They ceded that distinction first to the Russians in the 1980s, then to the Australians in 1992, when Kieren Perkins set a world record of 14:43.48 in the 1,500-meter freestyle.
Perkins has since lowered the mark to 14:41.66. By contrast, no American man has ever swum that race faster than 15 minutes.
Last year, when Australias Grant Hackett established a short-course world record for the 1,500 free, it was another unwelcome reminder of how strong the Aussies are in the premier distance event.
At the end of 1998, Australians claimed three of the top five spots for 1,500 meters (Hackett, one; Perkins, four; and Daniel Kowalski, five), compared to spots eight and 10 for Americans (Erik Vendt and Chris Thompson).
Theres a lot of speculation about why Australians are so strong in the 1,500, says Dennis Pursley, director of USA Swimming in Colorado Springs, Colo. Part of the explanation is they feel as if they own the event. Its the opposite here, where all the emphasis is on sprints.
Not so Down Under, says Don Talbot, national coach of Australia.
In the United States, the fastest men in the world are the 50-meter sprinters. In Australia, if you ask who the most admired swimmer is, people will say Kieren Perkins.
Talbot says Australias romance with distance swimming has been a constant for decades. The Aussies won Olympic gold medals in the 1,500 in 1956 (Murray Rose), 60 (John Conrad), and 64 (Bob Wendell), and again in 1992 and 96, both times by Perkins.
Still, in the 1970s, the Americans reigned supreme: Tim Shaw held the record in 74 and 75, and Brian Goodell and Bobby Hackett won gold and silver medals, respectively, at the 76 Olympics (Australias Stephen Holland was third).
So, what happened to the Americans? Go to our message boards and tell us why you think the United States doesnt dominate any more and what our coaches and swimmers can do about it.
No role models
Success breeds success. When Tim Shaw was setting world records in the 1,500, he inspired the Brian Goodells and the Bobby Hacketts who followed. Goodell and Hackett spurred each other on to faster and faster swims. Now the spotlight is on sprinters.
Todays poster boys are sprinters, says Josh Stern, who coaches Erik Vendt. Everyone knows Matt Biondi and Gary Hall. Nobody knows who made the distance teams.
Perkins is a celebrity in Australia, earning millions of dollars in endorsements all because of his prowess in the pool. Compare that to Goodell: When he won the gold medal and set a world record at the 1976 Olympics, he earned a college scholarship. Now, distance swimmers cant even get that.
I hear from high school coaches all the time, Pursley says. They can get scholarships for so-so sprint swimmers, but not for their top distance swimmers. There just arent very many scholarships awarded for distance swimmers.
In 1986, the National Collegiate Athletic Association added 50-meter sprint relays to the meet schedule, which increased the number of sprinters on any given team and shifted the focus from long events to short ones. It has created a huge imbalance, says Pursley. If you want to do well as a team, and to score points, you have to dominate in the sprints. That emphasis has trickled down to younger and younger swimmers, while the opposite is happening in Australia. A huge proportion of young Australians are exposed to distance swimming through surf and lifeguard clubs. In the U.S., organized swimming tends to revolve around colleges, and theyre now tweaked toward sprints.
Too many distractions.
The status of distance swimming in the U.S. is not helped by the fact that swimming competes with so many other sports basketball, baseball, football, and soccer, to name a few for the attention of young athletes. Most of these other sports get more media attention, offer more lucrative scholarships, and have pro leagues, where athletes can earn millions of dollars if they make the team. The sport of swimming is a pauper by comparison, which leaves distance swimming even farther behind.
Different work ethic
In the 1980s, a new training philosophy took hold, according to Chuck Warner, who coached Joe Hudepohl to a gold medal in the 800-free relay and Tripp Schwenk to a gold in the 400-medley relay, both at the 96 Olympics.
Coaches abandoned over-distance mileage in favor of more quality sets. In practice, though, Warner says theyve reduced the quantity and the quality.
In Australia, distance swimmers log 60,000 to 80,000 meters a week, including high-intensity work at race pace.
I think the way to be the greatest in the world is to do mileage 80,000 to 100,000 [yards] a week and do more at race pace, Warner says.
Since distance swimming has fallen out of favor, its an uphill battle to convince swimmers and their parents that all the hard work is worth it.
Its not just kids who hate distance, its the parents, says Stern, Vendts coach. They dont accept the time you have to put in to develop. If you train a kid to be a sprinter, he can get a scholarship. But its hurting him in the long run; hes not even close to peaking.
In the old days, Stern says coaches would have all their swimmers get used to distances and hard work before the coaches started identifying who might be sprinters, middle-distance swimmers, or longer-distance swimmers.
Now the system almost wholly promotes shorter events, which is much easier to sell to kids. Ask your average preteen if hed rather swim short and fast and get the glory or swim for more than 15 strenuous minutes with nobody paying attention. Not surprisingly, more choose to be sprinters.