The Olympic motto is “Citius, Altius, Fortius,” – faster, higher, stronger. It’s a motto that athletes have fulfilled, time and time again. One need only look to the pool during the women’s 100m backstroke finals from the Tokyo 2020 Olympics and compare it to the Amsterdam 1928 Games to see the march of athletic progress that has been made.
When twenty-year-old Aussie Kaylee McKeown swam down Canada’s Kylie Masse andthe USA's Regan Smith in the final 25 metres and then out-touched them at the wall, McKeown did so in a new Olympic record time of 57.47, just 2/100ths off the world record mark she set earlier that summer at the Australian Olympic Trials.
“It’s definitely something that people dream of – it’s something that I have dreamed of, too,” McKeown said after the race. “To make it a reality is … yeah, really amazing.”
If McKeown was almost at a loss of words immediately following her backstroke gold, the performance progression that swimmers have made within the past century is stunning.
Take, for example, McKeown’s performance last summer compared to the speed of the swimmers topping the field at the Amsterdam 1928 Olympic Games. No sound is needed for the side-by-side comparison between the two Olympic Games; just watching the two races can leave the most talkative of commentators speechless.
It’s not just the black-and-white broadcast moving to colour with underwater cameras that are beamed from satellites to every corner of the globe in real-time that has evolved over the past 23 editions of the Summer Olympics. From faster textile suits and calmer waters in today’s modern pools to advances in swimming techniques (just look at the importance of underwater swimming now versus back in the day!) and training methodologies, the Olympic Games-winning performance in the women’s 100m backstroke has dropped from 1:21.60 to 57.47, a 24.13-second improvement in 92 years.
Technology has made a difference in all sports, from making faster skis to lighter and bouncier running shoes. Swimming follows this script. While the speed of swimming has always been trending downward, it's punctuated by steep time improvements, like the introduction of the flip-turn in 1956 and the use of pool gutters in 1976 that allows water to splash off rather than becoming turbulence that impedes swimmers as they race.
Already a three-time Olympic champion and two-time FINA World Championship medallist by aged 20, it also doesn't hurt that McKeown is a phenom. Just like Maria “Zus” Philipsen Braun, the Amsterdam 1928 event winner, was back in her day.
A 17-time Dutch national swimming record holder, Braun grew up in and around the pool as a swimmer, diver and water polo player before concentrating her athletic ambition squarely on searching for speed between the line lanes. What’s more, Braun was the daughter of Marie Braun-Voorwinde, a respected coach who worked with top Dutch women swimmers from the mid-1920s to the 1950s.
With her mom as her coach, Braun’s foreshadowed her triumph at the Amsterdam 1928 Olympic Games by winning a European title and two silver medals in 1927. While Braun was befallen by illness at the Los Angeles 1932 Games, she retired a six-time world record holder – with three all-time 100m backstroke marks, including the world record she set that day in Amsterdam.
Now, picture this: the year is 2102 and you are at the Olympic finals of the women’s 100m backstroke. You are among the thousands of fans in the Olympic arena waiting with bated breath. Flashbulbs pop as the eight fastest backstrokers in the world jump into the pool and then coil themselves into the starting blocks. You can feel the electricity of the moment in the air.
"Take your marks," instructs the starter, followed by a sharp electric beep.
McKeown's performance was sublime: where will these competitors find ways and areas to improve on her time? How much more time can be chopped off the current Olympic Record? How fast is it physically possible to swim 100m backstroke?
Only time will truly tell.