By Bruce Wigo.
In remembering Roger Bannister, the first man to break the elusive 4-minute barrier in the mile run, I’ve been asked for a comparable feat in the world of swimming. But first, we might examine Bannister’s accomplishment. The first official record time for the mile was when Londoner Charles Westhall ran the distance in 4 minutes 28 seconds in 1855. It took runners NINETY-NINE YEARS! to drop a mere 28 seconds — and a four minute mile remains respectable run.
It’s hard to compare running to swimming, where records are ephemeral because of the incredible advances in technique, starts, turns and training that have taken place over the last hundred years. Take for example the first official world record for the 1500 meters (metric mile) freestyle, set by another Brit, Henry Taylor, at the 1908 Olympic Games in a time 22 minutes and 48 seconds.
The 22 minute barrier was cracked in 1923, Murray Rose swam through the 17 minute barrier in 1957, and Vladimir Salnikov was first under 15 minutes in 1980 — a mark Katie Ledecky has a reasonable chance of breaking, and if not her, it will fall! Every new record set creates a new target to shoot for, so in this sense, swimming and running are quite different.
While Janet Evans and Mary T. Meagher’s records and swims were incredibly durable, there is only one mark historically comparable to Bannister’s in the eyes of the public – the record for the 100 Yards freestyle. That’s because the “unbeatable” record was set by Johnny Weissmuller, the 1924 and 1928 Olympic Champion who was viewed as one of the greatest athletes of the so called Golden Age of Sport.
From 1923 to 1927, the man known as the “Human Fish,” took the record in the century swim from :54.2 to :51.0 seconds flat. Over the next 15 years, the mark was tied by four different swimmers, but not broken. His record was viewed as unbeatable. So, when Yale freshman, Alan Ford, swam :50.7 in February of 1943, and broke the 50 second barrier with a time of :49.7, the next year, he became a national hero. His time would survive until 1952.
Now Caeleb Dressel and others are on the verge of breaking the :40 second barrier for the same event. A barrier unfathomable in the era of Johnny Weissmuller and Alan Ford.
Today, we expect records in every stroke and every event to be broken. Perhaps when or if we ever reach a point when records start lasting longer than a few weeks or years, we will see a record in the same light as the magical 4-minute mile or the 50 second barrier in the 100-yard free.