NCAA Swimming Flashback: Kelsi Worrell, Ally Howe Break Vaunted Natalie Coughlin Records

Kelsi Dahlia (left) and Ally Howe each broke long-standing American records held by Natalie Coughlin -- Photos Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

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NCAA Swimming Flashback: Kelsi Worrell, Ally Howe Break Vaunted Natalie Coughlin Records

Natalie Coughlin finished her elite international career in a tie as the most decorated U.S. female Olympian in history, with 12 medals. She won a medal in every single Olympic race she entered. But Coughlin was even better in short course. At one point, she held seven out of 14 individual short course yards American records, in the 50, 100 and 200 freestyle, 100 and 200 backstroke and 100 and 200 butterfly.

Coughlin held the 200 fly record for seven years, the 200 back mark for nine years and the 100 free record for 12 years (minus a couple hours in 2003 when Maritza Correia broke the record, only for Coughlin to take it back leading off a relay). But the two most. But while she lowered the 100 free record on a five separate occasions, Coughlin had two swims from 2002 that were not touched by anyone, including herself, for over a decade.

On March 22, 2002, Coughlin won her second consecutive NCAA title in the 100 fly in 50.01, more than a second quicker than her American-record-setting performance from one year earlier. Coughlin, then just 19, could not quite get under the 50-second barrier in the butterfly, but a short time later, she accomplished that feat in the 100 back with a record-smashing 49.97, breaking a day-old American record by more than a half-second. At the time, Coughlin’s best was more than two seconds faster than anyone in history.

As it turns out, she would never swim any faster, and both records would survive challenges over numerous generations. Swimmers would come right on the verge of breaking the records, and then they could never get over the hump.

Finally, in 2015, one of those records went down. Louisville junior Kelsi Worrell had been on the verge of the 50-second barrier in the 100 fly all season, and she actually entered the NCAA Championships seeded almost a second ahead of her competition in 50.14. And after years of waiting, she got the job done in the event prelims, swimming a 49.89 to become the first woman ever under 50 seconds. She then lowered the mark to 49.81 on her way to an NCAA title in the final.

The 100 back record, however, would take a little longer to crack. Earlier that same season, Virginia junior Courtney Bartholomew had swum a 50.01 leading off a medley relay at the Georgia Invitational. That effort left her just four hundredths off Coughlin’s record, and surely Bartholomew would be able to knock off those last few ticks before the end of the season, right? But no, Bartholomew could not swim any quicker.

Then, Cal junior Rachel Bootsma won the individual event at the NCAA Championships in 50.03, this time just six hundredths off the record. Both Bootsma and Bartholomew had senior seasons to come, so maybe they could break the record in 2016? Again, nope.

By 2017, both Bootsma and Bartholomew had retired, and the swimming community looked to Cal freshman Kathleen Baker and Georgia senior Olivia Smoliga as the top contenders to take a shot at Coughlin’s mark. Baker was coming off a summer when she claimed Olympic silver in the 100-meter backstroke, while Smoliga placed sixth in that Olympic final. Surely one of them could get the record in their head-to-head matchup at the NCAA Championships.


Ally Howe was the NCAA champion in the 100 back in 2018 — Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Unless someone else broke it first. That “someone else” turned out to be Stanford junior Ally Howe, who smashed the 15-year-old barrier at the Pac-12 Championships. This Stanford team was absolutely loaded, with Olympic superstars Katie Ledecky and Simone Manuel at the forefront and veteran sprinter Lia Neal and rising IMer Ella Eastin pulling scoring big points as well. But at the conference meet, Howe clobbered her 100 back with a 49.69, 0.28 under the record.

And once the record was finally broken, others would soon follow. A few weeks later, Baker would win the NCAA title in the event in 49.84, under Coughlin’s long-standing mark. In the coming years, Beata Nelson and Regan Smith would take turns breaking the record. In March 2021, Smith swam a 49.16 to clip Nelson’s previous record of 49.18, and Smith could challenge the 49-second barrier at the NCAA Championships this season. In total, seven women have now swum quicker than Coughlin did, with Katharine Berkoff, Maggie Mac Neil and Janet Hu also in that group.

Meanwhile, the sub-50 club in the 100 fly is now up to nine women. Louise Hansson would break Worrell’s U.S. Open record with a 49.26 at the 2019 NCAA Championships, while Erika Brown lowered the American record to 49.38 at the 2020 SEC Championships. A showdown between Hansson, Brown and reigning 100-meter fly world champion Mac Neil was one of the anticipated races of the 2020 national championships, but that meet was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. By 2021, both Hansson and Brown had graduated, but Mac Neil put on a show by winning the 100 fly in 48.89, becoming the first woman to ever break 49.

For so long, Coughlin was the unbeatable standard in both these events, with two records set in 2002 that no swimmer in her era or the next era could touch. That longevity made the moments when the records finally did go down all the more memorable.