Time Predictions for Rio and Beyond


Katie Ledecky swims freestyle at 2014 Pan Pacs. (Large)Phillip Whitten, a Masters Swimming Hall of Fame Honoree, examines the changing times in the sport and asks: What are the limits? This is the fourth in a four-part series. 

By Phillip Whitten//Contributor

What can we expect to see in Rio this summer?  Based on my statistical analyses, I am looking for the following winning times in the freestyle events:

  Men  Women 
50m Freestyle  20.40  23.37 
100m Freestyle  46.54  51.65 
200m Freestyle  1:40.98  1:51.55 
400m Freestyle  3:37.78  3:57.13 
800m Freestyle   --------  8:04.41 
1500m Freestyle  14:29.09   -------- 

Yes, most of the current world records will fall this August, and times will continue to improve next year and the next and the next. But that can’t continue indefinitely, right? 


Or can it? 


Eventually, there will come a time when we can’t go any faster, a time when people will be swimming as fast as our bodies will allow. Right?


Let’s use the men’s 100 meter freestyle to explore. The current world record, set at the 2009 World Championships in Rome, belongs to Brazil’s Cesar Cielo at 46.91 seconds. I mention where he did it because almost every global standard was taken down at that meet. In Rome, swimmers were allowed to use high-tech swim suits that optimized body position with little energy expenditure on the part of the swimmer, even as coaches and swimming journalists were forcing FINA to outlaw the suits. Still, do you believe that 46.91 is the ultimate a human can achieve?


You don’t know? Well, let’s ask another question: Let’s say a swimmer is in perfect condition, just as strong for his size as Cielo is for his, but at 7-foot 4, he stands about a foot taller than the current world record-holder. Could he beat the Brazilian’s time? Could he go, say, 45.91? Or 44.91?


“Yes,” “yes,” and “yes.”


Now I throw you a curve. “How about 39.91”? You hesitate. 


“No, I don’t think so,” you mutter. That’s seven seconds faster than the world record today,” 


“Okay,” I reply. “I’ll let that pass for now. But why did you stop here? Is there a reason?”


“Yes,” you reply. Breaking 40 seconds is not just changing a 4 to a 3. It’s going faster than a human has ever swum – and doing it for twice the distance. Nobody has ever swum 50 meters in 20 seconds, let alone twice that distance at the same pace. That would be breaking a real barrier!


But would it? Would it be breaking a real barrier if someone has already done a 40.3 or 40.2? Would that make the 40-second barrier less formidable, less of a barrier? 


“You don’t know? Okay,” I say agreeably, “Let’s start at the other end. And let’s agree that a person will never swim 100 meters in 0.0 seconds. Take it from Al Einstein. 


“But what about one second or 10 seconds? Yes or no?”


“Common sense tells me ‘no;”


“5 seconds”? 


“Still no.”






“I’m not sure,” you stutter. “Certainly not in our lifetime.”


“Okay, so why did you stop at 30 seconds? You’re saying the ultimate is somewhere between 30 and 40 seconds. But why? How about 29.99 seconds?”


“Nope,” you reply, disdaining logic.


I posed these questions to George Block, president of the World Swimming Coaches Association and he took a practical approach in responding


“FINA loves world records,” he told me. “And so do swimming fans around the world. So to keep those records coming, we’re likely to do the easy thing first: we’ll change the rules and definitions,” he proclaimed. 


“For example, all of the breaststroke, fly and IM records would be wiped out simply by allowing flip turns for those events. I am certain there already are swimmers who can execute those turns perfectly. I’d be willing to bet that in the next few years, someone will do just that – flip a turn in one of those events at a major meet and get himself or herself DQ’ed. That would force the issue and, ultimately, I’d guess that FINA would allow the change.


Meanwhile, there’s one thing you can count on. Until that happens, you can be certain swimmers are going to get faster and faster. Barriers, once thought to be constructed of bricks and steel, will be seen for what they are – creatures of the imagination.