League Of Olympic Swim Legends: Natalie Coughlin Tops the 100m Backstroke Podium With Egerszegi & Muir

Natalie Coughlin of the USA reacts after finishing first in the Women's 100m Freestyle Semifinal 2 in the Susie O'Neill pool at the FINA Swimming World Championships in Melbourne, Australia, Thursday 29 March 2007. (Photo by Patrick B. Kraemer / MAGICPBK)
Natalie Coughlin - Image Courtesy: SwimSketch

What would have unfolded had Tokyo 2020 gone ahead as planned this week – and where would it all have fit in the thread of Olympic swim legends like Natalie Coughlin, Krisztina Egerszegi and Karen MuirTo mark the eight days over which the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games would have unfolded had the coronavirus pandemic not forced postponement, the team at Swimming World is filling the void with a Virtual Vision Form Guide and League of Olympic Swimming Legends.

Day 3, event 2 – the only champion to retain the crown …

Jul 14, 2015; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Natalie Coughlin of the United States adjusts her swim cap before the women's 100m freestyle swimming final during the 2015 Pan Am Games at Pan Am Aquatics UTS Centre and Field House. Mandatory Credit: Erich Schlegel-USA TODAY Sports

Natalie Coughlin – Photo Courtesy: Erich Schlegel/USA Today Sports Images

Women’s 100m Backstroke

The Podium

  1. Natalie Coughlin (USA)
  2. Krisztina Egerszegi (HUN)
  3. Karen Muir (South Africa)

The Other Finalists (Listed Alphabetically):

  • Sybil Bauer (USA)
  • Marie Braun (NED)
  • Lynn Burke  (USA)
  • Cathy Ferguson (USA)
  • Eleanor Holm (USA)
  •  Our Lane 9* place goes to a Canadian who at a home Games in Montreal 1976 claimed two bronze medals on backstroke, over 100 and 200m – beaten by East Germans boosted by State Plan 14:25 systematic doping. Imagine, two gold medals at home Olympic Games, no boycott to consider: life changing. Our Lane 9:
  • Nancy Garapick (CAN)

* – in our series, we will use Lane 9 to add an athlete whose story reflects extraordinary situations of different kinds, including being deprived by doping or political decisions or, indeed the program, as well as simple facts such as “he/she was the only other title winner who claimed gold in a WR but didn’t make out top 8 on points”

All-Time Battle Of Olympic Swim Legends Goes To Natalie Coughlin


Krisztina Egerszegi – Photo Courtesy: Arena/Hungarian Swimming Federation


Karen Muir – Photo Courtesy: Wikipedia

Scan the list of champions in the 100 backstroke and only one name will be found under the gold-medal column on more than one occasion: Natalie Coughlin. The American snared her first Olympic crown at the 2004 Games in Athens, and retained the title four years later in Beijing, despite the target she wore and formidable challengers.

Coughlin was pegged as a future star as a teenager and by the time she won her first world title in 2001, she was on her way to a Hall of Fame career.

Natalie Coughlin set five world records during her career and became the first woman to break the minute barrier and 59-second barrier. Her superb underwater skills enabled Coughlin to frequently bolt to the front of the field and never look back.

Earning the silver medal among the Legends is Hungary’s Krisztina Egerszegi, the 1992 Olympic champion and 1988 silver medalist behind East Germany’s Kristin Otto, who according to Stasi documents, was part of her country’s systematic-doping program. In 1996, Egerszegi did not contest the 100 backstroke, but her leg on the leadoff of Hungary’s 400 medley relay was quicker than the gold-medal time in the 100 back.

Identifying the bronze medalist in this event was a difficult task, but ultimately was awarded to South African Karen Muir. Although Muir never competed at the Olympic Games because of South African’s ban due to her country’s apartheid regime of institutional, legal and societal discrimination against non-white citizens, she became the youngest world-record holder at the age of 12 and set three world records. Muir was the World-record holder at the time the 1968 and 1972 Olympic finals unfolded without her.

The last of Muir’s records endured for four years, until East Germany’s Ulrike Richter broke it, with the assistance of performance-enhancing drugs. Some may object to the presence of a swimmer from a country banned at the time for good reason. However, in the mix of this Legends mini-series are many other athletes who make our finals even though they were denied the chance to take up their right to race because of political decisions taken by those who governed their country at the time – and in a way that impacted the lives of athletes.

American Lynn Burke, the 1960 Champion with four World records to her name, was fourth, pressing Muir to the finish. Eleanor Holm was also in the mix for medals, the American winner of the 1932 title denied a chance to race when she got to Berlin in 1936 because officials had imposed a ban on her for drinking aboard the cruise liner on the way over from the United States.

Natalie Coughlin Gold – Athens 2004

Natalie Coughlin Gold – Beijing 2008

Olympic Swim Legends – Our Winner’s Winning Ways:

Natalie Coughlin – The First Gold

Natalie Coughlin – Photo Courtesy: Azaria Basile

2004 Athens – Women 100m Backstroke: Athletes: 42; Nations: 33

  1. 1:00.37 Natalie Coughlin USA
  2. 1:00.50 Kirsty Coventry ZIM
  3. 1:00.88 Laure Manaudou FRA
  4. 1:01.05 Reiko Nakamura JPN
  5. 1:01.12 Nina Zhivanevskaya ESP
  6. 1:01.39 Antje Buschschulte GER
  7. 1:01.51 Louise Ornstedt DEN
  8. 1:01.76 Haley Cope USA

Date of final: August 16, 2004

Natalie Coughlin (USA) had been down to the depths of a low morale as a teenager emerging from her high school days with an injured shoulder and a bruised psyche. In 2000, she was put in touch with coach Teri McKeever, whose unconventional approach to the pursuit of speed while in charge at Cal Aquatics earned her a place in history at Athens 2004 as the first woman to be invited on to the burning deck of the Olympic Team USA coaching staff.

McKeever emphasised technique over volume, quality over quantity, and advocated diversity: dance, pilates, spinning and yoga were all part of Coughlin’s preparation.

In July, 2001, she won the world title in the 100m backstroke. The warning sounded, the most promising prospect to emerge from the pool of American women’s swimming in a decade made her presence in the history book felt more keenly by doing for women’s backstroke what Johnny “Tarzan” Weissmuller had done for men’s freestyle in July, 1922: 80 years and a month after the Hollywood hero became the first man to race inside a minute in the 100m freestyle, Coughlin took a sledgehammer to the two-lap world record, pounding it down from 1:00.16 to 59.58sec. Coughlin arrived at the 2003 World Championships tipped to win up to five gold medals, with world-class times on backstroke, freestyle and butterfly. Illness struck at the wrong moment and Coughlin was a shadow of her potential.


Kirsty Coventry – Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Laure Manaudou (L) talks to her brother Florent Manaudou of France during a training session 1 day prior to the start of the swimming competition during the FINA Swimming World Championships at Kazan arena in Kazan, Russia, 1 August 2015.

Laure Manaudou (L) talks to her brother Florent Manaudou in training on the eve of the 2015 World Championships in Gaza. Photo Courtesy: Patrick B. Kraemer ©

In Athens at the Games, Coughlin confirmed her status as title favourite in the 100m backstroke with a 1:00.17 Olympic record in the second semi-final. In the final, she was never headed. At 50m, Coughlin’s split, 28.89, was just 0.03sec down on world-record pace, and although the American tied up in the closing 10 metres, just as US-based Kirsty Coventry (ZIM) and Laure Manaudou (FRA) were coming good, the American had done enough and claimed the crown in 1:00.37.

Coventry, on 1:00.50, set an African record. Manaudou was just shy of the national record of 1:00.64 she’d set at French Olympic trials that year, on 1:00.88.

The backstroke medallists were among the most prized people in Athens. The Frenchwoman won the 400m freestyle title and finished second in the 800m, Coventry, who would join the International Olympic Committee’s in-house Athletes Commission after her retirement from racing, won the 200m backstroke and claimed bronze in the 200m medley and Coughlin set an Olympic record of 59.68 leading the US in a medley relay that claimed silver, won gold in the 4x200m freestyle in world-record time and another silver in the 4x100m freestyle.

Inspired in her youth by the likes of the legendary Janet Evans, who until 2008 still held the 800m freestyle world record she set in 1989, Coughlin embraced the toughness of the challenge that comes with being American. In 2008 as she headed to US trials in pursuit of retaining her Olympic crown, she said:

“Not only is it the hardest team to qualify for in the world, but the weight of the expectations placed upon you as an American swimmer is huge! Being part of such a tradition is a great honour.”

Manaudou, who in May 2006 took down Evans’ 400m freestyle World record in 4:03.03 after it had been own the books since September 1988, claimed silver at 2007 World titles over 100m backstroke when Coughlin’s gold was sealed in a World record of 59.44. They Frenchwoman would write a new line in Olympic history in 2012 just by being in the stands watching: when her younger brother Florent claimed the 50m freestyle title at the London Games, the siblings became the first in history to win Olympic gold in solo swimming events.

Another Great Olympic 100m backstroke Race


Krisztina Egerszegi

Krisztina Egerszegi Leads Hungarian 1-2

1992 Barcelona – Women 100m Backstroke: Athletes: 45; Nations: 31

  1. 1:00.68or Krisztina Egerszegi HUN
  2. 1:01.14 Tunde Szabo HUN
  3. 1:01.43 Lea Loveless USA
  4. 1:01.78 Nicole Stevenson AUS
  5. 1:01.81 Janie Wagstaff USA
  6. 1:02.07 Joanne Mehan AUS
  7. 1:02.36 Nina Zhivanevskaya RUS/CIS
  8. 1:03.23 Yoko Koikawa  JPN

Date of final: July 28, 1992

Krisztina Egerszegi was known as “Eger”, or “mouse”, to her Hungarian teammates. She was a mouse who roared, ending her career as the first swimmer to win five Olympic gold medals in individual events. At the start of 2008, she remained the only swimmer to achieve that. Michael Phelps would end the year the new record holder, Egerszegi top woman yet.

Her first successes unfolded in 1988, with victory in the 200m and silver in the 200m. The Hungarian lifted both the 100m and 200m crowns at the World Championships at Perth, in January 1991. Seven months later, and beyond a rule change that allowed swimmers to turn on backstroke without touching the wall with their hand, Egerszegi crushed the world record in the 200m with a 2:06.62 victory at the European Championships in Athens. It was not her only world record in Greece that week: over 100m she broke the standard that had stood to Ina Kleber (GDR) since 1984, improving the mark from 1:00.59 to 1:00.31.

A year later at the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona, Egerszegi joined the elite club of women to have won three solo gold medals in the pool, taking the 100m and 200m backstroke titles in Olympic records of 1:00.68 and 2:07.06 and the 400m medley crown in 4:36.54, 0.19sec ahead of Lin Li (CHN).

In the 100m backstroke heats, she clocked 1:00.85, shaving 0.01sec off the 1980 Olympic record set by the GDR’s Rica Reinisch. Later in the day, Egerszegi claimed the crown in her second Olympic record of the day to win her second gold medal of the meet, the medley having been held two days before.

One of the greatest technicians and stylists to grace the pool, Egerszegi ended her career in 1996, when victory in the 200m backstroke made her the second member of the Triple Crown club found din 1964 by Australian Dawn Fraser (100m freestyle gold, 1956, 1960, 1964) as the most decorated woman in European Championship history, with nine solo titles and four silvers to her name between 1989 and 1995. Her versatility was not seen only in the 400m medley: she was also European 200m butterfly champion in 1993. In 2007, Egerszegi said:

“My whole career was a magic moment. But if I have to give a highlight, it would have to be Athens 1991, when I broke the world records in the 100m and 200m backstroke. And after that the 1992 Olympic 400m medley gold because the race was so tight – 0.19sec.”

By then, Egerszegi was a mother of three children and a popular figure in Hungary yet. She also owned a Pizzeria called “The Mousehole” in Budapest.

Egerszegi’s Triple At Barcelona 1992:

A Glimpse Of Karen Muir – and a time, a place and a bygone broadcast moment:

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3 years ago

No East Germans (Kristin Otto)? I know it is a delicate question. Their results still stands, although they were doped by the East German state. Should they be deleted from the history books like Lance Armstrong in the Tour de France or not?

3 years ago
Reply to  Kim

Thanks for the question, Kim. We stated at the start that no swimmers known to have fallen foul of doping rules would be eligible for our exercise – so, no East Germans. I don’t think should delete history – a record of what actually happened should be there: we need it to be there. BUT, guardians and governors have got this wrong for a very long time. A reconciliation process should begin by removing every honour and award given to those who were proven to have caused harm – and received criminal convictions as a result. Then, there needs to be a recognition exercise where those clearly denied (not too hard to work out) should have recognition prizes given to them in an exercise that recognises that the GDR girls (and boys in some cases) were victims of a singular type of abuse now forbidden under German law (and the laws of some other countries too). I’m not suggesting this is an easy exercise but that doesn’t prevent us from trying, from exorcising ghosts without causing harm to those already harmed. In extremis well beyond the real of sport, this, in the link below, shows how hard and long the road can be… but the travelling of it is what had to happen and what will lead to the light of a better long term … https://www.dw.com/en/rwanda-the-long-road-to-reconciliation/av-51408304 … the IOC/FINA et al haven’t even begin to try, to acknowledge to understand and get to that first basis post that asks them to perform a simple task: remove all honours granted to ANY in the Movement who have had criminal conviction handed down because of harm caused to athletes and within the sports world. That, for what it’s worth, is my view. 🙂 best, Craig

3 years ago

I think Egerszegi is the greatest backstroker of all time. Coughlin never won the backstroke double at the Olympics or the “Triple Crown” in neither event.

3 years ago
Reply to  James

We’re handling it event by event.. so this is just about the 100… at the end of the legends series there will be an overview of greats… 🙂