Well before the 1972 Olympics, in which he won seven gold medal and set seven world records, Mark Spitz (left) established the world record for the 400-meter freestyle (an event he didn’t swim in the ’72 Olympics). His record-breaking time in 1967 was 4:10.6 (shown as 251 seconds on the chart below).
That same year, Pamela Cruse set the women’s 400-meter freestyle world record at 4:36.4 (277 seconds below), or almost 26 seconds slower than Spitz’s time.
Today, some 40 years later, the men’s 400-meter swimmers are still faster than the women, but the gap has narrowed by about four seconds -- the fastest male is just 22 seconds faster than the fastest woman. The fact that the gap is narrowing is only mildly interesting.
But here’s a fact that’s far more interesting: Today’s record-holder in the women’s 400-meter freestyle, Laure Manaudou of France, swims the event faster than Mark Spitz did when he initially set his world record in 1967!
Manaudou’s current world-record time of 4:02.13 (242 seconds in the chart above) for women trounces Spitz’s record time of 4:10.6 in 1967. In a sport where records are usually broken by small fractions of a second, a woman today can swim over eight full seconds faster than the men’s champion did not too long ago. Actually, Spitz’s 1967 time was broken earlier by another woman (Tracey Wickham, Australia) in 1978. So in this event, it took a woman just 21 years to out-swim that legendary hunk, Mark Spitz. Who woulda thunk it?
I’ve used the 400-meter freestyle as just an example to show how women are doing today athletically what men did just a few decades ago. But the swimming stat books are replete with other examples that underscore this point:
So on average, it’s taken about 34 years for women to match the swimming prowess of men. If this holds true in the future, look for the records of Michael Phelps (right), today’s version of Mark Spitz and the greatest male swimmer in history, to start being eclipsed by women sometime around 2040. Seems impossible, doesn’t it? But as Satchel Paige said: Don’t look back, something might be gaining on you.