS, 25) and Danas Rapsys (LTU,26) have broken 3:44. However, Winnington’s 3:42.65 just happened at Australian trials. Is that a sign of things to come? Raspys is a little more seasoned than Winnington, but you must question if he will ever make the leap down to 3:40 territory. Other swimmers that have been in the 3:43/3:44 range in recent years include Wellbrock, De Tullio, Smith, Nell and Malyutin. I might be underestimating Winnington’s potential, but I still think that record is too tough to overcome in the next few years. Maybe one of the others from that list of names will surprise us, but we are talking about at least 3 or even over 4 seconds of improvement for most of these swimmers.
As a side note, to explain how hard it has been to see improvement in these distance events over the years, here are the winning men’s free times from 2001 Worlds.
22.09/48.33/1:44.06/3:40.17/7:39.16/14:34/56. The first two times would be hard pressed to get you into the top 16 in Tokyo, and the last 4 might be better than the winning times in Tokyo a full two decades later. The generational talents of Thorpe and Hackett do have something to do with that though.
Regardless, the records in this tier just feel like they are not going to be broken for quite some time.
8) Men’s 200 Back: Aaron Peirsol 1:51.92
Evgeny Rylov (RUS) won this event in Gwangju with a 1:53.4. Rylov then went a 1:53.23 at Russian Trials earlier this year. Fellow countryman Kliment Kolesnikov seems to be trending more 50/100 (and isn’t swimming the event in Tokyo) and none of other main players in this event seem to be making progress as only Rylov, Mefford, Murphy, Larkin and Greenbank have broken 1:55 since Gwangju. Rylov seems to be the most likely candidate here as his European Record from trials is just over 1.3 seconds off the record, but this one just doesn’t feel very likely to go down, although Rylov is getting in the general vicinity.
7) Men’s 400 IM: Michael Phelps 4:03.84
I originally noted that USA’s Chase Kalisz was poised to take a run at Phelps’ 400 IM record over the 2019–2021-time frame. Whelp. Chase promptly missed the Finals at Worlds but will represent the Americans in Tokyo. Japan’s Daiya Seto won Worlds with a solid, but not record-threatening 4:08.95. Now what? Since the 2019, Seto hit a pre-pandemic 4:06.09. Russia’s Ilia Borodin (18) went a 4:10.02 at 2021 Euros. Carson Foster (19, USA) has lit up the short course yards world, recently went a 4:10 at trials and seemingly has plenty of growth left in front of him (although he will not be in Tokyo). New Zealand’s Lewis Clareburt (21) went a 4:09.87 earlier this year. Leon Marchand (FRA, 19) went 4:09.65 at the French Trials. Between the experience of Seto and a re-emerging Kalisz, paired with the youth and growth curves of Borodin/Clareburt/Marchand/Foster and others there is some hope of a movement towards the mythical 4:03.84, but it looks like Phelps is almost assured of keeping this record for another quad or longer. Does Seto have something special for the hometown games? Maybe in terms of a Gold, but likely not the WR. The youth in the event at or under 4:10 bumps this into Tier 3.
6) Men’s 400 Free Relay: USA 3:08.24
Prior to the US trials, the Americans had 4 of the top 8 swimmers in this event worldwide since July 2019. With Dressel approaching the individual 100 Free world record leading off the USA would be on track to break the record, but a team must AVERAGE a 47.06 here. That’s the power of 46.06. However, the US men looked very underwhelming at trials, especially considering what the Russians threw down earlier in the year. You never say never. If Dressel breaks the individual record leading off the relay that would greatly enhance the American’s chances of breaking the relay record, but if you make the relatively safe assumption that at least one swimmer (for any given team) will go 47.5 or higher, and that nearly kills the chances of a team breaking this record. The Americans are likely not even the favorites in the race as the Russian’s have the faster aggregate add-up times leading into the games. Prior to USA trials I had this sitting just outside of Tier 1, but after Omaha I have moved it back quite a bit. A record-breaking relay will have to look something like 47.2/46.8/47.2/46.9 for Russia or 46.7/47.3/47.5/46.8 for the USA. Special things happen in relays, but the record going down is not looking as likely as it did just a few weeks ago. Can one team get all those swims to go down at once, under pressure? I feel like Worlds in 2022 or 2023 seems more likely when the pressure is not quite as high.
5) Men’s 800 Free Relay: USA 6:58.55
Australia won gold in Gwangju with their 7:00.85. A solid time but nowhere near the record. In recent months it is Great Britain that has positioned themselves as the favorites for gold in Tokyo and the biggest threat to the world record. At British trials, Duncan Scott swam a 1:44.47 and Tom Dean finished at 1:44.58. Give one of them a relay start, throw in a James Guy 1:44-something (and he’s been 1:43 on a relay) and add another 1:45.5 split from whomever the 4th swimmer ends up being and they are right on the money. However, as I have noted before, it’s not just the times, it’s having them all happen at the same time. The margins of error in these relays are oh-so-small. Australia, Russia, Italy, and team USA certainly have the guns to make a run at the gold as well, but I’m not sure any other team has the pieces to crack 6:58.55 other than Team GB. I feel certain they will be under 7:00, it may come down to a matter of hundredths. A relay exchange, a turn, is another team pushing them down the stretch….
4) Men’s 50 Free: Cesar Cielo 20.91
Not to discount Florent Manaudou, Ben Proud, Bruno Fratus and many other great sprinters, but the man to watch when it comes to breaking this record is Caeleb Dressel. Many could win, but only Dressel is seemingly a threat to the record as no other swimmer has been under 21.4 in the past two years. Dressel’s 21.04 at 2019 Worlds was tantalizingly close to Cielo’s record. He just tied that time at the US Trials without a full taper (or so we assume). But in the 50, 0.13 is a lifetime and with no margin for error in this event to begin with (and it being on the final day of a loaded schedule for Dressel) I can’t quite put it into Tier 1. However, if he really was not on full taper and he has more speed to come, this record could very well go down. He also seemingly improves the more he swims. I think he will break 21, but by how much?
3) Women’s 200 Free: Federica Pellegrini 1:52.98
The timeless Federica Pellegrini won this event at 2019 Worlds with a 1:54.22. In the intervening months USA’s Katie Ledecky hit a mid-season 1:54.40 (and a 53.82 100 free) which leads me to believe she is really putting in the speed work to complement her distance chops. I think she has a 1:53.5 upcoming in Tokyo. China’s Yang Junxuan (19) recently went a 1:54.57, so she may have plenty of room left on her curve. The big favorite for taking down this record, however, is Australia’s Ariana Titmus who just dropped a 1:53.09. Provided she handles the double taper, she just needs to drop another 0.12 to break the record. With Ledecky providing the pressure down the stretch giving her someone to race, I predict that Titmus will get it done.
2) Men’s 100 Free: Cesar Cielo 46.91
I firmly believe Dressel gets the final 0.05 he needs to chop this record off the books. The key here? I think Dressel must get his feet on the wall in 22.10 or better on the front half. Tall task, but I think he can do it. If not Dressel, surely Chalmers has been stewing over his loss to Dressel in Gwangju for the past two years. Like Dressel, Chalmers will need to get out just a little bit faster than normal to break the record. He was 22.79 going out in Gwangju and I think he needs to be in the 22.55 range. Kolesnikov, Minakov and others may have a say in who wins gold here as well, but in terms of possibly breaking the record I think it’s a two-man show. It is entirely possible the record gets broken in the Semi’s with a slower winning time in the Finals, much like the 100 Fly in 2019
1) Men’s 400 Medley Relay: USA 3:27.28
I think Team USA is the team to beat when betting on this record going down. Great Britain will surely not do down without a fight, while Russia will have a say in the matter as well, but the USA has, and has had, all the pieces to make this work…..they just need to have them all hit at once. Ryan Murphy is the world record holder in the 100 back at 51.85 and fired off a pre-pandemic 52.72 at an in-season meet and then a 52.3 at trials. Michael Andrew just went 58.1 at trials in the 100 Breast. Could he (or Andrew Wilson?) be the sub 58.00 split the Americans have been searching for? Dressel is very likely good for a 49.2 or lower on the fly leg, and the Americans can lean on Zach Apple for the 46-high to 47 low splits they have had in recent years. The numbers are there, they just need to happen…….at the same time! 52.2/58.2/49.2/47.2 is entirely reasonable and gives you the record with room to spare. The US could conceivably hit 52.0/58.0/49.0/47.0 or better and clear it by over a second. Team GB still must solve the 100 Back riddle, but with Peaty/Guy/Scott holding down the back ¾ of this race they just need a good, not great, 100 Back from Greenbank. 53.1/56.7/50.6/46.8 puts them just below the record. If Scott goes off again along with everything else breaking right (52.5/56.5/50.5/46.5) then they could clear the record with plenty of room to spare as well. Russia has an embarrassment of riches at Back and Free as well, Minakov can swim fly in 50-low in the Fly and Chupkov can be 58.0 or lower in the breast leg. The Russians have the raw numbers break the record themselves as they could possibly be 51.8/58/50.0/46.8. With three teams in the mix, someone surely will, if not all three of them. I don’t think the record being broken is really in question. This is a sure-fire bet to go down.
That makes three records that I firmly believe will be broken in Tokyo, and two more that I think have a real possibility of being broken if everything goes right. The men’s 800 free relay is the true wildcard that could go drop if James Guy finds his 2015-2017 relay form.
The rest in Tier 3 and 4? Barring something unexpected, those records look like they have several more years left on them. But maybe Tokyo will provide us with another unexpected, Kristof Milak-type performance? I don’t know if I’m right or not, but I can’t wait to find out!
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.