Can Claire Curzan or Anyone Else Join Kaylee McKeown, Regan Smith Atop 200 Backstroke?

Claire Curzan -- Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Can Claire Curzan or Anyone Else Join Kaylee McKeown, Regan Smith Atop 200 Backstroke?

In retrospect, the 2017 World Championships marked the last gasp for the previous generation in the women’s 200 backstroke. In that race, Australia’s Emily Seebohm unleashed a stunning final 50 meters to move from third place to first, overtaking Hungary’s Katinka Hosszu and the United States’ Kathleen Baker. The winning time was 2:05.68, more than one-and-a-half seconds behind Missy Franklin’s world record.

Interestingly, the future stars of that event were in the final: 15-year-old American Regan Smith ended up eighth while 16-year-old Australian Kaylee McKeown had the second-best final lap (behind only her countrywoman Seebohm) as she moved up to place fourth. Just two years after that, Smith would break through, smashing the world record with a time of 2:03.35 while McKeown distinguished herself from the rest of the field to take silver.

Two years after that, McKeown became the Olympic gold medalist, and she has not lost in the event since. Early in 2023, she broke the world record with a time of 2:03.14. Meanwhile, Smith had a rough stretch in the event for two years, failing to qualify to represent the U.S. in international waters in 2021 or 2022, but she re-emerged in 2023 and returned to 2:03-territory on the way to World Championships silver as McKeown completed a sweep of the backstroke events in Fukuoka.

regan smith, kaylee mckeown

Regan Smith & Kaylee McKeown — Photo Courtesy: Andrea Masini / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

Entering the Olympic year, McKeown is the clear favorite to win Olympic gold in the event, but Smith has given herself a chance to knock off her Aussie rival. It’s also worth noting that McKeown does have some daunting history to overcome; no Australian woman has successfully defended an Olympic gold medal in swimming since Dawn Fraser won three consecutive titles in the 100 freestyle in 1956, 1960 and 1964. But beyond that, it would be a huge surprise if anyone else ends up with a gold or silver medal in Paris.

That’s because the event has largely stagnated beyond the two standout swimmers. Back in 1991, Krisztina Egerszegi swam a time of 2:06.62 at the European Championships that would stand as the world record for more than 16 years, until the introduction of polyurethane suits. Well, that mark would have been quick enough for bronze behind McKeown and Smith at this year’s Worlds.

Zimbabwe’s Kirsty Coventry would break Egerszegi’s record in early 2008, and after losing the mark to Margaret Hoelzer at the U.S. Olympic Trials, Coventry became the first woman under 2:06 on the way to Olympic gold in Beijing. One year after that, Coventry and Russia’s Anastasia Zueva became the first two women to go sub-2:05 at the World Championships.

In almost fifteen years since, Franklin, Smith and McKeown are the only women to reach 2:04 or better in the 200 back. Behind them, seven women have best times in the 2:05-range, six of whom are aiming for the 2024 Games, but only one came close to that range in 2023. American Phoebe Bacon ranks sixth all-time at 2:05.08, but one year after finishing just four hundredths behind McKeown at the World Championships, Bacon did not qualify for the U.S. team bound for Worlds.

Rhyan White, ranked No. 7 all-time at 2:05.13, was the second American behind Smith in 2023, clocking 2:05.77 to edge out Claire Curzan, Kennedy Noble and Bacon at U.S. Nationals, but White was well off her time in the Fukuoka final as she placed sixth. That U.S. final was so quick that Bacon’s fifth-place mark of 2:06.69 was quicker than the 2:06.74 recorded by China’s Peng Xuwei for third place at Worlds.

Of the other swimmers who have clocked 2:05s in their careers, neither Kylie Masse nor Margherita Panziera have been anywhere close to their best in recent years while Seebohm and Hosszu are both working their way back to form following layoffs, with Hosszu giving birth to her first child.

Both 20-year-old Peng and 19-year-old Katie Shanahan, the British fourth-place finisher from Worlds, have youth on their side as they look to close the gap on the top-two, but the best chance for someone to close the gap on the two favorites would come from the United States, where a significant battle for Olympic team spots should be expected. White and Bacon both have international history in the event, but Curzan is currently riding momentum.

At the recent TYR Pro Swim Series in Knoxville, Tenn., Curzan clocked 2:07.42 to win the 200 back, an extremely strong swim for in-season, and she is the favorite to win gold at the upcoming World Championships in Doha, a meet that McKeown and Smith are both skipping. Best known for her sprint success early in her career, Curzan has come on strong in the 200 back in recent years. She went 2:06.35 at last year’s U.S. Nationals, a meet where she was well off her best times in other events, so getting into the 2:05s (or maybe better) would not be far-fetched.

Still, a lot would have to chance within the next six months to deny McKeown and Smith a 1-2 finish, in whatever order. McKeown will be 23 by the time the Tokyo Games roll around, Smith 22, and their best times are almost two seconds quicker than the next-fastest active swimmer.

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