Caeleb Dressel's swimming is so fast you can't believe it. Already an NCAA record holder after just his sophomore season, he pushed it to a whole new level this past spring, with new records in the 50 free (18.20), 100 free (40.00) and 100 butterfly (43.58).
That's right, as if his mind boggling 100 freestyle that put him on the doorstep of 39 wasn't enough, he also beat the man (Joseph Schooling) who beat Michael Phelps, in Schooling's best event.
For all his mind-blowing swimming, Dressel wasn't even on the US Olympic team in the 50 free and put up a couple solid 100 freestyles (47.9 and 48.1) on the 4x100 Freestyle relay. What demands explanation is, how can a swimmer like Dressel be so much faster in short course than an all-timer like Matt Biondi.
Biondi's best short course 100 was 41.87, giving Dressel a nearly two second advantage in that race. In the 100m, where a margin should theoretically be bigger due to the longer race, Dressel is just .9 faster (47.5 to 48.4).
Dressel is just one glaring example of a trend. Short course swimming (especially yards swimming) has seen an explosion in improvement over the last two decades. That improvement hasn't translated to long course meters, the Olympic format. So it begs the question: why?
The Skill Explosion
Basketball fans: have you ever watched highlights of Bob Cousy? The greatest ball-handler of his generation doesn't exactly blow people's minds with his moves in 2017. Yes, I know they allow more palming now- blah blah blah. Basketball has seen a skill explosion.
In swimming, skills are all the stuff that's not pure swimming (starts, turns, underwater kicking/pullouts)
Take a look at Matt Biondi swimming, at his peak (race starts around 3:24):
Here's Caeleb Dressel (shown in long course for accurate comparison)
There are some obvious differences that stand out right away. Dressel's start is worlds better than what Biondi or anyone was doing in a bygone era.
Even more so than the aerial theatrics is what happens when they enter the water. I've watched enough Biondi races to know that this wasn't a particularly bad breakout. Seen with modern eyes, Biondi always had a bad breakout.
He surfaces on too steep of an angle, his head lurching awkwardly up to the surface and looking straight forward. I went frame by frame at the turn, and it appears Biondi doesn't even fully streamline, and his legs are loose and unconnected behind him.
Meanwhile, on the surface, Biondi seems like he could be swimming today. In fact, I would venture to say that if we could de-age Biondi and teach him a proper start, turn, and how to kick underwater, he might still be the world's best over 100m.
The Short Of It
A focus on short course swimming can account for this skill explosion. Short course swimming rewards skills, as does higher intensity and measured race pace training. In three years coaching in Europe, I noticed that the majority of European countries placed a much higher focus on long course swimming.
While that led them to have fit athletes, overall you can see a broad deficiency in skill especially at junior levels in European swimming. This, broadly, is why many European athletes have a lot of NCAA success- they pair a strong fitness with increased skill development and make a performance leap.
A leap in long course performance is possible- but it rests on two huge developments. The first will be some significant innovation in overwater stroke technique. Adam Peaty is a good example of a swimmer who has made massive improvements in the world standard of long course performance despite below-average skills.
The second innovation will come with a continued evolution of race pace training to prepare swimmers better for long course racing. There are some inherent conflicts in the race pace theories- with one of the biggest ones being that specificity is given a ton of value, but somehow you should swim repeat short course 25y or 25m to prepare for a long course 100m.
Any coach can tell you that where swimmers struggle to translate their performance in long course is from 25-50m, maintaining their stroke technique, speed and efficiency. I saw it first hand when I used race pace and skill to get a swimmer who had never broken 1:00 in 100 breaststroke to a 55 in short course yards. That swimmer promptly went to Summer Nationals and swam a 1:09 in LCM, which is a nice argument for Long Course only Olympic Trial standards.
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