NCAA Women’s Championships: Gretchen Walsh Blasts Historic 48.26 to Clobber 100 Backstroke Record

Gretchen Walsh -- Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

NCAA Women’s Championships: Gretchen Walsh Swims 48.26 to Clobber 100 Backstroke Record

One year ago, the idea of a 48-low 100-yard backstroke was unimaginable. Only five years after a 50-flat plateau and a 15-year-old Natalie Coughlin record was finally beaten, the best backstrokers in the country were steadily approaching the 49-second mark. But it was still jarring when Katharine Berkoff became the first ever to swim a 48-second 100 back, with Gretchen Walsh just missing that mark with a 49.00 in that same race.

But in 2023, there has been another massive jump, and the swimmer responsible was Walsh, never a backstroker before arriving at the University of Virginia in August 2021 but now a huge margin quicker than Berkoff, Regan SmithBeata Nelson and every other all-time 100 backstroker. That Coughlin record that eluded challengers for so long is now 1.71 seconds in the rear.

Walsh never trailed in her title-winning performance. Her underwater kickout to 15 meters built a big lead on Berkoff, and by the halfway point, the split was 23.02, seven tenths ahead of Berkoff’s American-record pace and a half-second clear of the two-time defending champion. Walsh continued using her biggest weapon, underwaters, to great advantage off the last two walls, and unlike in the 2022 final, she had the grit to conquer the final above-water stretch of the race. She did not surrender any ground to Berkoff over the final 50 yards; in fact, Walsh out-split everyone in the field by more than three tenths.

The final time was 48.26, almost a half-second ahead of the next-best performance in history. Berkoff finished second in 49.13, by any measure an incredible time and one that only Walsh and Berkoff had ever beaten, but she was almost nine tenths behind. Indeed, the best comparison for this performance was the 200 IM performance by Walsh’s University of Virginia teammate Kate Douglass in Thursday’s 200 IM, where she broke the existing record of 1:50.08 and swam a time of 1:48.34, skipping past 1:49 completely.


Gretchen Walsh — Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

“It was super fun. I definitely felt it on the last 25, but when do you not feel the last 25. I’ve just been working on my underwaters. I’ve been doing 12 kicks off every wall. It’s not that I’m not good on the surface, but I think that’s what gives me my edge. My goal was to break 49 at least, and I did, and that was awesome,” Walsh said. “I’m just overall so happy because I didn’t know I was going to go that time. I just wanted to go a best time. To get first this year, not that I wasn’t happy with second last year, but it’s just that much sweeter.”

Interestingly, this race was the first individual 100-yard back race between Berkoff and Walsh since last year’s NCAA Championships. They did race on a relay leadoff at the ACC Championships last month, but Walsh skipped the individual 100 back at both ACCs and the Virginia-NC State dual meet in January. There was a lot to live up to after their 2022 race brought about the two quickest performances in history, but Walsh’s leap did just that.

Coming down the stretch, Walsh got a view of Berkoff trailing, and she knew that meant a special result. “I took a sigh of relief,” Walsh said. “I was like, ‘I must be doing pretty well right now.’ I knew she was swimming fast, so I was like, ‘I wonder how fast I’m going?’ She’s always pushed me to be better, but in that kind of race, I was really focused on how I wanted to execute it and stick to my race plan.”

Stanford’s Claire Curzan, racing in her second A-final of the night after a fourth-place finish in the 100 fly, took third in 50.08, well off her season-best mark of 49.46, but even that time would not have made a difference against the generational speed of Berkoff and Walsh. Wisconsin’s Phoebe Bacon was fourth in 50.54, just ahead of Texas’ Olivia Bray (50.61).

The title was the second individual NCAA win of Walsh’s career after a 100 freestyle victory last season. She has also been second on three occasions, in the 50 free in both 2022 and 2023 and in the 100 back last season, and she has been part of six first-place relays for Virginia over the past two seasons, with a seventh likely to follow later in the night. In addition to the four relays, Walsh now holds individual American records in the 50 free and 100 back.

In an interview with the Virginia stars at the end of the evening, Douglass and Gretchen’s older sister Alex Walsh were both in awe of the immense improvement.

“Last year when she went 49-flat, that was awesome, and I remember feeling almost brought to tears,” Alex said. “Today, it’s just so incredible. To see Gretchen be able to step into the role she has on the team now, that’s been awesome to see as her big sister. I know it just feels really good to get first. That’s an awesome title, and I just couldn’t be prouder of her.

“I didn’t really think 48.2 was possible, so it’s pretty sweet.”

Event 12  Women 100 Yard Backstroke
         NCAA: N 48.74  3/18/2022 Katharine Berkoff, NCSU
         Meet: M 48.74  3/18/2022 Katharine Berkoff, NCSU
     American: A 48.74  3/18/2022 Katharine Berkoff, NCSU
      US Open: O 48.74  3/18/2022 Katharine Berkoff, NCSU
         Pool: P 49.12  3/17/2023 Gretchen Walsh, Virginia
    Name                 Year School            Prelims     Finals Points 
                       === Championship Final ===                        
  1 Walsh, Gretchen        SO Virginia            49.12      48.26N  20  
    r:+0.69  23.02        48.26 (25.24)
  2 Berkoff, Katharine     SR NC State            50.14      49.13   17  
    r:+0.55  23.53        49.13 (25.60)
  3 Curzan, Claire         FR Stanford            50.19      50.08   16  
    r:+0.65  24.29        50.08 (25.79)
  4 Bacon, Phoebe          JR Wisconsin           50.47      50.54   15  
    r:+0.68  24.62        50.54 (25.92)
  5 Bray, Olivia           JR Texas               50.85      50.61   14  
    r:+0.69  24.48        50.61 (26.13)
  6 Stadden, Isabelle      JR California          50.73      51.03   13  
    r:+0.69  24.55        51.03 (26.48)
  7 Fuller, Josephine      SO Tennessee           51.00      51.18   12  
    r:+0.68  24.90        51.18 (26.28)
  8 White, Rhyan           5Y Alabama             51.15      51.26   11  
    r:+0.65  24.35        51.26 (26.91)
                        === Consolation Final ===                        
  9 Countie, Grace         SR UNC                 51.16      50.81    9  
    r:+0.91  24.35        50.81 (26.46)
 10 Muzzy, Emma            5Y NC State            51.26      51.27    7  
    r:+0.79  25.30        51.27 (25.97)
 11 Noble, Kennedy         FR NC State            51.48      51.32    6  
    r:+0.61  25.02        51.32 (26.30)
 12 Tiltmann, Reilly       SO Virginia            51.29      51.46    5  
    r:+0.68  24.82        51.46 (26.64)
 13 Runnels, Aris          SO Florida             51.57      51.76    4  
    r:+0.78  24.94        51.76 (26.82)
 14 McCarty, Eboni         SO Georgia             51.36      51.89    3  
    r:+0.74  25.09        51.89 (26.80)
 15 Nordmann, Lucie        SR Stanford            51.60      51.95    2  
    r:+0.74  24.86        51.95 (27.09)
 16 Gatrall, Maddy         JR Akron               51.59      52.16    1  
    r:+0.69  25.11        52.16 (27.05)
                Women - Team Rankings - Through Event 12                 
  1. Virginia                        334.5   2. Texas                           231.5
  3. Stanford                          209   4. Louisville                      158.5
  5. NC State                          156   6. Ohio St                           138
  7. Florida                           122   8. Tennessee                         107
  9. Indiana                           101  10. California                         93
 11. UNC                                87  12. Lsu                                79
 13. Georgia                          69.5  14. Wisconsin                          67
 14. Alabama                            67  16. Southern California                55
 17. Kentucky                           37  18. Virginia Tech                      25
 19. Minnesota                          24  20. Miami (Fl)                         22
 21. Duke                               20  22. Texas A&M                          19
 22. Michigan                           19  24. Arizona                            17
 25. Arkansas                           12  26. Northwestern                        9
 26. Miami (Ohio)                        9  26. South Carolina                      9
 29. Auburn                              7  29. Florida St                          7
 31. UCLA                                6  32. Arizona St                          4
 33. Utah                                2  34. Florida Int'l                       1
 34. Akron                               1