SwimmingHow 200 IM Record-Smashing Swim Stacks Up

How 200 IM Record-Smashing Swim Stacks Up

Kate Douglass in History: How 200 IM Record-Smashing Swim Stacks Up to Other Huge Drops

The possibility of the first-ever sub-1:50 performance in the women’s 200-yard IM was very real entering the NCAA Championships, with Virginia teammates Alex Walsh and Kate Douglass both sitting ticks away from that barrier. But then Douglass delivered a performance best described as jaw-dropping. A swimming fan perusing results without watching the race would likely see the time of 1:48.37 and assume there was a mistake.

Nope. Douglass really knocked 1.71 seconds off that record (0.43 per 50), a whopping 1.7% improvement over the previous mark.

It takes a truly special performance to break a record by that much, and circumstances are surely somewhat responsible: Douglass had never raced the 200 IM at an NCAA Championships before this season, so there was plenty of room to drop. She was slated to swim the event in 2020 before that meet was cancelled due to COVID-19, but in each of the last two years, Douglass picked the 50 freestyle for Thursday instead.

So what is the precedent for stunning swims of that nature? Here are some of the best women’s short course yards records from previous years.

Katie Ledecky, 1000 Freestyle, 8:59.65 (2015): The closest comparison in recent memory is the amazing 1000-yard performance by Katie Ledecky in 2015, where she swam a time of 8:59.65 to knock more than 11 seconds off Katie Hoff’s existing American and U.S. Open records of 9:10.77. That is about 0.56 seconds per 50 and a 2.0% improvement. Ledecky has broken 12 U.S. Open records (and 13 American records) in short course yards in her career, but she broke the 500 and 1650 records on so many occasion. Just one time in the 1000, and the biggest drop.

Lilly King, 100 Breaststroke, 56.30 (2018): The breaststroke star broke nine individual American records over her four years at Indiana, including six records in the 100-yard event over the four years. The biggest drop was more than a half-second at the 2017 Big Ten Championships, months after her breakthrough performance at the Rio Olympics when she won gold in the 100-meter breast. In that swim, she dropped 0.275 per 50 and 1.0%.

Beata Nelson, 100 Backstroke, 49.18 (2019): At the 2019 NCAA Championships, Wisconsin’s Beata Nelson crushed the previous 100 back record previously set by Regan Smith by almost a half-second. That 0.48-improvement (0.24 per 50 and 1.0%) is the largest drop in the event in previous years, just a little bit ahead of Katharine Berkoff’s 48.74 last year that made her the first woman to ever break 49.

Ella Eastin, 400 IM, 3:54.60 (2018): It was perhaps the validating performance of Ella Eastin’s career. The former Stanford star was swimming in the shadow of her Olympian teammates (Ledecky and Simone Manuel in particular), and after winning NCAA titles in the 400 IM her first two years, now Ledecky was jumping into that event after recording the fastest time ever at the Pac-12 Championships. However, Eastin jumped all over that race and won by three-and-a-half seconds over Ledecky, breaking the existing record by almost two seconds, a drop of 0.24 per 50 and 0.8%.

Natalie Coughlin, 100 Backstroke, 49.97 (2002): In 2002, Natalie Coughlin set records in the 100 fly, 100 back and 200 back that would last a generation. Most stunning of all was the 100 back, where she became the first woman ever under 50, and that record of 49.97 would last for 15 years until Stanford’s Ally Howe broke it at the 2017 Pac-12 Championships. A full record progression is not available, but prior to Coughlin’s arrival on the national stage, no woman had ever broken 52. In 2001, Coughlin won the NCAA title in 51.23, so she dropped 1.26 seconds (0.63 per 50 and 2.5%), but it’s unclear if that came in one swim.

Elizabeth Pelton, 200 Backstroke, 1:47.84 (2013): At the 2013 NCAA Championships, Cal freshman Elizabeth Pelton became the first woman in history under 1:48 in the 200 back, and this record is remembered as a huge drop. In reality, Pelton only dropped a half-second from Gemma Spofforth’s previous record of 1:48.34 (0.125 per 50 and 0.5%), but that swim occurred during the polyurethane suit era of 2009. But even though the record was broken by a small margin, Pelton was more than two seconds quicker than the previous best non-suit winning time at an NCAAs (Kate Fesenko at 1:49.92 in 2010). That drop is 0.52 per 50 and 1.9%, which would be one of the highest-ranked performances on this list.

So yes, this effort by Douglass was special. Among the swims in the last 10 years, only Ledecky’s 1000 free beats this 200 IM in percent improvement or by-length improvement, and none of the other notable swims were even close. Yes, circumstances had plenty to do with the dazzling nature of the swim, but so what? She beat a 200-yard record by 1.71 seconds and handily defeated two world champions who each went faster than any other woman had before. Douglass deserves every bit of recognition for that.

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