49’s the Norm: Gone is the Mystique of Natalie Coughlin’s 100 Back Record

Photo Courtesy: Becca Wyant

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Morning Splash by David Rieder.

In 2002, Natalie Coughlin swam a 49.97 in the women’s 100-yard backstroke. It took 15 years for anyone to swim under 50 seconds again.

Of course, it wasn’t for a lack of trying. In 2013, Cal freshman Rachel Bootsma won the NCAA title in the event in 50.13, then the second-fastest time ever in the event. She needed to go 16 hundredths quicker to hit Coughlin’s record, so of course she would get there eventually—right?

For the next 20 months, no one swam quicker—until December 5, 2014, at the Georgia Invite. Virginia junior Courtney Bartholomew touched the wall in 50.01, a mere four hundredths off Coughlin’s mark—but she never could improve on that time.


Rachel Bootsma — Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

That season at the NCAA championships, Bartholomew’s top time was 50.19, set leading off the Cavaliers’ 400 medley relay. The next day, Bootsma won the individual title in 50.03, her lifetime best but still six hundredths short of the gold standard. Neither of those women would approach their top times as seniors the following season.

And then, finally, in late February 2017, the record went down. Olympic silver medalist Kathleen Baker was in the field for the 100 back at the women’s Pac-12 championships, but Stanford junior Ally Howe took her down that day and finished in 49.69. That long-elusive record was crushed.

Suddenly, the floodgates opened. That season at the NCAA championships, Baker joined Howe and Coughlin in the sub-50 club, recording a best time of 49.80, and two more swimmers broke 50 during their conference championship meets in February: Wisconsin’s Beata Nelson (49.78) and Howe’s Stanford teammate Janet Hu (49.93).

Those four, along with perhaps Missouri senior Hannah Stevens, the U.S. National champion in the 50 back, will be in contention for an NCAA crown in that event. Nelson had the hot hand Thursday night on the 4×100 medley relay, when she posted the only sub-50 leadoff split, at 49.83.

Howe’s American record from the 2017 Pac-12 meet still stands, but it could be in danger in the 100 back NCAA final. On top of that, sudden, it’s likely to take faster than Coughlin’s former record to finish in the top three. After it took 15 years to catch up to one of the greatest short course swimmers ever in her best event, the country’s best backstrokers have finally made the leap forward.

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Author: David Rieder

David Rieder is a staff writer for Swimming World. He has contributed to the magazine and website since 2009, and he has covered the NCAA Championships, U.S. Nationals, Olympic Trials as well as the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio and the 2017 World Championships in Budapest. He is a native of Charleston, S.C., and a 2016 graduate of Duke University.

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