American Record Lifts Olivia Smoliga to Gold in 50 Backstroke (Race Video)

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World Swimming Championships (Olivia Smoliga)

Gwangju, Day 5 finals

Women’s 50 backstroke

Late last year, Olivia Smoliga walked away from the World Short Course Championships with eight gold medals, including victories in the 50 backstroke and 100 backstroke. Still, Smoliga was looking for a major international breakthrough on the long-course scene, something she has certainly managed over the past few days.

Following up on her bronze-medal showing in the 100 backstroke, Smoliga used a strong finish on Thursday night to overtake defending champion Etiene Medeiros of Brazil in the 50 back and prevail in 27.33, good for an American record. The bronze medal went to Russia’s Daria Vaskina, who touched in 27.51. Fourth place was shared by Great Britain’s Georgia Davies and Australia’s Kaylee McKeown. Smoliga’s previous American record stood at 27.43.

“It definitely did (give me a confidence boost),” Smoliga said of the 100 backstroke. “It’s still nerve-wracking, and it’s a different type of event. But being on the podium, that was motivation.”

Smoliga enjoyed a superb collegiate career at the University of Georgia, but she has elevated her status in the sport over the past two years, thanks to the international success she has realized. At the World Short Course Championships, Smoliga was placed in a position in which she was forced to embrace a jam-packed program, a beneficial experience for managing and handling the pressure of future international meets. That experience has clearly paid off for Smoliga, who has delivered her best races this week with medals on the line.

Although the 50 backstroke is not an Olympic event, Smoliga has to be feeling good heading into the Olympic Trials in Omaha next June. She will be among the leading contenders for a Tokyo berth in the 100 backstroke and her status as an elite sprint freestyler will put her in the mix for a 4×100 freestyle relay slot. She also has the potential to push for an Olympic invitation in the 50 freestyle.

Kathleen Baker, the other American in the field, matched her sixth-place finish from the 100 backstroke, clocking a time of 27.69. Baker was the top seed for the final, but couldn’t find that additional speed necessary for a podium spot. It’s been a difficult year for Baker, who has dealt with several bouts of illness, along with a cracked rib.

Medeiros could not replicate the performance that landed her the gold medal two years ago in Budapest. In fact, the final was much slower than the last edition of the World Champs, where Medeiros won in 27.14 and silver and bronze were collected in 27.15 and 27.23. But the bottom line is getting to the wall first, and that is exactly what Smoliga did.

The event actually didn’t start out well for Smoliga, who dealt with a suit tear just before her heat of the prelims. One of Smoliga’s shoulder straps ripped and there wasn’t time for her to change into a new suit. Rather than let the situation affect her, Smoliga blocked it out and advanced to the semifinals. From there, it was a smoother path.

“I am really excited, really happy,” Smoliga said. “I wanted to be faster, but it’s so different when you go to meets like this. The crowds are huge. It’s not like a Pro Swim Series where the pressure is chilled out and you can swim however. I think the crowd actually helped me today. I could hear them cheering the last 20 meters, so I used that to my advantage the best I could.”

Results

1. Olivia Smoliga, United States 27.33
2. Etiene Medeiros, Brazil 27.44
3. Daria Vaskina, Russia 27.51
4. Georgia Davies, Great Britain 27.65
4. Kaylee McKeown, Australia 27.65
6. Kathleen Baker, United States 27.69
7. Caroline Pilhatsch, Austria 27.78
8. Kira Toussaint, Netherlands 27.85

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