Backstroke Beckoning: Claire Curzan a Central Protagonist in 100 & 200 Back in First College Championship Season

Claire Curzan -- Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Backstroke Beckoning: Claire Curzan Central in 100 & 200 Back in First College Championship Season

She broke out as a high schooler thanks to success in the sprint butterfly events and, to a lesser extent, sprint freestyle. She qualified for her first Olympics in the 100 fly. But Claire Curzan won her first individual medal at a major international competition in the 100 backstroke, finishing third behind Regan Smith and Kaylee McKeown at the World Championships after out-dueling more accomplished backstrokers to earn a spot on the U.S. team in that event.

Weeks later, Curzan told Swimming World that backstroke was part of her event program to stay. “I love fly and free, but I think I found a new passion for backstroke throughout the year, and Worlds kind of solidified it,” Curzan said. “I enjoy it. It honestly is easier for me to train. I’d love to maybe do 200 back more. That’s probably one of my more-liked events.”

Many swimmers dread the 200 back as one of the most painful events in the sport, particularly hard on the legs, but Curzan avoids the 200 fly while embracing the 200 back. In fact, her lifetime best in the 200-meter back of 2:07.31, accomplished last March in a midseason meet, would have been good enough for fifth in the World Championships final (and just four hundredths away from fourth place). When she returned to international waters for the Short Course World Championships in December, Curzan’s best individual finish was in the 200-meter back, where she won silver behind Kaylee McKeown.

Now, Curzan is in her freshman year at Stanford University, where her multi-stroke sprint skills have already been key in the Cardinal securing a Pac-12 championship. She is a key member of all four Stanford sprint relays, three of which will enter the NCAA Championships ranked top-three in the nation. But individually, her most successful events have been the backstroke races. Part of that, of course, is necessity: Smith left Stanford after one season while Stanford’s best returning swimmer is Torri Huske, the world champion in the 100-meter fly and Worlds bronze medalist in the 100-meter free.

But Curzan’s success this season has made it a no-brainer that she will swim backstroke in two of her three individual races at the NCAA Championships. In the 100-yard back, her Pac-12s time of 49.46 ranks third in the country behind Virginia’s Gretchen Walsh and NC State’s Katharine Berkoff — and fifth-fastest in history. All three of those swimmers could crack the 49-second barrier at NCAAs, an accomplishment only Berkoff has achieved in history.

As for the 200 back, Curzan’s won the event at the Pac-12 Championships in 1:47.43, the fastest time in the country by 1.42 seconds. The swim made her the fourth-fastest performer in history, and she finished just three tenths off the fastest time in history, Smith’s 2019 mark of 1:47.16. Only one other swimmer still in college, Stanford’s Taylor Ruck, has ever posted a 1:47, but she has not come close to that level in four years. Cal’s Isabelle Stadden, who stuck close to Curzan for long portions of that Pac-12 final, is the only other swimmer in the country to break 1:50 this year.

Wisconsin’s Phoebe Bacon and Alabama’s Rhyan White both won medals at the World Championships in the 200-meter back, and maybe they can return to 1:48 territory, but Curzan’s underwaters and sprint speed are superior to anyone else likely racing the 200 back at NCAAs.

Curzan could opt for the 100 fly or 50 free for her third individual race at NCAAs. She swam the 100 fly at Pac-12s and touched in 49.61, four tenths behind Huske, but she was disqualified for a false start. She would certainly be a key contender in the race, but Huske and the only two swimmers ever to break 49, Virginia’s Kate Douglass and LSU’s Maggie Mac Neil, will be really hard to beat. It’s crazy to imagine that Curzan would skip the 100 fly at NCAAs less than a year after she broke the American record in the event, but it might be a logical choice. The 50 would also present a tough challenge with Walsh, Douglass and Mac Neil in the race, but swimming that event instead of the 100 fly would allow Curzan to enter the 100 back final fresh and not coming off a double.

But in backstroke, opportunity beckons. The 18-year-old originally from Raleigh, N.C., could win the national title in the 100 back, but even if not, it would be very surprising if Curzan does not top the podium in the 200 back, even with Bacon, White and Stadden all in the field.

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