Flashback Friday: When Pieter van den Hoogenband Took the 100 Freestyle Into Sub-48 Territory


by JOHN LOHN – EDITOR-IN-CHIEF

21 December 2023, 05:32am

Throwback Thursday: When Pieter van den Hoogenband Took the 100 Freestyle Into Sub-48 Territory

In this latest installment of World Record Flashback, we celebrate the greatness of Pieter van den Hoogenband. The Dutchman produced a Hall of Fame career that featured seven Olympic medals, including three gold, and landed him enshrinement into the International Swimming Hall of Fame as a member of the Class of 2013.

Sometimes, the topics of our World Record Flashback series are easy to select, as there is a predominant performance from an athlete to highlight. At times, the decision-making process is difficult, given the multiple squares of greatness on the Bingo card of success. See Michael Phelps and Katie Ledecky as examples.

In the case of Pieter van den Hoogenband, the Dutch standout offered two options for this series. As the Olympic movement ventured into the 2000s, with Sydney serving as host, van den Hoogenband was nothing short of phenomenal during his trip Down Under, as he unassumingly became an Olympic champion.

If we chose the 200-meter freestyle as the focal point of this piece, it would have made sense. After all, over four laps is where van den Hoogenband upset Australian Ian Thorpe, the hometown favorite and poster boy of the Sydney Games. But that triumph has received its due through the years, so it seemed fitting to recognize the occasion when van den Hoogenband cracked the 48-second barrier in the 100 freestyle.

The 100 freestyle has long been considered the Blue-Ribbon event of the sport, dating back to the early days of the 20th century, when Charlie Daniels and Duke Kahanamoku etched their names in the history books. They were followed by the dominance of the legendary Johnny Weissmuller, with greats such as Don Schollander, Michael Wenden, Mark Spitz, Matt Biondi and Alexander Popov eventually claiming Olympic glory over the two-lap discipline.

As experts analyzed the Sydney Games and the podium challengers across the schedule, van den Hoogenband was certainly accorded medal-contender status in the 100 freestyle. As an 18-year-old at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, “Hoogie” announced his presence on the global stage. Behind a pair of fourth-place outings in the 100 freestyle and 200 freestyle, van den Hoogenband just missed the podium, but established the framework for the stellar career that would follow.

In the years between Atlanta and Sydney, VDH became a multi-time European champion, his skill molded by coach Jacco Verhaeren. It was a matter of time before that excellence extended from the continental level to worldwide dominance.

While he wasn’t the overwhelming favorite for gold in the 100 free upon his arrival in Sydney, that label changed when van den Hoogenband set a world record (1:45.35) in the semifinals of the 200 freestyle. He then equaled that global standard to upend Thorpe in the final and became the man to beat for the two-lap event. VDH’s defeat of Thorpe was a shock moment, since the Aussie teen was widely expected to sweep the 200 free and 400 free. Indeed, Thorpe delivered in the longer distance, but the Dutch star had a surprise prepared for the 200 free.

Van den Hoogenband still faced a gauntlet in the 100 freestyle, specifically the tandem of Russia’s Alexander Popov and Australian Michael Klim. Popov was the two-time defending champion, having claimed Olympic crowns in 1992 and 1996. More, he entered the week as the world-record holder at 48.21.

Meanwhile, Klim was riding a wave of momentum and had the full support of the Australian crowd. On the opening night of action, his leadoff leg of 48.18 propelled Australia to gold in the 400 freestyle relay, a title which handed the United States its first Olympic loss in the event. Klim’s time also broke Popov’s world mark and enhanced the plot of the 100 freestyle

One night after toppling Thorpe in the 200 freestyle, van den Hoogenband eased through his preliminary heat of the 100 freestyle in 48.64. That effort was the lone sub-49 marker of the opening round and good for the top seed entering the semifinals, where van den Hoogenband figured to do just enough to assure a center lane for the final. Yet, as was the case in the semifinals of the 200 free, the Flying Dutchman opted to press the pace – at a level never before seen.

Unlike many of his rivals, van den Hoogenband did not boast a hulking physique. A 6-3, 175-pounder, he possessed a wiry frame, with a concave chest that paid dividends in the water. Van den Hoogenband and the Dutch coaching staff often noted that his build resembled the hull of a catamaran and created less drag.

Racing in the second semifinal at the Sydney Aquatic Centre, van den Hoogenband turned in an opening lap of 23.16 and came home in 24.68. Today, sub-25 closing performances are the norm, with Kyle Chalmers and David Popovici having been 24-low. But van den Hoogenband was ahead of his time with his closing speed, and his competition paid the price.

Via his world record of 47.84, van den Hoogenband sliced .34 off what Klim managed a few days earlier in relay duty. Forever, VDH would go down in history as a barrier breaker, joining Jim Montgomery (sub-50 in 1976) and Matt Biondi (sub-49 in 1985) in swimming lore.

In the final, van den Hoogenband could not match his speed from the semifinals, but still comfortably prevailed. His time of 48.30 was nearly a half-second adrift of his newly minted world record, but well ahead of Popov’s mark of 48.69 for the silver medal, and the 48.73 of American Gary Hall Jr. for the bronze. Locked out of the medals was Klim, who could not replicate his relay heroics in the 100 freestyle and finished fourth in 48.74.

Van den Hoogenband was minimalistic in the assessment of his work.

“I won two gold medals and broke two world records,” he said. “At this moment, I am the best.”

For good measure, van den Hoogenband capped his trip to Sydney with a bronze medal in the 50 freestyle. Clocking 22.03, the Dutchman finished just behind the American tandem of Anthony Ervin and Hal Jr., who shared the gold medal in 21.98. For “Hoogie,” that additional piece of hardware was a surprise, as he touched the wall ahead of sprint specialists such as Popov, Bart Kizierowski and Mark Foster.

Four years later, when the Olympic Games returned to their birthplace of Athens, van den Hoogenband repeated as champion of the 100 freestyle and earned silver in the 200 freestyle, with Thorpe exacting revenge from Sydney. More, his world record endured for more than seven years and remains a superb time in the present day.

“At the end of the day (we had one major goal): To break 48 seconds for the 100 freestyle,” Verhaeren said. “We didn’t say we wanted to win, or we want to do this and that. Of course, the likelihood when you do that is winning. But we wanted to be the first athlete to break 48 seconds and we’d go from there.”

The job was done.

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