Ian Thorpe: ‘Everyone in the World is Swimming the 200 Freestyle Wrong’

Australian Swimming legend Ian Thorpe believes that his sensational 1:44.06 World record over 200 metres freestyle in 2001 remains one off the three most competitive four-length swims of the past two decades because “everyone in the world is swimming the 200 freestyle wrong.”

“You can’t swim 150 meters easy and then turn it into a sprint. You are going to limit what time you are going to do,” says Thorpe, Olympic 400m freestyle champion at Sydney 2000 and 200m and 400m gold medallist at Athens 2004.

Now 37, he believes that the only way the swimmer who cannot match the rare backend speed he managed to muster in his career can win the 200 freestyle in the kind of time he was capable of is to go for it the first 100 and be willing to make themselves hurt more to be “willing to deal with the pain that is going to exist the last 50 meters”.

In order to swim a 1:44, Thorpe believes swimmers will need to flip in a 50 point at the 100-meter mark, and he was able to get away with flipping in a 51 because he knew his back end speed. Ian Thorpe was a rare specimen two decades ago when he could perfectly mix speed and endurance to be nearly unbeatable across the 200 and 400 freestyle for six years. That model can be seen in the swims of the only two men ever to swim faster than Thorpe over 200m freestyle, Yannick Agnel, of France, and Michael Phelps, of the United States.

Ian Thorpe advocated up-front speed while talking on the podcast of his former teammate, Brett Hawke. The two discussed how the 200m freestyle, setting aside the shiny suits years of 2008 & 2009, has been relatively stagnant since Thorpe’s 1:44.06 all the way back at the 2001 World Championships.

Below is a chart of the splits of the 200 freestyle winner at the last five World Championships and two Olympic Games compared to Ian Thorpe’s best in 2001:

  • 2001: Ian Thorpe – 24.81, 51.45 (26.64), 1:18.26 (26.81), 1:44.06 (25.80)
  • 2007: Michael Phelps – 24.47; 51.00 (26.53); 1:17.73 (26.73); 1:43.86 (26.13)
  • 2011: Ryan Lochte – 24.53, 51.20 (26.67), 1:17.49 (26.29), 1:44.44 (26.95)
  • 2012: Yannick Agnel – 24.55, 50.64 (26.09), 1:17.16 (26.52), 1:43.14 (25.98)
  • 2013: Yannick Agnel – 24.07, 50.64 (26.57), 1:17.00 (26.36), 1:44.20 (27.20)
  • 2015: James Guy – 24.53, 50.99 (26.46), 1:18.33 (27.34), 1:45.14 (26.81)
  • 2016: Sun Yang – 24.87, 51.57 (26.70), 1:17.94 (26.37), 1:44.65 (26.71)
  • 2017: Sun Yang – 24.87, 51.10 (26.23), 1:17.45 (26.35), 1:44.39 (26.94)
  • 2019: Sun Yang – 24.97, 51.73 (26.76), 1:18.33 (26.60), 1:44.93 (26.60)

Compare all of that to the surviving world record of Germany’s Paul Biedermann, set in 2009 in full tiny suit – note that Biedermann is faster than any man in history on every length ever swum in a world-class 200m freestyle, reflecting the fact that between February 2008 and January 2010, swimming speed reflected the unprecedented impact of the non-textile apparel worn:

  • 2009: 24.23; 50.12 (25.89); 1:16.30 (26.18); 1:42.00 (25.70)

Thorpe’s best 200 freestyle time is still the third fastest all-time performance in textile (only Agnel and Phelps went faster). All suits, eight shiny suit times top his 1:44.06 best, while only one man in the last ten years has been able to swim faster than him. That was Yannick Agnel, who won the London 2012 Olympic gold medal in a blistering 1:43.14, the world textile best to this day. Agnel was the only swimmer to go under 1:44 as he followed the guidance of coach Fabrice Pellerin (and the pattern now advocated by Thorpe): go out in 50 point and be able to hold on to that through to the end.

Ian Thorpe’s best time in the 200 freestyle would have won gold at the last five World Championships. In the last ten years, only seven men have broken 1:45 from a flat start in the 200 freestyle. This goes to show how truly ahead of his time Ian Thorpe was.

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