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Who Will Be the 200 Freestyle King?

By: Edi Zhang


Source: Alberto Pizzoli / AFP / Getty

While even Michael Phelps’s legendary 400-meter IM record has been broken, one record continues to stand strong and has gained a reputation as one of the hardest world records to break. In fact, until 2022, no one has even come close to the controversial men’s 200-meter freestyle world record, swum by Paul Biedermann in 2009. Before “supersuits” (100% polyurethane) were banned in 2009, Paul Biedermann swam a 1:42.00, destroying Michael Phelps’s previous record of 1:42.96. Though the record’s legitimacy is still debated today, FINA recognizes this swim as the official world record.


Since the suits were banned, only two swimmers have gone under 1:44.00 and one has gone under 1:43.00. This one swimmer was 17-year-old David Popovici (now 19 years old), who swam a 1:42.97 200 free and also broke the 100 free world record at the 2022 European Championships. He is widely considered to have the best chance at breaking Biedermann’s record. As Popovici is still very young, his potential in the 200 Free is stirring up a lot of excitement in the swimming community. On top of that, Paris 2024 is facing a lot of expectations.


To go under 1:42.00, Popovici would have to average under 51.00 seconds per 100 meters. Let’s look at some splits comparing Popovici’s fastest swims and other sub-1:43.00 swims. The first 100 and second 100 splits are listed, as well as the final time and the split differential, which is the difference between the first and second 100 splits.



Popovici’s 1:43.21 remains his second fastest time ever, and while his opening split was under world record pace, his split differential was almost a full second larger than in his personal best. It is also important to note that all of these performances were in finals. Split differential cannot be used in all circumstances since oftentimes in heats and semifinals, swimmers confident in advancing won’t race at 100% capacity and will pace dramatically differently in order to save energy. Sometimes this results in a very low split differential or even a negative split differential.


Next, let’s look at the top times in the 200 freestyle since 2009. Below is a graph of top textile swims since 2009 with opening splits against final times.

Note: the black dots represent Popovici's best swims


From the graph, we would assume that Popovici possesses strong back-half speed, but his average split differential is actually quite higher than the average. The Least Squares Regression line would predict that Popovici would have to go out 48.41 and come back 53.58 to swim a 1:41.99. Considering Popovici’s best 100-freestyle time of 46.80, this is highly unlikely. Though Biedermann's best 100-freestyle time was a 48.31, this was swum five years after the super suit ban (past his prime), and at the 2009 World Championships, Biedermann swam the 4x100 freestyle relay and anchored in a 46.89, which is around a 47 low from a flat start. Biedermann specialized in the 200 and 400-meter freestyle, while Popovici specializes in the 100 and 200-meter freestyle. Therefore, Biedermann’s 200 split differential would likely be lower than Popovici as he specialized in longer-distance races. For reference, this is Popovici’s progression in the 100-meter freestyle. 




For Popovici to go 1:41.99 while taking out the race at the same pace, he would have to be able to swim 52.00 at the slowest. However, 52.62 from his personal best is his fastest-ever back half. Ranking the possibilities above of breaking 1:42.00, my take on the best shot he would have is taking out his race in a 49.86, only 0.1 faster than his fastest opening split ever, and finishing in a 52.13, which is about a half second faster than his fastest closing split ever. The split differential is the same as Popovici's best-ever split differential. Popovici has not been able to top his performances since 2022, but much of this is attributed to his prioritization of his University Studies, which caused him to skip out on the 2024 Doha World Championships. However, we can still expect him to perform at his best for the upcoming Paris 2024 Olympic Games.



Now let’s compare Popovici’s progression to Michael Phelps’s and Paul Biedermann’s progression. Due to the unprecedented nature of Popovici’s extremely early breakout, it is hard to compare any historical swimmer’s peaks to Popovici's. However, swimmers typically peak in their early 20s, which leaves Popovici around two to three more years to reach his physical prime. 



A 1:41.99 from Popovici seems unlikely in the next year, but a 1:42.50 is within reach. Perhaps by LA 2028, Popovici will be in prime shape at 23 years old, and 1:41.99 will be possible. Other young swimmers to look out for in the 200 free are Hwang Sun-Woo (20),  Matt Richards (21), and Tom Dean (23), who edged out Popovici in the 2023 World Championships. 




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