Reigning Olympic champion Zac Stubblety-Cook of Australia became the first man to ever break 2:06 in the men’s 200m breaststroke when he swam a 2:05.95 on the second night of the 2022 Australian Swimming Championships in Adelaide.
Stubblety-Cook adds to his growing list of achievements in the event, adding to his Olympic gold medal from last summer when he stormed home as the second-fastest man over four lengths of the pool breaststroke.
Stubblety-Cook, now 23, sets his first world record, as he marches on to Budapest where he looks to be the first Australian man to win the 200 breaststroke at the 19th FINA World Championships.
He will be joined in Hungary in that event by Matthew Wilson, who was the last Aussie to hold the world record when he matched it in 2019 at 2:06.67, which was bettered the very next day in the Worlds final. Wilson went 2:10.14 on Thursday in Adelaide, and will be off to his third World Championships.
Stubblety-Cook is the sixth Australian man to hold the world record in the 200m breaststroke after John Davies (1952), Terence Gathercole (1958), Ian O’Brien (1964), Christian Sprenger (2009), and Wilson (2019).
“I was just trying to swim fast - I didn’t think that fast,” Stubblety-Cook told reporters.
Following an Olympic gold can be difficult, especially after the year Stubblety-Cook had in 2021, becoming the first Australian man to win gold in the 200 breaststoke since O’Brien in Tokyo 1964.
Stubblety-Cook’s best achievement before last year had been a silver in the 2018 Pan Pacs. He had reached the podium at the Junior Worlds in 2017 - a bronze, but hadn’t done it on the senior level, finishing fourth at the 2019 Worlds. But he hasn’t shown any signs of being fazed by the post-Olympic blues, and is still finding ways to improve.
“Last year, you put everything in and we got that result (Olympic gold),” Stubblety-Cook told reporters in Adelaide. “This year there’s a lot less pressure, so it’s a different kettle of fish. I’m just stoked.”
Ahead of the Worlds next month, Stubblety-Cook is two seconds faster than the second-ranked swimmer in the world - Japan’s Yu Hanaguruma at 2:07.99.
The Growth of the 200 Breaststroke
Stubblety-Cook’s blistering backend speed has been dominating the discussions from his recent world record, coming home in 31.63 on the last 50 and 1:04.06 on the last 100. He was out in 1:01.89 on the first 100, which was under the world record pace.
The former world record holder, Anton Chupkov, has played a big role in how this event has progressed. He was known for being long and strong on the first 100, before seemingly turning on a switch and mowing down everyone in front of him. It changed the way people paced the event, and therefore the way people trained for it.
Swimmers and coaches have taken the “distance per stroke” and made it all about the line and the timing of the stroke, ensuring that swimmers are getting the most out of their kick while also not losing the strength in their arms. The stroke has become longer, with people taking less strokes on the front half to ensure they are able to turn for home and increase their stroke tempo while not losing any speed. For years, people would stay long on the first three 50’s, only to increase the tempo on lap four but still swim slower on the last lap.
Stubblety-Cook’s first 100 on Thursday was 1:01.89. For comparison, Brendan Hansen set the world record in 2004 while going out in 1:01.88 - the difference being Hansen set the record at 2:09.04. Stubblety-Cook’s last two 50 splits of 32.4 and 31.6 were well ahead of Hansen’s back end splits of 33.5 and 33.6.
In 2004, Hansen took 18 strokes on the second lap, and 21 on his last 50, while in 2022 Stubblety-Cook took 16 strokes on the second 50 and 20 on the last. Coaches have found that letting athletes ride their kick rather than rushing to the next stroke is the way to swim faster. This has led to a huge improvement in the event.
Aussie great Grant Hackett, who has won two individual Olympic gold medals, and set countless world records, proclaimed in the commentary box that, “that last 50 was superb” for Stubblety-Cook - it has become his signature move in racing the event, and perhaps many others will follow suit.
To put into context how much this event has improved at the top, Brendan Hansen’s 2:09.04 from 2004 would not have even made the final at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, while the 2004 world records in the 200 fly and 200 freestyle would have been on the podium last summer.
In the last 20 years, the world record has improved five seconds in that event, the most among the four other men’s 200m disciplines. Stubblety-Cook’s swim, putting the record into the 2:05 stratosphere, goes to show how much that event has changed, and perhaps more will join him in the sub-2:06 club in the coming years.