Defying Expectations


By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent

I remember the first time a swimmer broke 19-point.

The performance came fifteen years in the making. In 1990, Tom Jager set a legendary mark in the 50 freestyle – 19.0 – and every swimmer thought it was unbeatable. But fifteen years later, swimmers got antsy. Year after year, as other swimmers approached the mark but never quite broke through, we were left wondering – “Will any swimmer break 19.0?”


2005 NCAA Championships: Everyone in the stands knew, “This could be the year,” but no one really thought it would happen. Fred Bousquet, the French sprinter superstar, stepped up to the blocks in the morning prelims, and, in the blink of an eye, unexpectedly, without prelude or pomp and circumstance, smashed all expectation.




The crowd – shocked, not really anticipating history to occur in the morning -- roared its approval. We had witnessed not only that year’s history, but a performance fifteen years in the making. And we thought, “We’ll never see another performance like that again!” We were out of breath watching it. After all, I grew up thinking 19.0 would never be broken. Suddenly someone went 18.7, and that mark became the “new impossible.
Flash-forward nearly 10 years later to last weekend’s NCAA Championships.


In the men’s 50 freestyle this past weekend, it took 19.1 to make the Top-8. Not “to win.” Not “to set a new NCAA record.” Swimmers had to swim 19.1 just to make it into the championship final. This was never seen before. It was shocking. What would have conquered the NCAA Championship title a few short years ago couldn’t even make the championship final. And 18-point? It’s not exactly commonplace, but it happens with relative frequency these days.

When you begin to follow swimming year after year, decade after decade, and when you begin to see your own expectations change along with performances, you begin to witness the seemingly impossible become possible. Tom Jager goes 19.0, and you think, “That’s impossible!” Fred Bousquet goes 18.7, and you think, “That’s impossible!” Michael Andrew, at 14-years of age, goes 19.7 and you think, “That’s impossible!”

When are we going to realize that – while we sit back and wonder about the impossibility of these times – other swimmers are training right now, this very moment, thinking, “Hey, I could do even better!”

It makes me wonder what else we could see: 


-A 17-point flat-start 50 freestyle?
-A 1:39 women’s 200 freestyle?
-A :39 100 freestyle?
-A 9-gold medal Olympic performance? 


We’re in an exciting, new age of competitive swimming. An age when an entire generation, inspired by some of the once-in-a-lifetime Phelpsian performances, have trained and worked their way to be in a position at the edge of those barriers. They rest against them, with jackhammers and pick-axes, holding caps and goggles, ready for the next race.

Swimmers like Arizona Wildcat Kevin Cordes.

Three years ago, breaking 50-point in the 100-yard breaststroke was impossible. No way we’d ever see a :49 100-breaststroke, right? Last weekend, Cordes came just a few hundredths of a second away from making that impossibility come true. 50.0. I get goose bumps just typing that.

I suppose when Michael Phelps retired, I had this feeling that we’d never see great performances again. I’m not sure why this was the case. Maybe it was the media telling me this. Maybe it was that I wanted to believe it, that I wanted to believe that I’d never, ever see something as great as this ever again. That I wanted to root myself in history and say, “I was there. I saw something no one else would ever see.”

However, time and time again, there are shocking, jaw-dropping performances happening all around us. 19.1 doesn’t make the NCAA Championship final. A 50-flat 100 breaststroke. A 1:39 200 butterfly.

Swimming keeps churning on, and so do swimmers. Chasing, training, churning, and fighting to break expectations, smash barriers, and prove, in the words of Phelps, that “nothing is impossible.”

Year by year, I’m believing it.

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