It’s a little daunting to analyze a statement from one of the best swimmers the world has ever seen. But here goes.
A few months ago, Ian Thorpe assessed the world of 200 freestyle, and declared that the everyone was swimming it wrong. Basically, he says that if swimmers don’t have his incredible last 50 speed, then they have to go out fast, turning at the 100 in 50 point, and then surviving the pain of that last 50.
Keep in mind that races in any sport that last roughly 2 minutes are the toughest to specialize in, as it involves a delicate balance between speed and endurance. It’s what makes the 200 in swimming so much fun to watch, and so painful to swim.
There’s absolutely no doubt that Thorpe was an incredible swimmer, and his 200 Freestyle at the 2001 World Championships is still astonishing to this day. His time of 1:44.06 was fast enough to have won the 2016 Olympics handily, as well as every World Championships since 2001, with the exception of 2007 (Michael Phelps 1:43.86) and the 2009 shiny suit championships (Paul Biedermann 1:42.00).
Comparison to 2012 Olympic Swimmers
Back in 2014, I analyzed the top 24 swimmers from the 2012 Olympics 200 freestyle, so I figured I’d compare Thorpe’s swim to the 2012 Top 3: Yannick Agnel, Park Tae-Hwan and Sun Yang. If you’re interested, Click here: How Elite Swimmers Swim the 200 Free.
We can see an immediate similarity with Agnel’s and Thorpe’s race splits. Fast at the 50, backed off a bit in the middle 100, and then crushed the last 50. Meanwhile, the other two started off fast, but then trailed off.
But the problem with looking at raw race splits is that nobody wants to lose contact with the field. This pretty much forces sprinters and distance specialists alike into a somewhat similar strategy for the first 150.
In order to truly analyze individual race strategies, I looked at the difference between each swimmer’s 50 splits and their 50 PB. I refer to this difference as an 50 PB Offset.
Here’s where we start to see a different story between sprinters and distance.
Agnel, with the 2012 field’s fastest 50 PB of 22.28, was able to lead at the 100 and the 150, despite being well off his 50 PB for the first 3 splits. And then he brought it back much faster than anyone else in the field.
Thorpe, without that raw 50 speed had to stick closer to his 50 PB than Agnel, but brought it back astonishingly fast in the last 50.
Both Sun Yang and Park Tae-hwan were forced to start close to their 50 PBs, but didn’t have any finishing kick at all.
Sprinters versus Distance
I decided to dig deeper into this idea of different sprint and distance strategies for the 200.
I separated out the swimmers with the 8 fastest 50 PBs and averaged their 50 PB Offsets, and the 8 fastest 400 PBs and averaged their 50 PB Offsets. However, as Agnel, Park and Biedermann appeared in both 50 and 400 PB groups, I removed them from the analysis.
And sure enough, we come up with significantly different race strategies between the two groups. Sprinters start out fast for the first 50 (~2.5 seconds above 50 PB), then go about 2 seconds slower for the 2nd 50, another 0.2 seconds slower for the 3rd, but then come charging back a half second faster on the last 50.
Distance specialists start out much closer to their 50 PB (~1.5s over PB), and then also go about 2 seconds slower for their 2nd 50, and another 0.2 seconds slower for their 3rd 50. But the big difference here is that they then go slower on their 4th 50 by a modest 0.1s.
Which brings us back to Thorpe’s swim. We can see that he swims the first 150 very much like a distance swimmer, but then crushes the last 50 even more than the sprinters, dropping just over 1 second.
In other words, Thorpe has the endurance of a distance swimmer, and a better closing speed than the sprinters.
Comparison to Elite 200 Swimmers
Now, a valid comment on the above is that we should be comparing Thorpe’s 1:44.06 elite 200 to the very best 200 swims over time, and not to averages of the almost elite.
So, here’s the same analysis of the 50 splits, but this time including the 5 fastest 200 FR swimmers at Olympic or Worlds championships ever, including Paul Biedermann’s shiny suit swim in 2009. And then I added Chad Le Clos’ silver medal performance from Rio, as he easily has the most aggressive racing tactics in the world.
- Ian Thorpe’s 2001 Worlds 1:44.06 – 1st
- Yannick Agnel’s 2012 Olympic 1:43.14 – 1st
- Michael Phelp’s 2007 Worlds 1:43.86 – 1st
- Sun Yang’s 2017 Worlds 1:44.39 – 1st
- Paul Biedermann 2009 Worlds *shiny suit – 1:42.00 – 1st
- Chad Le Clos 2016 Olympics 1:45.20 – 2nd
The first thing we notice is that the fastest 4 – Agnel, Phelps, Thorpe and Biedermann – all swam reasonably similar races. They all took it out hard and fast in the first 50, 1.5-2.0 seconds slower for the middle two 50s, and then brought it back at least 0.5 seconds faster in the last 50. And yet, even among this uber-elite group, Thorpe stands out as having the biggest drop from 3rd 50 to 4th 50 split (1.01 seconds).
NOTE: I included Biedermann’s shiny suit swim, as we’re interested in his race strategy, and not his final time.
It’s also important to note the 100 splits for all 6 swims were fast, ranging from Biedermann’s shiny suit 50.12 to Thorpe’s 51.45.
The two other swimmers stand out from the above 4, as they got slower in the last 50. Interestingly, one is from the sprinter, Chad Le Clos, who has an impressive 50 PB of 22.22, and the other is from Sun Yang who’s a distance champion.
From the above, we can see that elite 200 swims have one thing in common: a fast first 100. And the uber-elite 200 swims also involve a 3rd 50 just a little slower than the 2nd 50, and last 50 that is much faster than the 3rd 50.
We also saw a successful but slower strategy, with Sun Yang and Chad Le Clos going out so fast that they couldn’t manage a fast closing 50.
Which brings us to Ian Thorpe’s comments about the 200.
Yes, he’s absolutely right.
The top 200 swims of all time do involve going out hard and fast, and then bringing it back blazingly fast.
And if that last 50 speed isn’t there after going out fast, they still need to go out hard and fast, and then survive as best they can.