Swimming performances were analysed for the top 16 finishers (semi-finalists, finalists) in nine international competitions over a 7-year period (1530 males, 1527 female). Total race time and intermediate lap times were log-transformed and analysed for effects of sex (male, female), stroke (freestyle, form strokes, individual medley), event (100, 200, and 400 m), and place (1–16). Between-athlete correlations characterized the relationship of each lap to final time, and within-athlete estimates quantified the effect of lap time on improvements in final time. Finalists exhibited very large correlations (r = 0.7–0.9) with final time in the second 50-m lap of 100-m events and the middle two 50-m and 100-m laps of 200-m and 400-m events respectively. For an individual swimmer, an achievable change in lap time was associated with an approximate 0.4–0.8% improvement in final time for finalists and an approximate 0.5–1.1% improvement in final time for semi-finalists, depending on sex, stroke, and event. The pattern of lap times was similar for the top 16 swimmers and between the best and worst swims for finalists. These findings indicate that substantial improvements can be made via the final lap in sprints and the middle two laps of 200- to 400-m events, but the overall pattern of lap times should not be changed.