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What Does It Take To Win Swimming’s Fastest Race?

By Karen Rosen | May 14, 2016, 6:21 p.m. (ET)

Nathan Adrian dives in for the men's 50-meter freestyle final at the 16th FINA World Championships at the Kazan Arena on Aug. 8, 2015 in Kazan, Russia.

ATLANTA -- It’s called “the splash and dash,” where being even a millisecond late off the blocks equals an eternity and competitors take a breath at their own peril.

“Oh no. No no. No time for that,” said Nathan Adrian, who never came up for air while winning the 50-meter freestyle at the 2016 Atlanta Classic Swim Meet on Saturday.

Adrian, the reigning Olympic champion in the 100-meter freestyle and 2015 world silver medalist in the 50 free, clocked 21.93 seconds, a bit slower than he would have liked, but he said, “Any time you pop under 22, you say, ‘Hey, that was a solid swim.’”

Marcelo Chierighini of Brazil was second in 22.29 and Bruno Fratus of Brazil third in 22.53.

Simone Manuel won the women's event, nipping Olivia Smoliga, 25.21 to 25.25 seconds, followed by Olympians Lia Neal (25.32) and Amanda Weir (25.56) in the 1996 Olympic pool.

“All the events are extreme focus, but the 50, there’s so little room for error,” said Manuel, who was eighth in the 50 free and sixth in the 100 free at the 2015 world championships. “If you make a mistake, that could cost you the race.”

Smoliga, who won the 100 backstroke within about 15 minutes of swimming the 50 free, said she enjoys the shorter race because “it’s so tight. Everyone is within a second essentially. It’s a start and a finish. You’ve got to make sure that they’re perfect.

“And it’s so much fun. I think that’s why people love doing it. It’s just one lap.”

Like Adrian, Manuel does not take a breath.

Smoliga does.

“I probably took like six or seven – I’m not supposed to, right?” she said, laughing.

Smoliga admitted her teammates at the University of Georgia give her a hard time for it, “but that’s OK,” she said. “I think I’m better if I breathe, but I guess I have to work on my breath control.”

Of swimmers who don’t take a breath, she said, “I don’t know how they do it.”

Simone Manuel takes part in a training session at the Duel In The Pool at Tollcross International Swimming Center on Dec. 19, 2013 in Glasgow, Scotland. 

It’s actually a fine art.

Veteran Olympic coach Eddie Reese of the University of Texas said “there are little nuances. You’ve got to hold your breath in – you don’t want to be letting it out because it can cause you to sink.”

Reese said that for an athlete to swim a good 50, “Your strength-per-pound-of-body-weight ratio has got to be real good and you’ve got to have the neuromuscular wiring that allows you to move fast. A lot of people that swim a lot, they can’t swim a 50.”

But he added, “They all want to swim a 50.”

Why? “It’s short and sweet.”

Fellow coach Jack Bauerle of the University of Georgia, another former Olympic coach, agreed that it’s short, but not always sweet.

“It doesn’t hurt for a long time,” Bauerle said, “But it does catch you about 10 minutes later. Your lactic acid builds up. Your muscles will feel a lot different about 10 minutes after, so it’s delayed reaction.”

Manuel said that when she starts to warm down, her body begins to tense up. “Most of the time after I get out of the race, I’m just breathing hard because I was out of breath,” she said, “but my body’s not too sore. But definitely when I warm down, I’m like, ‘Ouch.’”

Bauerle said athletes who swim the 50 “have it all. They’re explosive, they have a feel for the water and usually they have some size.”

Adrian is 6-foot-5, Smoliga 6-2 and Manuel is listed at 5-10¾ – that ¾ of an inch perhaps making all the difference when she reaches for the wall.

Adrian, who swam 21.69 last month in Mesa, Arizona, said that just as important as his height is “the timing of it, making certain adjustments five or seven meters out so that you can hit at the apex of your stroke as opposed to any other time.”

Some people believe the winner of the 50-meter freestyle is the fastest swimmer in the water. Others think the winner of the 100 takes that honor.

Bauerle sides with the 50 “because it’s so explosive,” he said.

Adrian isn’t so sure. “That’s a tough question,” he said with a laugh. “They’re different events. Different people gravitate toward different events. I gravitate toward the 100 and try to come down, whereas guys like Flo (Florent Manaudou of France, the reigning Olympic champion who has the top time this year of 21.42 seconds) and Vladimir Morozov of Russia (who has gone 21.69) gravitate toward the 50 and then try to come up to the 100.”

Adrian said that as he’s gotten older, he’s learned what is important in the shortest race in the Olympic pool.

“Trying harder in something like the 50 where your technique is everything, you can get in your own way,” he said. “So it’s about maintaining a certain integrity in your stroke and swimming it your own way. Once you get up to this kind of level, I don’t necessarily need someone to look at to swim fast.

“It’s just I need a lane, I need some water and I need to swim it in the right way.”

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Nathan Adrian

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Simone Manuel

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Olivia Smoliga