For the better part of 20 years, the men’s 400 freestyle has stayed relatively stagnant. The world record has stood at 3:40 since 2000, while the last five Olympic bronze medalists have been 3:44 or faster. No man had broken 3:42 in four years, so when Germany’s Lukas Martens broke through with a 3:41.60 at the Stockholm Open in April, it took a lot of people by surprise. Not only was it the fastest time anyone had swum since 2017, but the 20-year-old had dropped three seconds on his best time from last year’s Olympic Trials.
Many in the swimming universe were left wondering: who is this guy?
A Star is Born
Lukas Martens has lived and trained in Magdeburg his whole life, which is about an hour and a half drive west of the capital Berlin. There he trains with coach Bernd Berkhahn alongside 10K Olympic champion Florian Wellbrock and Olympic 1500m bronze medalist Sarah Wellbrock. In 2018, he made his international debut at age 16 at the European Juniors where he was 15th in the 200 free and 28th in the 400.
In 2019, he swam at the World Juniors in Budapest where his best was 10th place in the 800, along with a 12th place finish in the 200, and 15th in the 400. Last year, his quiet improvements led him to swim at the Tokyo Olympics, where he was 11th in the 1500 (14:59), 12th in the 400 (3:46), and tied for 17th in the 200 (1:46).
But all of a sudden in 2022, Martens swam a 1:45 in the 200 free, 3:41 400, 7:41 800, and 14:40 in the 1500, as well as a 1:56 in the 200 back. He is currently leading the world rankings in the three distance frees and is third in the 200 free. How was he able to improve so quickly seemingly overnight? He was shocked too.
“I was not expecting this because the Olympics were not that good for me, personally. I wanted to reach the final but I couldn’t - only with a (4x200 free) relay,” Martens told FINA. “Those times (in Stockholm) were so fast I could not expect that. I knew that I was getting better and better and faster and faster but not this.”
Martens thinks of himself as primarily a 400 freestyler - the event where he is seventh all-time with his performance from this year, as the 800 is still a relatively new event for him.
At Worlds in Budapest, he will swim the 200 free all the way up to the 1500, as well as the 4x200 free relay with the German team. It’s a loaded program with lots of meters of racing, but he comes from the same training pool with two of the three 1500 free medalists from last summer - Florian Wellbrock and the Ukraine’s Mykhailo Romanchuk. The training group also consists of the Olympic bronze medalist Sarah Wellbrock, along with Isabel Gose, who holds the German national record in the 400 and was sixth in that event in Tokyo.
“We do a lot of kilometers,” Martens said of his training group. “90 kilometers is the basic week with a lot of fast sets like 9x400s fast or 10x200s fast. We are training 10 or 11 times a week in the water.”
The atmosphere in the training group is “very positive” as Martens puts it in his own words. Swimming alongside Wellbrock each day has helped his 800 and 1500, as he ranks 10th all-time in the 800 and 11th in the 1500. Wellbrock has become a living legend in German swimming, as Martens cites both Florian and world record holder Paul Biedermann as his swimming idols growing up in the sport.
“I think (Florian) is a little bit cooler than me during the race and he has a lot of tactics that I can learn a lot from. He swims so fast in training and I want to win against him but it’s not that easy, but sometimes it happens. It’s really good - it’s like a perfect group for all of us.”
The Grand Budapest Challenge
Ahead of the World Championships in Budapest, Martens looks to be the guy to beat in the distance races, but golds aren’t his focus. In fact, he never mentioned winning once for this interview. This year’s Worlds is all about “taking the next step” for him - part of which is erasing the “not so good” memories from the last time he was in Budapest at the World Juniors. Martens is also looking forward to the chance of racing internationally, something he hasn’t been able to do much in his young career. Last year at the Olympics was the first time he had ever been outside of Europe.
“Japan was really new for me and the competition was much bigger than my competitions in the past and there were so many new things and it was difficult for me to concentrate on my races.
“At the Olympics, I concentrated more on my opponents than on me, and now I do my own thing. I do what I can do and what I can swim and not these times. I do my own thing and my own race - it’s the best for me not to think too much.”
Martens is locked in on his race plans for his four individual events, where, in his own words, “a final is realistic.” It’s worth remembering that although he is leading the world rankings by two seconds in both the 400 and the 800, he is inexperienced in racing a major international final.
“I’m really excited because I want to reach my first finals, maybe. I think with my personal best times it’s possible. I feel really good at this point. I think it will be a really cool competition for me and the next step.”
Swimming faster is the goal no matter who you are, and Martens is hoping he can reach a personal best at the international level, something he hasn’t done yet. The 400 is his self-proclaimed best race, but it may be his hardest challenge of the week in Budapest.
“I go step by step. I think a final is realistic but the 400 is really difficult - I have to swim this time and I think I can reach a medal with this time. The World Championships, it's another competition, unlike in Stockholm or here in Magdeburg. It is another atmosphere with a lot of people watching me.”
The more experience Martens gets, the better he will be, and perhaps it could lead to some really good swims for him, starting this month in Budapest.
“I think I can go faster, especially in the 800 or 1500, but the 1500 is the last race and it’s going to be really hard. But I want to reach these personal best times at an international competition like this then we will see.
“I want to swim all (my races) because I want to swim as many races as I could because I don’t start much in international meetings and I want to get more.”