I've always found world records more impressive than Olympic gold medals. The Olympics are a big meet, well publicized to be sure, but winning gold just means you're the best on a particular day. (Maybe the best athlete had a virus, or was injured, or distracted by his personal problems, or at the wrong stage of her menstrual cycle.) If you're the world record holder, on the other hand, you're the greatest of all time.
Imagine they held a televised competition to see who could get up Mt. Everest the fastest. Who would be greater, the winner of that race or Sir Edmund Hillary? Of course it would be Hillary, because he was the first: he had done what no one else had ever done before. This is essentially what any world record holder can say: that he was the first to high jump eight feet, or run a marathon in less than two hours and four minutes, or do whatever it is that he did.
Obviously, the popular consensus is that an Olympic gold medal is the crowning achievement of sport. And as long as the public perceives it that way, it is, for that reason. To aficionados, Michael Phelps may have been the greatest swimmer of all time after the World Championships of 2007. But until he had the imprimatur of eight golds at one Games, the public still regarded Mark Spitz as king.
I never came remotely close to doing either, so for me the debate about which was more impressive was purely academic.
Thank goodness for masters swimming, which keeps track of world records in every swimming event, for every five year age group, in both 25 meter pools and 50 meter pools. When you have that many records, they obviously become severely devalued currency. But they are still wonderful vehicles for ego trips.
Yesterday I set the world record for the 55-59 age group in the 200 short course meter butterfly. The old record had been 2:21.90; I went 2:19.72. I had told myself beforehand that in order to get the moral victory I had to beat the record by two seconds, since I was going to be wearing a new generation (Blueseventy) suit, which previous record holder Greg Shaw had not (the new suits weren't available in 2007 when he set the record). I was genuinely surprised when they told me my time, because it had felt more like a 2:24; I had felt awkward and weak. This would indicate the suit was worth more than two seconds. On the other hand, I had felt great while warming up, and the reason I felt awkward and weak during the race was because the suit was so constricting. So I'm not sure where I stand on the matter. Flyers in particular need to feel fluid and loose during their events, so I can understand why five of the eight finalists in the 200 fly at Beijing wore only leggings, even though the full body LAZR was then available.
The Ancient Mariners, the masters team who host this meet, have always been particularly gracious. Five years ago I made an attempt at the same record for the 50-54 age group at the same meet (and missed by less than a second). Jason Crist, a member of the club seeded in the next lane, asked me beforehand how fast I wanted to take it out at the 100. When I told him 1:06, he obliged by going out exactly that fast himself, even though the aggressive early pace meant sacrificing his own race. Yesterday, Jeff Roddin, another Ancient Mariner who is a great all around swimmer and better than me even in my best event, actually sat the race out because he figured it would be better for me to have the next lane empty rather than have someone kicking water in my face. (He claimed he was using me as an excuse not to have to swim a 200 fly, but I don't buy that: he swam the event three times last year.) You're supposed to ask for three backup timers if going for a world record, but I was too embarrassed to do so. (How foolish would I have looked if I missed by a lot? And since I hadn't swum a race in nearly two years, I wasn't sure what to expect.) Jeff understood that, and asked for me.
[An aside: Crist and Roddin have a teammate, John Feinstein, the well known author. Feinstein, an excellent sprint butterflyer, competed in the 400 meter freestyle in a masters meet several years ago. One of the competitors in his heat was a woman in her early thirties who was visibly pregnant. She beat him. Feinstein's teammates, naturally enough, teased him unmercifully afterward. I happened to witness one such incident, after which Feinstein wailed in mock outrage, "It was no fair -- it was two against one!" The perfect response.]
Masters swimmers in general are a very congenial lot, partly because what they share is a labor of love. (After working on Wall Street, where the subtext of every handshake is "I want your money," I found this a refreshing change.) Nobody wants anything from you, so all friendliness is without agenda. And since only pride is at stake, even the most competitive rivalries tend to be friendly ones.
It's easy to think, what's more pathetic than a 55 year old trying to recapture lost glory? (Especially when that glory existed only in his own mind.) But then when you actually go to a masters meet and see all the fit, attractive people there joking with each other and having a good time, the natural reaction is, I have to do this more often.
I drove down to Maryland for the meet by myself. But during the drive back to Connecticut, I had my new record to keep me company; and I have to admit, it was very good company, at least for the first couple hours.
(I had in fact held one record previously, for the same event in the 45-49 age group; that one was such delightful company it actually prevented my feet from even touching the ground for the first forty-eight hours after I made its acquaintance -- as pathetic as that sounds.)
I suppose the appropriate comparison here would be with a gold medal at the World Masters Championships.
I'll take my record, thanks.
I swore when I started this blog that it would not turn into a diary. I've tried to stay true to the original idea of writing only about things that others would find interesting, and not just my personal obsessions. So I apologize for this slip. (But I'm not that sorry, of course, otherwise I would have deleted it. Sometimes I just have to boast -- my personal form of Tourettes.)
Addendum: an article which appeared about me in the local paper: http://www.wiltonvillager.com/story/467066
(I'm afraid the writer, John Nash, made me sound nicer than I am.)
Addendum II, 4/16/09: As an example of the type of friendly rivalry you find in masters swimming, several days ago I got the following email from Greg Shaw, whose record I broke:
"Hey John, I saw recently that you got the 200 SCM fly record and didn't just get it, but creamed it. Glad to see that you are in such great shape. It's a tough one, as you know. The LCM 200 fly record [also Shaw's] is right there too. I expect to see you get that this summer....What you did is fantastic. Congrats."
(Please don't expect that kind of sportsmanship from me when somebody breaks my record. I'm a bit more possessive.)