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Michael Andrew, Caleb Dressel, Oh My!

How Fast Can Young Swimmers Get?


Katie Ledecky

Gold medallist Katie Ledecky of the United States poses with her medal following the medal ceremony for the Women's 800m Freestyle on Day 7 of the London 2012 Olympic Games

Clive Rose/Getty Images

Breaking time barriers in swimming is difficult. Whether you're a woman attempting for a 22 second 50-yard freestyle or a male attempting to break 20 second 50-yard freestyle barrier, barriers are tough. These barriers are so coveted even Anders Holm of Workaholics boasts he was a "20 point in college".

In the 50-yard freestyle, Joe Bottom, one of the 2006 International Swimming Hall of Fame Honorees, was the first swimmer to break the 20 second barrier for men, going a 19.70 in 1977. Anthony Robinson was the first high school swimmer to break 20 seconds, performing a 19.91 in 1997. Now, a 14-year-old has broken 20 seconds and a 18-year-old swimmer has broken 19 seconds! This has many former swimmers sounds like Mr. Wonderful of Shark Tank saying, "Stop the Madness"!

Every swim fan knows kids are getting faster at earlier ages. At first, many believed the high-tech suits were the cause of the improvements. Notably, David Nolan went spectacular times in 2009 in diverse races like the 200 IM and 50 free, but the fast times have continued since the end of the Supersuit era. In the past year, two 50 - yard freestyle barriers were eclipsed by 14-year-old Michael Andrew and 18-year-old Caleb Dressel.

Michael Andrew broke the 20-second barrier in the 50-yard free as a 14-year-old over the past weekend! This time ranks him within the top 15 of the 18-and-younger group and not long ago would have qualified him for the NCAA Swimming Championships. During this race Michael had only a slightly slower stroke rate than Cesar Cielo's U.S. Open record of 18.47! Now, Michael Andrew has a lot of room for improvement, as he lags about 0.7 seconds behind Cielo on both 25's. However, he does show  50-yard freestyle balance and much room for improvement.

Back in December of 2013, Caleb Dressel broke the 19-second barrier in the 50-yard free as a 18-year-old! This time would have qualified him in the top 8 for the 2014 NCAA Swimming Championships. In this race Dressel utilized a longer underwater phase, from his start than Cielo, allowing him to use less strokes on the first lap despite being a few inches shorter. The underwater kicking phase is being incorporated more in swimming, but is still unincorporated by most in the 50-yard race. Despite the use of underwater kicking, he gained little advantage (other than reducing his stroke count), being 0.2 seconds behind Cielo at the 15-m mark and 0.3 at the 25-yard mark. Like Andrew, Dressel can improve, on all aspects of his race.

These swimmers are clearly getting faster, but are these swimmers getting faster through their career or are they peaking earlier? This difficult distinction is unveiling in front of our eyes, as we question these elite young swimmers. I have confidence that these swimmers will continually improve, but am unsure how much and for the reasons. Think of all the advances in technology, sharing of training information, swimming blocks, swim pools, etc. These factors combined with further maturation and skill development add to improvement. I await the outcomes, myself being a "20 point in college".

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