Since 1896, when swimming was first added to the Olympic Games, the world’s best athletes have paved the way for what the sport looks like today.
Legends aren’t born every day, but some swimmers have produced historic milestones that have changed the sport of swimming forever. Let’s check out 10 of the most iconic races in swimming history!
1. Men’s 4x100m Freestyle Relay, Beijing 2008
The Beijing Games in 2008 produced some of the most memorable swimming moments in history. If you recall, this era was filled with full-body super suits, and experts expected incredible swims from the world’s top athletes.
One of the most notable races from Beijing is Team USA’s win in the Men’s 4×100 meter freestyle relay.
Watching this race will give you goosebumps.
The French team was expected to win, but the Americans had other ideas. Michael Phelps, Jason Lezak, Cullen Jones and Garrett Weber-Gale were hungry to take back the relay title. Team USA hadn’t won in 12 years!
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Going into the final 50 meters, the American team was 6 tenths of a second behind the French. Anchor Jason Lezak pulled out an incredible comeback, clocking a 46.06, setting a new world record and capturing gold for the USA. This allowed Michael Phelps to go on and win 8 gold medals in Beijing, something that has never been done before.
2. The “Berkoff Blastoff”
Back in the 1980s, American swimmer David Berkoff was one of the world’s top backstrokers. He was known for his incredible starts, called the Berkoff Blastoff.
After exploding off the wall, Berkoff could easily kick underwater for almost 35 meters, which often put him ahead of his competition. This technique wasn’t common in backstroke racing at the time, and played a role in shaping how backstroke is swum today.
He won a silver medal in the 100 back at the 1988 Games as a result of his incredible underwaters.
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FINA had other thoughts about this and in 1989, they amended the rules for how far a swimmer could swim underwater during competitions, limiting backstroke underwaters to just 15 meters.
Despite this rule change, Berkoff went on to win a bronze medal in the 100 meter backstroke at the 1992 Games.
Today, underwater dolphin kick is considered the 5th stroke of swimming and used by the world’s elite to rocket off of starts and turns!
3. The First Women’s Swimming Races
The 1912 Games in Stockholm marked an important milestone: It was the first time women were allowed to compete in swimming!
There were only 2 events: the 100 meter freestyle and the 4×100 meter freestyle relay.
The swimming course was built in a bay in the center of the Swedish capital. It was 100 meters long and 20 meters wide, and had timing technology that could register times down to a 10th of a second.
Related: 10 Female Swimmers Who are Trailblazers in the Sport
Australia’s Fanny Durack blew her competition out of the water with a 100 meter freestyle time of 1:20.1, setting a new world record.
To compare, the current world record for the women’s 100 meter freestyle is 51.71. That’s incredible progress, and swimmers continue to get faster!
4. First Black Medalist
Historically, black people have had limited access to pools and competitive opportunities. But in 1976, Enith Brigitha of The Netherlands set the stage for black swimmers’ success for decades to come. At the Montreal Games, Brigitha became the first person of African descent to win a medal.
She took home 2 bronze medals for the 200 and 100 meter freestyles. But she didn’t stop there. Over the course of her career, Brigitha set 5 short course records and won 21 Dutch titles. She also earned medals at numerous World and European championship meets.
5. Oldest Swimming Medalist
Dara Torres is a legend in her own right. A swimming powerhouse. She competed in 5 Games, won 12 medals and spent more than 28 years competing at an elite level.
In 2008, Torres became the oldest swimmer to make a U.S. team at age 41, just 16 months after giving birth to her first child. After winning 3 silver medals in Beijing, she became the oldest swimmer to ever win a medal, too.
Related: How Katie Ledecky Swims So Fast
And if those aren’t enough accolades, Torres is also the first American swimmer to appear in 5 Games. She won at least one medal at each one.
Dara Torres is proof that age is just a number. No matter what, you can always challenge yourself and push your limits.
6. Simone Manuel Makes History
If you’re a swimming fan these days, there’s no doubt you’ve heard of Simone Manuel. She is an American sprinter who made her Olympic debut at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.
Manuel won 4 medals at the Rio Olympics, but one in particular put her in the history books. After tying for first in the women’s 100 meter freestyle, Manuel became the first African American woman to win an individual gold medal in swimming.
At the 50 meter mark, Manuel was 3rd, but she surged to the finish, touching at the same time as Canadian swimmer Penny Oleksiak.
This historic win reinforces Manuel’s position as a role model for young swimmers. She is working alongside other black swimmers to pave the way for a more inclusive and diverse sport.
7. The Oldest Swimmer to Win Individual Gold
Few athletes can expect to compete in more than one Olympic Games. US Olympian Anthony Ervin takes this to another level. He competed in 2000, 2012 and 2016!
In 2000, he tied for gold in the men’s 50 meter freestyle at just 19 years old!
Then, in 2016, he won gold in the 50 free again, becoming the oldest swimmer to win an individual gold medal at 35 years old. He’s also the first swimmer to win gold medals in the same event, 16 years apart.
Could he keep going? We’ll have to watch and see…
8. Men’s 100 Meter Butterfly Final, Beijing 2008
Alongside the epic men’s 4×100 freestyle relay, Michael Phelps’ 100 meter butterfly is another incredible moment from the 2008 Beijing Games. This race proves that swimming really does come down to just a 100th of a second.
In an interview before the race, Serbia’s Milorad Čavić said that it would be better for the sport if Michael Phelps lost. Little did he know, that statement added fuel to the fire.
Related: The Greatest Swimming Race of All Time
50m into the race, Phelps was in 7th place. With his usual back half speed, Michael Phelps rocketed to the finish. As he approached the wall, he had 2 choices: glide in for a floating finish and most likely place second, or risk it all and take a half-stroke.
He chose the latter, taking a half stroke managing to out touch Čavić by just 1 100th of a second to snatch his 7th gold medal of that Games, with a time of 50.58.
One hundredth of the seconds is the slimmest of margins. You can’t get any closer than that!
9. Winning Every Swimming Event
These days, it would be unheard of for a swimmer to win gold in every event at the Games. Back in 1920? That was a different story.
At the 1920 Games in Antwerp, Belgium, American swimmer Ethelda Bleibtrey won gold in all 3 women’s swimming events: The 100 and 300 meter freestyles and the 4×100 meter freestyle relay.
Even better? She set world records in all 3 races, and freestyle wasn’t even her best stroke! Bleibtrey was a stellar backstroker. Who knows how she would have performed if backstroke events were available?
10. Youngest Swimmer to Win Gold
If Dara Torres is the oldest swimmer to win a medal, who is the youngest?
Kyoko Iwasaki of Japan was 14 years and 6 days old when she won the 200 meter breaststroke at the 1992 Barcelona Games.
She wasn’t favored to win, and didn’t overtake the event leaders until the final 50 meters. She finished in a 2:26.65, dropping a whopping 5 seconds from her entry time. Only a 14-year-old would see a best time like that!
We hope you enjoyed these incredible moments in swimming history! What races did we miss?
Personally, I thought the Men’s 4×100 free relay in the 2000 Sydney Olympics when Australian team won on the final leg against the US was a memorable one that should be mentioned. It was the first ever time that the US team lost that event.
Actually, in 2008 Beijin Olymics ,Cavic hit the wall the first, before Phelps, and it is later approved by the measuring equipment (touching pad) official experts. At that time Omega Timing (touching pad producer) manager explained that Cavic hit the wall the first but not strong enough. You can read more about this event here – https://www.vice.com/en_ca/article/bmqjma/catching-up-with-milorad-cavic-who-beat-michael-phelps-but-lost-gold-by-the-force-of-a-finger.
So the explanation above it not fully informative.
Nice to see that Enith Brigitha is listed in your top 10. Recently there has been a crowdfunding action by Mo Hersi to collect money for a statue of Enith in Almere (The Netherlands).
She is such an important part of swimming history!
Great swimming moments to be sure…..but no mention of what Mark Spitz did for the sport?
Hi Dan, This post was definitely not an exhaustive list of all the incredible swimmers who made an impact on the sport! Check out this video comparing Michael Phelps’ and Mark Spitz’s strokes: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-cPjxPp-cs0
What about Anthony Nesty beating Matt Biondi in the 100m Fly in Seoul in 88 (?). I think that was also the first (and possibly the last) Olympic medal that Suriname ever won, and certainly in the pool. Biondi was also expected to ‘sweep the board’.