Who Is the Greatest Age Group Swimmer Ever?

Who Is the Greatest Age Group Swimmer Ever?

By Phillip Whitten//Guest Blogger  | Thursday, June 15, 2017

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Think about this:  You are 12 years old and a pretty good competitive swimmer. Now imagine you’re on a really fun team, one of whose members – your best friend – holds the 11-12 national age group record for 50 and 100 meters backstroke. He of course, swims leadoff on your medley relay. As the team’s breaststroker, you go second. Now imagine how confident you feel as you stand on your starting block, watching your friend power his way to the wall.

You’re off, the grateful recipient of a three body-length lead. You’re thinking, “No one’s going to catch me now.”
And they don’t.

Actually, there is a real  backstroker who holds the national age group records for 50 and 100 meters backstroke for boys 11-12. His name is Ron Dalmacio, and he’s the youngest swimmer ever to break a minute for 100 meters back. In fact, he’s the only swimmer under 13 ever to breach that barrier. His time is so fast, he received a perfect 1100 power point score for it. Not even Michael Phelps did that.

Now you are a 14-year old girl and your confidence level, too, is high as a kite. Why?  Because the leadoff swimmer on your relay is none other than Beth Botsford, the national record-holder for 11-12 year-old girls who, two years earlier, had lowered that record to a spectacular 1:03.08.  And, did I neglect to mention that she also took gold in Atlanta the last time the Games were held in the US of A?

“Just stay cool and enjoy your swim,” your coach tells you, as you start to psyche up for your swim. “You’re going to take off from the blocks with a monstrous lead, too far ahead for any of your competitors to catch you.”

National Age Group Swimming
What makes these young boys and girls so incredibly fast?  The answer is simple: “NAGs,” which stands for “National Age Group swimming.” That’s the program under which these kids have been training.  Let me tell you about it. 

After three years of frustration, the NAG program was established in 1951, thanks to the persistence of coaches Beth Kaufman and Carl Bauer and only with a grudging ‘okay’ on the part of the Amateur Athletic Union.  Despite the pessimism and predictions of failure, the two coaches were determined to create a structure and a learning environment in which kids could develop and hone their skills for collegiate, international and Olympic competition.

They succeeded – in spectacular fashion.  In fact, to say the program has been a “success” is like saying a Tyrannosaurus Rex was a big, scary animal.

It did not take long for the program to bear fruit.  The first age group grad to score internationally was Mary Lou Elsinius who, in 1955, earned a gold medal in the 200-meter breaststroke at the Pan Ams.  Five years later, most of the medals won by US swimmers at the 1960 Rome Olympics were taken by former age-groupers.  Ever since then, virtually every member of every US Olympic, World Championship, World Juniors, PanPacs, Maccabiah Games, World University Games and Pan Am team has come out of the program.  Long term, their impact has made the US swim team the most successful team in history in any sport.

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then the US swim team must be drowning in flattery. That’s because our age group program has been adopted, with appropriate modifications, by more than a hundred other countries in swimming and even more in other sports, including track and field, the martial arts, soccer and basketball.

Over the years, age group swimmers have turned in some breath-taking and mind-boggling performances.  So, being a competitive sort of chap, it occurred to me that we should try to see if there might be some agreement as to who is the greatest age group swimmer of all time.  I asked for and received comments and suggestions from some very smart, knowledgeable folks.  There were more than 30 nominees, which were reduced to 11 candidates.

In alphabetical order, they are:  

  • Tracy Caulkins
  • Janet Evans              
  • Grant Hackett                  
  • Katinka Hosszu  
  • Mary T Meagher              
  • Chas Morton                                                      
  • Michael Phelps                   
  • Sarah Sjostrom
  • Mark Spitz                           
  • Ian Thorpe
  • Sippy Woodhead

  • We also thought it would be helpful to state precisely what is meant by “greatest.”  So we came up with three, broad criteria: Quality. Quantity and Longevity.  Let’s begin with the first criterion, Quality. 

    Quality  
    I must admit I had a favorite in the battle for the top Age Group swimming performance. It was Mary T. Meagher’s 2:05.96 in the 200 fly, swum at the US Long Course Nationals in 1983.  I’ve always thought of that swim as our sport’s answer to Bob Beamon’s 29-foot long jump at the Mexico City Games. However, we now have a new tool that can put a little science and math into comparing the quality of swimming performances.  It’s called “Power Points (pp)” and using a point scale from 1 to 1100, it allows us to compare the quality of our own times with the quality of the performances of others. Turns out, T.’s time loses a wee bit of its luster.  In fact, it’s only her own second-best power points swim, her best being the 2:07.01 she swam at 14.  All of these times, however, still hug the line dividing mere human from superhuman athletic performance.  

    Each of the nominees presented very strong quality credentials, Thorpie set two world records as a 16 year-old age grouper in Australia, but they lasted only a short while.  At the age of 12, Morton set all the 11-12 boys NAG records in the fly and three still stand.  Spitz was a prolific age group record-setter in every age group and Sippy Woodhead turned in some phenomenal swims, led by her 1:58.53 for the 200 free at the age of 14, a world record at the time. 

    Rankings:
    1.  Chas Morton 1,071 pp
    2.  Mary T Meagher 1,058 pp
    3.  Ian Thorpe 1,072 pp
    4.  Mark Spitz 907 pp
    5.  Grant Hackett 1,067 pp
    6.  Sippy Woodhead   1,048 pp

    Quantity  
    Morton wins by a mile! Though all 11 nominees had spectacular careers that included setting numerous NAG records, no one can even approach Chad Morton’s dominance.  

    Consider this: Second place in this category goes to Morton’s Nashville Aquatic Club teammate, Tracy Caulkins, the only swimmer to set US national records in all four strokes plus the medley. As for Morton, a majority of his marks have lasted more than 20 years.

    Rankings:
    1. Chas Morton
    2. Tracy Caulkins
    3. Janet Evans
    4. Mark Spitz
    5. Ian Thorpe

    Longevity  
    If there’s a better feeling than the one that accompanies your first national record, it’s the feeling that accompanies that record as it withstands new and ever more sophisticated assaults each year, year after year. Listed below  are the NAG records that have lasted the longest:

    Rankings:  
    1.  Chas Morton
    2.  Janet Evans
    3.  Grant Hackett
    4.  Michael Phelps
    5.  Mary T Meagher

    Our list of candidates competing for recognition as the greatest age group swimmer was purely an A-lister. 

    And the winner Is…
    Chas Morton!!!

    That’s right. The only one on the list of candidates who you probably never heard of.

    Actually, it’s not even close.  He ranked first in each of the three categories.

    Chas set over 100 national age group records during his career and most of them have lasted 20 years or more.  Many lasted for 25, 30 or 35 years.  In the last decade, several swimmers have chipped away at his records and just recently, his two remaining records that were for non-butterfly events, finally fell: his 10 & under 100 free mark of 54.74 was taken down to 54.64 and his 200 IM mark of 1:56.69, for 11-12 boys was lowered to 1:55.75.  Now, all that remain are his 51.85 for the 100 yard fly and his 58.74 for the 100 meters fly in the 11-12 age group and his mark of 56.34 for the 100-meter fly in the 13-14 age group.

    “Yes, as a kid, I was aware that I was doing something unusual, but no one made a big deal of it. So I didn’t either,” he told me.  “I just loved the water and the feel of it when I raced.

    “There was room for only one superstar on the Nashville Aquatic Club team, and that title already belonged to Tracy Caulkins.

    “Actually, I did not feel competitive with Tracy at all. She was my role model.  I wanted to be like her, both in the pool and on dry land.”

    As he moved into the 15-16 and 17-18 age groups, Morton’s rate of improvement slowed and other swimmers began passing him. Early physical development was the most common explanation given for Chas’ phenomenal swims in his youth, but many boys develop early and none have even approached Chas’s remarkable feats, either in swimming or other sports.

    Chas was not heavily recruited as a high school senior, but Stanford saw a special spirit in the young man and signed him up.  

    Smart move.  He scored at NCAAs all four years, including two second-place finishes (1:59.92 for the 200 breast and 3:47.25 for the 400 IM). In his junior and senior years, he helped spark his team to two NCAA titles and he was elected co-captain along with roomie J.J. Freitag his senior year.  After earning a law degree at Vanderbilt, he returned to the Nashville area, where he is a highly respected attorney.

    Recently, Chas joined a local Masters workout group and, he says, “The love of the water is still there. I was thinking: it might be fun to try a few Masters meets.”
     

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