2021 Trials Vision: Will Ryan Murphy, U.S. Stay Atop Backstroke World?

Ryan Murphy Photo Courtesy: Becca Wyant

Each day during the pre-scheduled days of the 2020 US Olympic Trials, Swimming World will take its readers back four years to the 2016 Trials in Omaha to recap each event, and will offer some insight into what the events will look like in 2021.

Being a reigning Olympic backstroke champion proved perilous at the 2016 Olympic Trials. Neither of the 2012 Olympic gold medalists – Matt Grevers in the 100 and Tyler Clary in the 200 – made it out of Trials four years ago, each finishing third, pulled under by the irrepressible wave of American backstroke talent they have long been part of.

Four years later, the Olympic titles are held by the same man, Ryan Murphy, who has a world record in the 100 to boot. Can he reverse the recent tide of history?

The Favorite

Ryan Murphy has the chance to do something even Aaron Peirsol never did: Replicate the backstroke Olympic double. Peirsol won both events at the 2004 Athens Games, but Ryan Lochte spoiled his chase for the 200 in Beijing.

You don’t sweep gold at six straight Olympic games like the American men have without substantial depth. Naturally, some of that ability has specialized, from Lochte in the 200 to Grevers in the 100. But if Murphy can do in Tokyo what he did in Rio, he can go down as the world’s best backstroke practitioner since Peirsol.

(Worth noting that Peirsol excelled greater at World Championships, with 16 golds (10 individual) and 20 total medals over long- and short-course events to just one individual gold from Murphy.)

The Contenders


Austin Katz Photo Courtesy: Connor Trimble

Jacob Pebley remains the second choice at 2021 Trials until toppled from that perch. He performed well in Rio and at two Worlds since.

If anyone is going to upset the Cal duo, it might be a Texas guy in Austin Katz. He made a mockery of the World University Games final in the 200 back, winning in 1:55.65, a margin of more than two seconds. It’s one of three 1:55s he has. One of those won a national title, despite a poor start off the block.

The Longshots

The depth is promising. Wyatt Davis and Carson Foster went 1-2 at the World Junior Championships last summer. Clark Beach got a bronze medal at the World University Games. Shaine Casas had a strong 2019 long-course and followed it up with a great college season at Texas A&M.

COVID-19 denied us another showdown at NCAAs between Katz and Casas (plus Coleman Stewart of N.C. State and Daniel Carr of Cal).

Looking ahead to 2021

Evgeny Rylov’s performance at the 2019 World Championship might install him as the 1B favorite to Murphy’s 1A in what promises to be a big showdown. Rylov won the 200 back and took silvers in the 100 and 50 (the latter of which isn’t in the Olympics). He’ll be just 24 in Tokyo.

China’s Xu Jiayu, who is better over 100 meters, is in the mix, too, as is Australian Mitch Larkin and home-nation hope Ryosuke Irie, which makes for a crowded field.

2021 Trials Vision

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