When I decided to actually try to quantify how much swimming techniques and training have actually advanced in the past fifteen or so years, instead of just accepting we've made significant advances, I had a difficult time coming up with a reasonable way of doing so. I finally settled on using as my benchmark the improvement since 1988 in women’s world records (1988 chosen because I figure that was the last Olympics Dara Torres ever participated in without an assist from doping). Obviously not the best measure of just technique and training as it incorporates several other contributing factors including the biggest and most obvious: the current record holders aren’t the same; but at least it does set an absolute upper limit on what we can attribute to technique and training. After spending the better part of an afternoon creating a database to obtain the desired number I started thinking about some other way of using it. It didn’t take long for me to decide to see if there was an age related pattern to female world record holders. So that’s what I did, and not particularly surprising there is a relation between the athletes and the age at which they set the current world record. But what is truly important are the stories behind the ladies involved.
Hypothesis: On the assumption a swimmer must necessarily be at his or her best in order to break an existing world record, and of those historical few who have broken their own world record an overwhelming majority did so within a period spanning less than two years, that there is a strong correlation between the age of the current world record holders when they swam their races and their physical peak.
If the hypothesis is true we should find world records clustered together within a range of two to no more than four years given normal human development patterns (i.e. the four year Olympic cycle was correctly chosen to include every participant’s period of peak performance). There are seventeen events recognized by FINA, and with world records granted for both long and short course it makes for a total of 34 world records for women. I’ve limited my analysis to Olympic long course or half of these – and in so far as their ages when they set their records they range from seventeen to twenty seven, a far greater range called for by my hypothesis. So let us look more closely.
The youngest current world record holder is Krisztina Egerszegi, setting the 200 back record only one week after her seventeenth birthday. Two others also made the list at seventeen: Janet Evans just one week shy of her eighteenth birthday in the 800 and Katie Hoff taking home the 400 IM record with a couple of months to spare. Most surprisingly we only have one woman whose world record was set when she was eighteen – Kate Zeigler, giving herself a birthday present just ten days before her nineteenth. I’ll return to discuss the lack of eighteen year olds later on. The greatest cluster of records occurs in the twentieth year with five; counting in Therese Alshammar, Jessicah Schipper, Yanyan Wu, and Laure Manoudou with two. And lastly Leisel Jones’ two breastroke records were set six and seven months after she turned twenty. These eleven records then are contained by the bounds set out in my hypothesis. Of the eleven only three have ever had any doping associations to my knowledge. The Chinese swimmer Yanyan Wu was caught three years after her record taking anabolic steroids for a rather conclusive ‘positive’ association (Katie Hoff has stated it is her singular goal in swimming to take the 200 IM record away from Wu to which we can only say our hopes go with her). I actually debated whether or not to mention the other swimmer as they were only rumors, but in the interests of full disclosure I will reveal there were whispers when Leisel Jones showed up at a major Australian swim meet with considerable muscle gain a few months after she had set her records. But this is the only instance where the name Leisel Jones and doping come up in a sentence together. It seems there’s only one probable doping in this group, and even this case can be linked to a state sponsored doping program where the athlete is often an unwilling or unknowing participant in the fraud.
And now there are six. American Leila Vaziri is the next oldest with a world record at twenty one years and seven months. But her story veers away from the pattern of unbroken successes shown by her younger counterparts. We pick up Vaziri’s relatively undistinguished career as an Indiana University sophomore where she finished 7th in the NCAA 100 back. At the start of the summer break her father was diagnosed with cancer and died shortly thereafter and obviously she was grief stricken. Her swimming fell off in her junior year and she ended the season with a 10th place finish at the 2006 NCAA finals. After taking some time off from swimming she returned in 2006 for her senior year “with a renewed focus and drive. Mental strength, she says, is more important now than physical strength.”¹ She almost immediately won her first and only national title at the ConocoPhillips National Championships to explode onto the world scene, and ended up chopping 2.5 seconds off her 100 back in less than a year. Her world record in the 50 back came as a complete surprise to everybody – it was the first time she had competed in the event internationally. She graduated from Indiana U this past May and is now training with the Coral Springs Swim Club, the same club the ageless Dara Torres belongs to and trains with.
With a world record at twenty two years nine months German Britta Steffen was another surprise. A phenom at fifteen with a 55.66 100 free at the 1999 European Junior Championships it would be another seven years before she recorded a new personal best. She was a substitute on Germany’s 2004 Olympic 4x100 free relay team and afterwards took a break from the sport; not swimming at all in 2005. She came back with a bang though, finally breaking through with a new PB 100 free time of 54.82 March 2006 and then five months later at the European Championships raced to a new world record in the 100 free with a 53.30. From nowhere close to the world’s top rankings to world record holder in a few short months her late career improvement has been attributed to a change in coaching and extensive psychological counseling; enough for her to deal with an eating disorder and see a dramatic turnaround in both motivation and attitude. Shortly thereafter Germany’s swimming federation announced a “blood passport” program in conjunction with WADA (World Anti-Doping Agency) to protect German swimming against accusations of doping.
Australian Jade Edmistone, world record holder in the 50 breastroke, is quite the enigma. Her career path is remarkably similar to our teenage world record holders except for one striking difference – her international career started about four years later than everybody else mentioned here except for Vaziri. She only appears on Australia’s national stage in 2002 at the advanced age of twenty, reaching the 50 breast finals at the Long Course Australian Championships and taking silver and fifth in the 50 and 100 breast respectively at the Short Course Australian Championships. Prior to 2002 it appears she didn’t even qualify to swim at her country’s national championships. Even her own website gives no information about her history in age group swimming. But once on the scene Edmistone showed steady progress. She set the 50 meter short course breaststroke world record in September 2004, broke her first long course record (50 breastroke again) ten months later at twenty three years and five months of age, and then went on to break that record again a week before her twenty fourth birthday.
Next oldest on the list is of all people American Natalie Coughlin. I would think after reading about some of the backgrounds of the older world record holders a few of my readers may be getting a little uneasy, but Natalie Coughlin has such a well documented history of continued excellence over the past several years I won’t spend anytime detailing her career here. I can and do point out her first long course world record (in her best event the 100 backstroke) was set a couple of weeks before her twentieth birthday which fits in nicely with my hypothesis. Her recent improvement on that time by the scant margin of 14 hundredths of a second at twenty four years and seven months of age I believe can be rationally explained as her not significantly slowing over the past 4½ years rather than getting faster. Whatever the explanation swimming a world record at such a late age represents an exceptional achievement accomplished by only very few in history.
Finally the oldest female world record holder is Netherlands’ Inge de Bruijn with two world records in the 50 free and 100 fly, both logged a month into her twenty eighth year. Her story makes for especially good reading. She appeared on the world stage at the VI FINA World Championships at seventeen in 1991, and the following year at the 1992 Barcelona Games finished 8th in the 100 free and ninth in the 100 fly. Questions went unanswered over her ejection from the Dutch Olympic Team preparing for the 1996 Atlanta Games for ostensibly a “poor attitude”, but her times had already started to falter the year before after three years of competing at a consistently high, though not spectacular, level of performance (satisfyingly the performance curve shown in her early career conforms exactly to my hypothetical ‘classic’ years of peak performance). Apparently no longer welcome in the Netherlands she began training with well regarded Paul Bergen in Oregon and by 1997 saw a return to her past form. Thus started a period of four years of continually faster times which culminated at the 2000 Sydney Games winning four medals (three gold and one relay silver) and three world records, including the two which still exist today. Her improvement over those years was nothing short of phenomenal: three and a half seconds off her 100 fly, three seconds off her 100 free, and over one and a half seconds off her 50 free. Suspicions her times were aided by doping were rampant and openly discussed, but she never failed a test. Until recently it was my opinion Inge de Bruijn represented what has been the most egregious case of successful doping in swimming; that is until Dara Torres assumed the crown.
So what happened to those eighteen year olds? We should be seeing something very close to a normal distribution (aka a bell curve) when charting the ages of our current world record holders and obviously it doesn’t come close. You can understand the odds against being a world record holder can be likened to those encountered to win a major lottery: the odds of even one of them also physically maturing at a markedly different rate than normal would multiply those odds several fold. We have four or five here. Of course there’s another explanation – the individual is so much better than the rest of the human population they have the ability to continue swimming past their peak performance years and still break world records – but the odds against that are quite incredible too. Nevertheless that is exactly what I’m ascribing to Coughlin’s latest world record. She’s long dominated the 100 back, and without a serious challenge I believe she was never pushed enough to test her true limits, or for that matter has ever known them. Only recently has the rest of the world caught up with her and unsurprisingly she responded with a new personal best. I’m of the opinion her recent record shows she had a mid to low 58 in her during her peak years. As for the rest forget it, and if you disagree with me just read their stories again. That means we have five world records that belong somewhere else. So where did the eighteen year olds’ records go? Simple – they were stolen.
¹Leila Vaziri: Peaking at the Perfect Time – USA Swimming Mar.22, 2007