Sarah Sjöström is certainly the current dominant force in the women’s 50m freestyle and it will take a special performance to take that crown. But what did the evolution of the women’s 50m freestyle progression look like before the 'Gold Bae' era?
One of the earliest pioneers of the women’s 50m freestyle, Tamara Costache, from Romania, lowered the 50m freestyle world record three times in 1986. In that same year Costache would become the first person to own the 50 free world record under FINA’s established benchmark. At the 5th FINA World Championships in Madrid, “the queen of sprint freestyle in 1986”, took gold with a 25.28. After her world record performance, the Romanian described her strong mindset during an interview, “All the time I’ve been training, I’ve been thinking of breaking the world record,” she said. “I was sure I could win, and I was not nervous about it.”Six years later at the Olympic Games Barcelona 1992, Wenyi Yang, from Shanghai, China, would become one of the "Five Golden Flowers" in the Chinese swimming circle, becoming the first woman in history at an Olympic Games to go under the 25-seconds barrier in the 50m freestyle. Yang would claim gold with a 24.79.
Yang would hold onto the record for two years. At the 7th FINA World Championships 1994 in Rome Italy, Jingyi Le became one of the Chinese female swimmers who between them took 12 of the 16 titles available. In the 50m freestyle, Le took gold and clocked 24.51 seconds, trimming .28 seconds off the record set by countrywoman Wenyi Yang at the 1992 Olympics. It was the 10th world record set at the competition, five by Chinese women.
Fast forward six years to the Olympic Games Sydney 2000 and enter Inge de Bruijn, one of women's swimming's legends. De Bruijn, the most successful athlete of all time in Dutch sports history, would take gold in the final with a 24.32 seconds. However, it was the semi-final race beforehand that saw the Dutchwoman take more than 0.3secs off the 50m freestyle record with a 24.13 swim.
Close to a decade later, at the 13th FINA World Championships Rome 2009, sprint freestyle specialist Britta Steffen, from Germany, would set a new mark that would make her the fastest woman in history. Despite battling a series of health issues, injuries, and training challenges, Britta clocked a world record time of 23.73, a 50m freestyle record that would stand for eight years.
It was going to take something very special to break Steffen’s record, but Sarah Sjöström, from Sweden, was hitting serious form at the 17th FINA World Championships 2017 in Budapest, Hungary. The only swimmer under 24 seconds in the semi-final heats, Sjöström’s acceleration over the second half of the race would see her swim a 23.67 to set a new 50m freestyle world record. Sjöström would swim a 23.69 in the 50m free final and earn her third individual gold down in Budapest.