Such has been the challenge for swimmers to lower the world-best mark in the Men’s 100m Freestyle, that People's Republic of China’s Pan Zhanle’s new world record of 46.80 is less than two seconds faster than Matt Biondi’s then world record of 48.42 set at the USA Olympic Trials in 1988. That is just 1.62 seconds improvement, in one of the most frequently swum events at all levels of competition, in thirty-six years.

It took Alexander Popov, considered one of the pioneers of modern sprint freestyle, six years to take Biondi’s world record, and it was also another six years before Michael Klim and Pieter van den Hoogenband then again lowered the mark at the Sydney Olympics.

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The dutchman’s 47.84 stood for a further eight years before the short lived ‘supersuit’ era, when from March 2008 to July 2009 Australian Eamon Sullivan and six-foot-five French giant Alain Bernard traded the world record back and forth. Then, at Rome 2009, another six-foot-five swimmer Cesar Cielo Filho, dressed neck to ankle in a glistening pure polyethylene Arena X-Glide suit, clocked 46.91 in the Men’s 100m Freestyle final.

This was the championships that saw forty-three world records broken, thirty-eight Championship Records set in the first thirty-eight events of the meet, and that would see rule changes subsequently enforced to revert back to textile-based suits.

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Cielo Filho’s time then became untouchable. The Brazilian held the 100m Freestyle world record for more than thirteen years. It is the longest period the world record in this event has stood unbroken dating back to the first recognised holder of the record in 1905, Hungary’s Zoltan Halmay. Even throughout two World Wars and more than a century of swimming, Cielo Filho’s time was to stand longer than any other period in history.

A Different Freestyler Emerges

And then, in that same outdoor pool in Rome where Cielo Filho set his 46.91, a young, skinny, Romanian swimmer emerged - not once, but twice.

At the European Junior Swimming Championships in July 2021 David Popovici clocked a new world junior record of 47.30. The previous record was 47.58 – which put in context – was swum by Australian Kyle Chalmers when he won gold at the 2016 Olympic Games. The teenager’s time put the swimming world on notice and the analysis began of this kid from Romania who would struggle to weigh in at 80kg soaking wet but had just swum faster than the past two Olympic Champions.

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However Popovici wasn’t done yet. He returned to lane four at the Forco Italico just over a year later, and on the 13th August 2022, almost 5000 days after a plastic suited Cielo Filho made his mark on the sport, the then seventeen year-old clocked a new world record of 46.86.

But how the swimming world asked? No supersuit like Bernard. No full underwaters like van den Hoogenband. No straight arm maximum power recovery like Popov and Klim. No jacked physique like Caeleb Dressel. No super high stroke rate like Sullivan. No backend brute strength like Chalmers. And no raw front end speed like Cielo Filho.

But he was still faster than all of them.

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A Simple Guy Who Just Swims Fast

The world wanted to know the Romanian’s secret. Was this how freestylers were meant to be built? Did his lean physique generate the perfect power-to-weight ratio for a swimmer? Or was he just a one-of-a-kind?

His coach told reporters at the time of the record that Popovici had a keen sense of water.

"It's not about how much force you can generate but how you can put it into the speed you develop,” said coach Adrian Radulescu back in 2022.

“So, yes, he is very thin, but he has enough strength to swim at higher speeds."

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In the same interview Popovici was asked about his nickname ‘The Magician.

“I was passionate about magic when I was younger, the card tricks and illusions and stuff but not anymore… it was a little hobby before swimming," said Popovici.

“Some people have called me the magician because of what I do in the pool but again, I don't think it represents me, I like to think of myself as a simple guy who just swims fast."
By David Popovici

Another Popovici

Two months before Popovici broke the world record in Rome another teenager was enjoying a somewhat meteoric, but overshadowed, rise through the ranks. In June 2022 in the semi finals of the World Aquatics Championships in Budapest, China’s Pan Zhanle clocked a 47.65 - just 0.84 seconds outside the world record. He was seventeen and had just equalled the Chinese national record set by Kazan 2015 World Champion Ning Zetao.

The swim was overshadowed by Popovici again lowering the world junior record in the semi finals before going on to win the 100m Freestyle world title. Amidst all the obvious hype for Popovici, Pan finished fourth in the final, just 0.21 behind the Romanian.

A Star Is Born

Pan continued to excel at an international level but was never the headline act. At the World Aquatics Swimming Championships (25m) in Melbourne in late 2022, the then eighteen year-old broke the Asian record in the short course 100m Freestyle finishing sixth and just 0.33 behind fourth-placed Popovici.

By the World Aquatics Championships in Fukuoka last year Pan had started beating Popovici. The Romanian’s stellar 2022 had come to a end and the harsh reality of being the best ever started to challenge ‘the magician’. He was searching for a trick in the southern Japanese province, but it just didn’t come.

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Instead Pan stood up. He finished fourth in the Men’s 100m Freestyle final in a time that was 0.40 faster than Popovici, placed just 0.01 outside the medals, and set a new Asian Record. He also went 47.27 as the anchor leg in the heats of the Men’s 4 x 100m Freestyle relay.

A star had been born - although most eyes were looking elsewhere in the swimming galaxy.

It’s the World Record and a Gold Medal in Paris

When the rest of the swimming world went back to training after Fukuoka, Pan turned nineteen and headed to the Asian Games, winning the first senior international medal of his career in the Men’s 100m Freestyle. The medal wasn’t of huge significance – but the time was.

Pan clocked 46.97, became just the third swimmer in history to swim sub-47 in a textile suit, and was only 0.11 seconds outside Popovici’s world record.

If that wasn’t enough for the swimming world to realise that Pan was showing every sign he would break the world record one day, his comments afterwards should have been.

“I had my eyes on the world record… to miss it by 0.11 seconds is quite a pity. I wanted the world record so I personally don’t think I did well enough. The Asian record doesn’t feel like something extraordinary. This is something I should get. It’s the world record and a gold medal in Paris.”
By Pan Zhanle

Ahead of Schedule

That brings us to Doha and the opening night of competition where most reporters’ stories had been written and filed. There was one relay to go for the night, and despite a world title being up for grabs, the biggest question was which unusual assembly of swimmers would be able to combine to get on the wall first. Not many had even thought about which lead leg swimmer was going to get on the wall first.

And then it happened. 46.80. Pan Zhanle. World record. A stunned silence hit the stadium. The commentary team were lost for words – “we still have a race to complete here” they said in disbelief.

For most it was unexpected, out of nowhere, and a ‘no name’ swimmer breaking a world record, however for those who had followed Pan’s rise from pre-Popovici times, it was definitely no flash in the pan – it was just ahead of schedule.

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