Great Races: When Michael Phelps Nearly Broke the World Record in the 100 Backstroke


Great Races: When Michael Phelps Nearly Broke the World Record in the 100 Backstroke

With 28 Olympic titles on the ledger, the career of Michael Phelps is well-documented. He is known as the greatest swimmer in history, one of those rare athletes where there is no debate about his status as the GOAT. The five-time Olympian burst onto the global stage as a precocious 15-year-old at the 2000 Games in Sydney. He bid farewell at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

One of the defining aspects of Phelps’ career, which was molded by Bob Bowman, was his multi-event range. During his career, Phelps established multiple world records each in the 200 freestyle, 100 butterfly, 200 butterfly, 200 individual medley and 400 individual medley. There were event American records in the 100 freestyle and 400 freestyle, along with Olympic qualification (turned down) in the 200 backstroke.

For all of Phelps’ greatness, and his range of excellence, it is often forgotten that the Maryland native nearly took down the world record in the 100 backstroke at the 2007 United States Nationals in Indianapolis. It was inside the famed Indiana University Natatorium in which Phelps – on two occasions – scared Aaron Peirsol’s global standard in the event.

It’s not that Phelps’ prowess in the backstroke was unknown. After all, he continuously demonstrated his skill in the stroke during his individual medley exploits. More, at the 2004 Olympic Trials in Long Beach, Phelps finished as the runnerup to Peirsol in the final of the 200 backstroke, consequently qualifying for the Athens Olympics in the event. With an eight-event schedule set for Greece, Phelps and Bowman decided to forfeit the opportunity in the 200 backstroke, thus handing an Olympic invitation to Bryce Hunt, the third-place finisher at Trials.

At the 2007 Nationals in Indy, Phelps used the meet as an opportunity to flash his talent in the 100 backstroke. The timing of the meet was perfect for that chance, as the World Championships – where Phelps won seven gold medals and was beyond brilliant – were held earlier in the year in Melbourne, and Nationals provided flexibility and the freedom to branch out.

Heading into the final of the 100 backstroke, the world record in the event sat at 52.98, the performance Peirsol posted en route to the gold medal at the World Champs in Melbourne. Whether that standard could be threatened may have been in the minds of Phelps and Bowman, but few others had a world-record pursuit on their radars.

They should have.

After cruising through the preliminaries in 54.53, good for the second seed behind Ben Hesen (54.49), Phelps ratcheted up the intensity in the final. The then 22-year-old popped a mark of 53.01, just missing the world mark by .03. The effort was good for a U.S. Open record and served as the latest evidence of Phelps’ unique ability. Claiming the silver medal was David Cromwell, who covered the race in 53.82.

When Peirsol set the world record a little more than four months earlier, he was out in 25.80 and came home in 27.18. Phelps delivered his performance with an outgoing split of 26.12 and a homecoming mark of 26.89. When Bowman discussed the top-20 swims of Phelps’ career with Swimming World, he included his protégé’s effort in the 100 backstroke at No. 10 on the list.

With Phelps so close to the world record, he was given another shot at the standard on the leadoff of Club Wolverine’s 400 medley relay on the final day of the meet. In that race, Phelps turned in a time of 53.17, one of the fastest performances in history. This time around, he was out in 25.78 and came home in 27.39.

Fourteen years after Nationals, what Phelps pulled off in Indy remains head-shaking. The 100 backstroke, at highest, was Phelps’ seventh-best event. Yet, there he was challenging the world record.



  1. avatar

    Great article! I’ve always wondered why people don’t make more of a fuss about these great Phelps swims.

    • avatar

      Quite remarkable, but never discussed or heard of.Thanks for the article – quite thought provoking – GOAT!!

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