The Event That Was Left Behind

by Casey Barrett

What happened to the 500 free? As times in every event drop with staggering speed and depth, the 500 remains stuck in another era… 

It was the usual stunning start of the NCAA championships, with times that were hard to fathom. If you’re past a certain age, say 28, you’re used to this by now. The further you get from your own glory days, the harder it is to grasp how fast kids are swimming these days. I’m sure that’s always been the case, and may it always be so. Generations fly by, and times that were once NCAA records, the outer envelope of aquatic performance, now those same times don’t even score a single point at NCAAs.

This is presently true in a race like the 200 IM. In 1993, Florida’s Greg Burgess set the NCAA record in a time of 1:43.87. That time was jaw-dropping back then. I remember exactly where I was when I heard about it. Today, Burgess’s time would not score a single point at the meet. 1:43.66 (by Stanford’s Tom Kremer) was the 16th and last spot to earn a second swim at the big show in 2014. The same is true in other events – after all, two decades is a long damn time. If college kids aren’t swimming much much faster 7,300 days later, then something must be wrong.

So then, what’s wrong with the 500 free? Every event in every stroke has taken off with the times, but take a look at the 500 free. It’s barely moved an inch in 20 years. On day one of the NCAA championships, USC’s Cristian Quintero took the title with a wire-to-wire 4:10.02. A second and a half back was Florida’s Dan Wallace, in 4:11.62. Turn back the clock to 1994, when Arizona’s Chad Carvin cruised to an NCAA record with a 4:11.59, a time that puts him in the hunt pretty much every year these days. A year later, in 1995, Carvin was left in the wake, as Michigan’s Tom Dolan dropped a 4:08.75. It was the first of several record shattering swims for Dolan at the ’95 NCAAs; I’m not alone in my opinion that it’s the greatest short course meet that any swimmer has ever had.

It took over a decade for a fellow Michigan alum, Peter Vanderkaay, to lower that mark, down to 4:08.60 in 2006. PVK dipped it down another .06 two years later in ’08 to 4:08.54, and that’s where the 500 record remains to this day. It’s not going anywhere.

Based on the progression of other events, shouldn’t swimmers be flirting with sub 4-minutes in the 500 by now? According to the progressions in the 200 IM, 4:08 should be about what it takes to make it back in the 500. Instead, a 4:16 is good enough to score points for your team in 2014. That’s about 10 yards too slow.

Strokes and events don’t progress at a uniform rate. Rule changes, like the dolphin kick in breaststroke pullouts, will artificially drop times across the board, simply because what’s legal now is a whole lot faster than what was legal before. In another era, we saw the same thing happen in backstroke when the “bucket turn” was replaced by the classic freestyle flip turn at every wall. However, aside from the changes in breaststroke pullouts, there really haven’t been any meaningful rule changes in the strokes that would warrant a significant drop in times.

A few weeks ago, as the conference championships wrapped up and the times came in, I noticed yet again that the 500 free was going nowhere, even as every other event seemed to surge forward. I raised the point with my friend Elliot, a smart, perceptive coach who wonders about the same things. His response was immediate: ‘It’s the under waters,’ he said.

But of course. Nothing has changed more in swimming over the last two decades than the preeminence of under waters. I’d argue that nothing has driven the sport forward more than this “5th stroke”. So much so that when the under water code was finally cracked in the mid-1990s, and times got silly, it was soon limited to 15 meters, first in backstroke, and a few years later in butterfly. Yet, even with that 15-meter limit, under waters have redefined virtually every event.

In a 20-lap race that lasts over four minutes, it’s not exactly feasible to gain the full advantage of under waters off every wall. Or maybe it is, and no one has ever had the balls (or the lung capacity) to really try it. In any case, that would seem to provide the most obvious reason for the 500’s languishing times. But it’s not enough.

The times in the mile have dropped plenty over the last two decades, more than the 500, and under waters would seem to be even less of an advantage in the 1650. The ‘we’re not doing enough’ argument is tempting, and maybe there’s an element of truth to it, but that too is not enough. Not when the mile is getting faster, at a faster rate, than the 500.

There’s also the fact that this riddle seems mostly limited to the guys. Katie Ledecky went 4:28 this year, in high school. She’s an outlier of the most severe degree, but Missy Franklin and Brittany MacLean were both swimming at least a few seconds faster last weekend than the times in took to win women’s NCAAs back in the mid 90s.

So, there are the under waters, that might be the biggest piece. There’s the ‘not enough’ factor, and that can’t be ignored. And there’s the women, charging ahead and keeping with the times. What are we missing? Why hasn’t the men’s 500 free moved an inch in generations?

This is why: There has been no leader in imagination. There’s been no outlier. Every other race and stroke has had its barrier-breakers. The Cielos, the Lochtes, the Cordes, the Phelps, the ones who pushed the standards of their strokes into another realm and challenged everyone else to follow.

That hasn’t happened in the 500 free. There hasn’t been anyone, not since Dolan, to grab the event by its throat and say: this way forward, try to hang with me, if you dare. This is an event that not even Phelps could master. There was a time when Bob Bowman looked forward to a showdown between Phelps and Ian Thorpe in the 400 free. It never happened. Phelps mastered damn near everything else, but this distance always eluded him, and for the last 20 years, it’s eluded really everyone else. Vanderkaay chipped away at Dolan’s mark, but he didn’t redefine it in any meaningful way.

Coaches have surely realized this. Ambitious young middle distance guys too. It’s an event that’s just sitting there, waiting for someone to grab it and own it and drag it forward.

When is it going to happen? And who’s it going to be?

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