Fair or not, the 50 yard freestyle is the marquee event in the sport of swimming. It’s certainly not the most grueling, nor the one that requires the most (if any) strategy. You dive in, put your head down, and churn. If it sounds simple, you’re correct in theory, but mistaken in execution. You see, any error and you’re toast. One failed streamline, one missed turn, one ill-timed finish, and not only are you not winning the heat, you’re probably being swum out of the building.
Growing up in Ontario, Canada, I knew absolutely nothing about yards. There’s a certain mystique, a je ne sais quoi
, associated with that small pool to most international swimmers. After I swam my first event in my first US college dual meet, I went up to my coaches and shrugged my shoulders, not knowing if the race was good or bad.
That being said, when you see a great 50 free, no matter the dimensions of the pool, you just know it’s fast. During my time, the record had stood to American Tom Jager at 19.05 since March of 1987. (For those unacquainted with that era, a gallon of gas cost 87 cents, The Simpsons
was airing its premiere season, and Westley
was battling Rodents of Unusual Size in the 'Fire Swamp.') During my freshman year in 2002, a skinny, far less tattooed American named Anthony Ervin stopped the clock in exactly the same time. Ervin, you may remember was the reigning Olympic champion in the same event, but even he, 15 years later, was only able to tie Jager’s mark.
The most amazing yards swim I ever saw in person was 3 years later, both by result and sheer consequence. At the NCAA Championships in Minneapolis, France's Fred Bousquet made history by posting an 18.74, shattering the long-standing record, doing so in preliminaries. (He split the race roughly in 9.3 and 9.4 for the two 25’s. Simply ridiculous.) After he finished, Bousquet sat on the lane rope, arms raised to the side, confident, but still incredulous. I was in the bleachers at the time, just standing there dumbfounded. I remember looking around the facility and was not surprised to see that everyone else in the building shared my reaction.
Later that evening, Bousquet won the event in 18.9 something, but the victory was almost a footnote to his new found place in the event’s lore. I don’t recall my times at all during that weekend, but Bousquet’s prelim swim is forever burned in my memory. It was that special.
It would take Bousquet another 5 years to beat his personal best, and in the meantime, the competition eventually caught up with his milestone, as they always do. Here’s the current top 10 all-time performers in the 50 yard free, along with their age at the point of their swim:
- Cesar Cielo 18.47 (21 years, 2 months, 17 days)
- Matt Targett 18.52 (23 years, 1 month, 24 days)
- Vladimir Morozov 18.63 (20 years, 9 months, 12 days)
- Nathan Adrian 18.66 (22 years, 3 months, 17 days)
- Fred Bousquet 18.67 (28 years, 10 months, 6 days)
- Adam Brown 18.72 (22 years, 2 months, 8 days)
- Alex Righi 18.82 (Unknown, senior year in university)
- Jimmy Feigen 18.84 (19 years, 9 months, 0 days)
- Marcelo Chierighini 18.85 (22 years, 1 month, 5 days)
- Ben W.-Tobriner 18.87 (22 years, 5 months, 24 days)
- Alex Coville 18.87 (Unknown, sophomore year in university)
Poetically, there had been 18 swimmers that dipped under the 19-second barrier. This past December, Caeleb Dressel joined the formidable ranks. Take a look at the list of names and ages again. You’ll notice that the great majority of them are in their early 20’s, along with two outliers: Bousquet, who’ve I’ve touched on already, and Jimmy Feigen who was 19 and change at the time of his swim. (It should be noted, however, that Feigen, along with fellow top 10’ers Alex Righi, and Alex Coville all set their marks in 2009 at the same meet, a time that was not coincidentally at the height of the super suit period. Four other swimmers joined them in going under 19, by far the most of any competition to date.)
Caeleb Dressel was only 17 years, 3 months, and 27 days old when he swam an 18.94.
At an age where most kids are seeing nominal, if not steady improvement, cementing their CV’s for entrance to a college team, Dressell has already swum a standard where many thought mythical for a very, very long time.
Perhaps I shouldn’t be that shocked though. Lately, there’s been an influx of juvenile talent threatening to steal the thunder of their elder colleagues. A youthful revolt. In recent years, we’ve seen the likes of Ryan Murphy, Jack Conger, Jacob Pebley, Joseph Schooling, and others bare their teeth, and flex their muscles, not wanting to wait their turn for their moment in the sun. (Going largely unnoticed, the second place finisher behind Dressel’s 18.94, was 15 year old Ryan Hoffer in 19.54. Another article for another day.) Still, I see Dressel’s time, and I hark back to 2005, when a Frenchman stirred up a chilly Minnesota crowd, bringing about a new realm of possibility in sprinting.
In a video interview with SwimSwam.com, Dressel reminisced about his landscape altering swim, remarking of the race and seeing the scoreboard, “That’s something I’ve wanted for so long…and seeing it in reality, you don’t believe it. It’s ineffable
, you know?”
My pedigree as an English major, and Dressel’s correct usage of an uncommon word aside, it’s these exact moments in any sporting career that athletes absolutely strive for: the opportunity for your feat to be retained years down the line. But more importantly, it’s those atypical significances that keep us up late at night, cause us to come back for more, make us smile, bring us to tears, and call forth primordial screams.
And it’s those quiet times in your mind, when it’s only you between the lane ropes, and you’ve put in the work, and your stroke was perfect, and all the agitation you’ve caused in the water only leads to something beautiful.