25 Years of 100-Yard Backstroke History

Guest commentary by Olympic gold medalist Josh Davis

When I started swimming in 1985 as a 13 year old, I studied everything about swimming I could get my hands on. But I knew I needed to see the best swimmers in action in order to understand how to get faster. I wanted to see a record swim. To be the best I had to swim like the best.

So, the first recording I ever made on my VCR was of the 1987 Men’s NCAAs. (I also recorded the “16 Days of Glory” from 1984 that featured Rowdy Gaines and the American 800 Free Relay. I watched those races every day before practice until the VHS tape finally disintegrated.)

I remember looking at the American Records back in 1987 and being amazed at how fast they were. Many of us could never have imagined the progression the records would take. Some records haven’t dropped much, like the men’s 200-yard free. Others have dropped to insane levels like breaststroke. Inevitably, they all get broken but in honor of Nick Thoman’s dominating new backstroke record, let’s take a look at 25 years 100-yard backstroke record history from 1987.

47.97, Jay Mortenson, 1987
Leading off the 4×100 medley relay for Stanford, Jay broke the record. Jay would get 2nd in the individual event to David Berkoff. (Interestingly, before Jay, Tom Jager had this American record for a short while of :48.1)

47.02 David Berkoff, 1989
David was the first to master and make famous the dolphin kick, so much so we called it the Berkoff Blastoff. There was no 15 meter rule, so being from Harvard he figured he was faster under the water than on top. He made the dolphin kick a serious weapon, but mind you, we still had to touch the wall on the turns with a hand. At NCAAs the year before in 1988, he just missed the record at :48.0 and then just missed the gold medal at the Seoul Olympics, so he had a lot of motivation to destroy that record. (I would like to know how many kicks he took each lap.)

46.12 Jeff Rouse, 1992
The rule had changed. We didn’t have to touch the wall anymore with a hand and we could now do a flip turn. Needless to say, Jeff dropped the record big time. But Jeff had an awesome dolphin kick and incredible spin. Similarly, Jeff went on to just miss the gold medal at the Barcelona Olympics like Berkoff. (Even though backstroke got easier and faster, the cross-over flip turn where you touch with your hand slowly became a lost art. Most great IMers still do it for back to breast turns. Back in our day everyone mastered the cross-over flip turn but sadly most age-groupers don’t know how to do it today.)

45.74 Brian Retterer, 1994
Brian learned from his now graduated Stanford teammate, Jeff Rouse, and just made his dolphin kick better and spin even faster.

45.43 Brian Retterer, 1995
Pumped up to lead the Cardinals for his senior year, Retterer found a way to go faster. Stanford came just short of 4 titles in a row, as Michigan won the team title that year.

44.92 Neil Walker, 1997
Neil’s 6’6 frame and super flexible feet made him a thing of beauty to watch. His domination at NCAAs that year while becoming the first man to break :45 was like watching a dolphin man. He was two-body lengths ahead of the field and made it look easy. Not even Neil knew what to expect going that fast and broke his hand on the finish.

44.60 Ryan Lochte, 2006
After getting close several times, Ryan finally went under Neil’s nine-year-old record. Ryan’s ankles may be even more flexible than Neil’s were. His leg strength on turns and kick-outs were huge in getting the record, especially on the back half.

44.55 Matt Grevers, 2012
After a silver in ’08 and gold in 2012 for the 100 meter back, Matt was ready to finally get this record. It does help a little that Matt is 6’8 but his dolphin kicks are as good as anybody’s in the world and he got strong enough to spin those long arms quicker.

44:07 Nick Thoman, 2013
Coming off several months of rest, the 2012 silver medalist looked better than ever. It was an almost perfect swim. He had the dolphin kick of a Berkoff, turns like a Walker, the spin of a Rouse/Retterer, the back half of a Lochte and the finish of a Peirsol. And he had his USA teammate and rival to push him as they both went under Matt’s record. So, now when you have a great backstroke swim the highest compliment is that you looked like Thoman. “That was a Thoman Thwim!”

What’s the takeaway?

First, watch this race.

When you swim backstroke in practice swim just like them. Nick and Matt were textbook in the 6 S’s to Success in backstroke:
1. Still head. Never move head side to side or up and down.
2. Straight elbows on recovery.
3. See the shoulders. Sneak the shoulders in the air to help spin faster.
4. Spin the arms, especially the last quarter. If you want to win, learn to spin!
5. Strong, skinny flutter kick on the surface.
6. Super dolphin kick. (Berkoff was right. You’ll be smart too if you work your dolphin kick. I believe Nick’s kicks were 8,9,10,11 per lap. But need help verifying.)

Second, it’s interesting to me that several of these record holders were of average size, about 6’2 180 pounds. Retterer, Lochte, and Thoman were all around that give or take a few pounds and Berkoff was even smaller.

Third, maybe a few months off is the best thing a swimmer could do recover mentally and physically to find the zone again. Every great athlete will tell you that rest and recovery are just as important as training and technique.

Fourth, backstroke has now passed butterfly as the second fastest stoke. Thoman’s 100yd back is 44.07 to Austin Staab’s 100yd fly of 44.18

Who will break the record next?

Naturally, Thoman looks poised to be the first to go 43. But what if Grevers didn’t have the 100 fly an hour before? What could Ryan Lochte do if that was his only event? What will Ryan Murphy do shaved and tapered? Or will the record go back to a Cardinal like David Nolan or Eugene Godsoe? It might be a while before all these guys race head-to-head at their peak in yards. But one thing you can count it will get broken.

For now the future of American backstroke looks strong. And thank you Nick for inspiring the next generation of swimmers. Congratulations, you are now the best!

Other notable 100yd back records:

10 & under: Dustin Lasco :59.81 (2012)
12 & under: Ryan Murphy :54.20 (2008)
14 & under: Thomas Anderson :48.73 (2013)
16 & under: Ryan Murphy :46.72 (2011)
18 & under: Jack Conger :45.32 (2012)

18-24 Eugene Godsoe :45.36 (2012)
25-29 Adam Mania :45.95 (2010)
30-34 Kevin Doak :48.93 (2012)
35-39 Josh Davis :49.12 (2008)
40-44 Michael Ross :48.49 (2009)
45-49 Chris Stevenson :51.55 (2011)
50-54 Clay Britt :53.09 (2012)

Author’s note:
This article would be very different if it was about the 100-meters backstroke. The last 10 years have been all Aaron Peirsol breaking the record an amazing six times.

If you would like to have Nick Thoman, Matt Grevers, Aaron Peirsol or anyone of the 60 USA team members come to your team and show you in person how they break records contact us anytime at www.breakoutswimclinic.com

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