Swimming — now the girls are better

By Frederic Friedel

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Yesterday Katie Ledecky, a 19-year-old American swimmer, finished the 800 meter freestyle final at the Olympic Games in Rio in first place, shattering her own World Record by two seconds. When her right hand hit the wall at the end of the race, eight minutes and 4.79 seconds had passed. After that Katie had to wait 11.38 seconds for the silver medalist to reach the wall.

Eleven point three eight! That is an eternity, as this wonderful New York Times page dramatically shows us. Go look at it, you won’t regret.

It was Ledecky’s fourth Gold at the Rio Olympic Games, her fifth over all. She is the current world-record holder in the 400, 800, and 1,500-meter freestyle, and holds the fastest times in the 500, 800, 1000, and 1,650-yard freestyle events. Katie has set twelve world records. She is clearly one of the greatest swimmers of all time.

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Everybody knows Johnny Weissmuller. He played Edgar Rice Burroughs’s ape man Tarzan in twelve motion pictures, creating a legend. Can anyone forget his jungle call and monosyllabic language?

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But did you know that Weissmuller was the greatest swimmer of the first half of the 20th Century? He won five Olympic gold medals and fifty-two U.S. National Championships, and set sixty-seven world records. He was never beaten in official competition in his entire career.

Weissmuller was the first man to swim the 100-meter freestyle under one minute, and in 1924 set a world record of 57.4 seconds, which stood for ten years. In 1927 he swam the 200-meter freestyle in 2 min 08.0 sec, a record that would last eight years. In 400 meters his 1923 record was 4 minutes and 57.0 seconds, his 800 meter World Record time we will tell you in a minute. For now all we want to say is that Weissmuller was a swimming legend who completely dominated the field in the 1920s. He had no challengers.

So what was Weissmuller’s 800-meter World Record, set on July 27, 1927? Ten minutes and 22.2 seconds. Which means that our Katie Ledecky, had she been competing at the time, would have had to wait for two full minutes for the fastest man in the world to finish in second place — actually two minutes and 17.51 seconds. Enough time to hear the US National Anthem in full.

And how about the other records and best times?

Length                       Weissmuller       Ledecky
100 meters freestyle 57.4 (1924) 53.75 (2016)
200 meters freestyle 2:08.2 (1927) 1:53.70 (2016, Rio)
400 meters freestyle 4:57.0 (1923) 3:56.46 (2016, Rio)
800 meters freestyle 10:22.2 (1927) 8:04.79 (2016, Rio)
1500 meters freestyle ---- 15:25.48 (2015)

Note that Weissmuller could not swim the 1500 meters against the best. At the time the men’s World Record in this distance was around 20 minutes. Katie is five full minutes faster.

Written by

Frederic Alois Friedel, born in 1945, science journalist, co-founder of ChessBase, studied Philosophy and Linguistics at the University of Hamburg and Oxford.

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