In Olympic sport there have been several events which have had a time, distance or points barrier which seem impenetrable until that one unique Olympian achieves that breakthrough. In gymnastics it was the perfect 10, first scored by Nadia Comaneci at the 1976 Montreal Olympics during the women’s team event. In cycling’s team pursuit Germany broke the 4 minute barrier at the Sydney 2000 Olympics, whilst Jayne Torville and Christopher Dean took the honours for being the first ice dancers to skate to perfect 6’s in the Winter Olympics. Olympic swimming has had its own record barriers to break including the sub-minute 100 metres freestyle for men and women, yet it is arguably the 15 minute men’s 1500 metres that held the most imposing aura for most of the modern Olympics era. Considering that in the recently completed Beijing Olympics final all bar the last swimmer in the gold medal race went under this mark it could be argued that 15 minutes was possible, and now it is commonplace. However it took a remarkable Russian swimmer from the Soviet era to take long distance swimming into this uncharted territory, and when he did it twice in the Olympics there were eight years and two boycotts between those swims. His name was Vladimir Salnikov, and he was the first man to swim past the 15 minute barrier.
Salnikov’s first stuttering steps on the path to Olympic glory came in his home town of Leningrad, now known in the post-Soviet era as Saint Petersburg. The son of Valeri Salnikov (a merchant ship’s captain) he was taken by his mother Valentina at the age of seven to a local pool for a season’s pass. At a time when quota’s and supplies of all goods and services were limited by the Soviet state it was not surprising that Salnikov missed out on the much-wanted ticket. Next year he returned with his mother and was fortunate to secure a season’s pass, plus the attention of swim coach Gleb Petrov. Petrov studied Salnikov’s movements on land as well as his eagerness to swim and selected the boy to participate in a 120 member local swim training program. The Soviet system of applying science and beaurocracy to sport was applied in full on developing Salnikov’s youthful talent, and by the age of 12 he was part of an elite Leningrad sporting school’s swim team. Despite earaches and tonsilitis Salnikov continued to improve and whilst his family weren’t involved with his swimming Salnikov later believed his father’s stern way of dealing with him helped motivate his work in the pool.
By 1974 Salnikov was attracting more attention from the Soviet sporting system, and in turn new support from new coaches. Coach Igor Koshkin and sports psychologist Gennady Gorbunov helped bring Salnikov on so that he was primed for the 1976 Soviet Olympic trials, with a training regime that included 6 kilometres swimming per day (swum at intervals with his heartbeat between 145 and 155 beats per minute), an hour’s weightlifting and only five to ten minute rest breaks. At the 1976 trials Salinkov also utilised visualisation techniques provided by Gorbunov to swim the 1500 metres in 15.43.92, coming third. This gave him the opportunity to participate later that year in the greatest 1500 metres final held in the first 80 years of the modern Olympics.
The 1976 1500 metres final in Montreal was remarkable in that the gold, silver and bronze medallists all finished below the pre-games world record. Americans Brian Goodell and Bobby Hackett took more than four and two seconds off Goodall’s world record in their swims, whilst Australian favourite also came in under the mark. Salnikov was the first Soviet swimmer to qualify for the 1500 metres final at the Olympics and came fifth with 15.29.45, which was a dramatic drop from his trial swim. It was to be the last time that an American would win the 1500 metres at an Olympics with either Soviet or Russian swimmers competing in the same pool.
In the period from the 1978 World Swimming Championships in Berlin through to the 1980 Moscow Olympics Salnikov grew into the role of the Soviet’s first swimming superstar. In the pool at Berlin he won both the 400 metres and 1500 metres freestyle finals, setting championships records with both swims and in the latter final beating Olympic silver medallist Bobby Hackett by almost 20 seconds. His time for the 400 metres was a world record (3.51.94) and he also backed up to participate in the silver medal winning Soviet men’s 4×200 metre relay team. Meanwhile as part of his development and training Salnikov attended training camps in of all places Mission Veijo, California with US coach Mark Schubert. At a time when Soviet and US relations where dominated by the Cold War it was refreshing to see that the sport of swimming could bridge such a cavernous political gap. As Vladimir himself put the experience:
“I really got an idea of what big-time sport is all about after two weeks training in the United States. We had believed we weren’t any different to the Americans, but we were unable to understand why they swam faster and won most of the medals at world tournaments. It turned out that their training methods and their attitude to training were different.”
In 1979 Salnikov set a world record the non-Olympic distance of 800 metres, becoming the first person to swim under 8 minutes for the event. As the premiere distance swimmer in the world his position as favourite for at least the 1500 metres gold medal in Moscow was virtually unassailable. In the four years between Montreal and Moscow Salnikov swam the eight fastest times aside from Goodell’s world record over 1500 metres, and under 15 minutes 10 seconds 6 times. The 1976 gold medallist (and pupil of Mark Schubert) Bobby Goodell was still in the 1500 metres swim game but he had finished fifth at the US Olympic swim trials with Mike Bruner the new American champ, whilst Australian ‘superfish’ Steve Holland had retired after he took bronze in Montreal. and been supplanted by Max Metzker. The Swimming World Magazine world swimmer of the year for 1979 was prepared for the apogee of his career in the first Olympics to be held behind the Iron Curtain.
As noted elsewhere the 1980 Moscow Olympics were marked by the US-led boycott which resulted from Soviet aggression in Afghanistan. In men’s swimming the absence of the Americans, West Germans, Japanese and Canadians had a mixed effect; in some events such as the shorter sprints the non-appearance of the likes of Rowdy Gaines meant that East German and Soviet Union swimmers claimed medals they may not have had a claim to in more open competition. For Salnikov the boycott had taken away one of his major competitors in the 400 metres (Canadian world record holder Peter Szmidt), but it arguably had minimal effect on his 1500 metres swim. Salnikov had already taken the short-course 1500 metres world record from Goodell; now it was the time of the long course event.
The 1500 metres heats were held second day of the Moscow Olympic swimming program, and there were a total of 21 competitors from 14 countries. In the first heat Hungarian Zoltán Wladár won with a time of 15.31.06, whilst in the second heat the compatriot of Salnikov Aleksandr Chayev took out the race in 15.28.68. That same heat saw second place swimmer from the 1978 Berlin 1500 metres Borut Petric (YUG) finish in 15.31. 53, but three other swimmers in that heat failed to complete the race. The final heat was all Salnikov; he completed the 1500 metres in 15.08.25 which placed him over 9 seconds quicker than second place swimmer East German Rainer Strohbach. The line up for the final saw Salnikov in the fastest qualification time, with Strohbach second quickest, Chayev third and Rafael Escalas (ESP) fourth.
Remarkably, considering the recent history of Olympic 1500 metres finals the race for gold silver and bronze in Moscow was held the day immediately after the heats. Unlike in games such as those in Beijing, Athens and Sydney the contestants had to back up without the benefit of a day’s rest, plus there were other events to swim for some of the entrants (for example Salnikov still had his 400 metres). In light of this, Salnikov’s 1980 final swim can be considered all the more remarkable compared with those from the likes of Perkins and Hackett in later years.
When Salnikov finally dived off the blocks he was undoubtedly the pinnacle of the Soviet swimming program, and without the Americans to threaten this the Russian quickly established his ascendency over the pack. At 100 metres he was already a second in front of the nearest rival with an intermediate time of 58.53 seconds. By 300 metres that lead was doubled, and at the half way mark Salnikov was 5.18 seconds ahead of Goodell’s then current world record pace. The spectators who naturally were overwhelmingly biased towards their home town hero responded to the Soviet swimmer’s efforts, screaming and calling for him to win and win withing the world record. At 800 metres he was still under the minute per 100 metres mark, and the 1500 metres in 15 minutes looked very vulnerable.
Behind Salnikov the battle for the minor medals was on, with Chayev, Metzker and Strohbach all fighting hard; however they were never in the hunt for gold, which was Salnikov’s without a doubt as he came to the last 100 metres. Goaded by a crowd that knew that they were witnessing something historic Salnikov responded in the only way he could; he swam even quicker. For the last 100 metres he completed the two laps in 58.05 seconds; almost half a seocnd quicker than his first 100 metres. As his hands hit the finishing wall Vladimir Salnikov looked up to the scoreboard. The time flashed up: 14.58.27. The son of a Leningrad sea captain, who’s country had never won a gold medal in men’s swimming before these Olympics, and who had swum fifth in his last Olympic final, had claimed the greatest prize of all. A gold medal in a time that would forever mark him as the first of his kind; the first to go below 15 minutes.
At this point it could be enough to finish Salnikov’s story. He took two more gold medals in Moscow, one in the 400 metres and one in the 4×200 metres men’s relay final. Yet this isn’t the end. Four years later Salnikov would have gone to Los Angeles as the world record holder, being the only man who had swum under 15 minutes. However in a tit-for-tat boycott the Soviet Bloc spurned the chance to compete in the LA 1984 Olympics, and so Salnikov had to wait for another chance to claim a fouth Olympic gold medal.
In Seoul 1988 Salnikov returned to the Olympic pool forone last games. Up until 1986 he had won 61 consecutive 1500 metres swims, swum under 15 minutes for the distance four times and no one else had come within a bull’s roar of his world record of 15.54.76. However his results had slumped since coming fourth at the 1986 world swimming championships, and in 1987 he failed to make the final of the European championships. Written off as a threat for gold, now coached by his wife Marina and only winning a place on the Soviet team after intervention from the sports minister, the hero of Moscow looked decidedly vulnerable.
In the preliminaries though the Salnikov of old re-emerged, clocking the second fastest time (15.07.83), with American Matt Cetlinksi fastest qualifer for the final. Then as the greatest Olympic champions can and often do respond, in the final Salnikov took the lead from 675 metres and was never headed. Surging ahead with every lap the last gold medallist for the Soviet Union in an Olympic swimming final took the race in a time of 15.00.40, thus becoming at 28 the owner of the five fastest times for the 1500 metres ever swum, and the oldest Olympic swimming champion for 56 years. His world record stood until 1991, and whilst that time is now down to 14.34.56 the status of being the first man to swim 1500 metres under 15 minutes will forever be his. Vladamir Salnikov in 1980 and in 1988 demonstrated greatness that will always mark him as a legend of Olympic swimming.