Olympic Preview: Women’s 100 Backstroke

By John Lohn

CRANBURY, New Jersey, January 8. THE third installment of SwimmingWorldMagazine.com's will take a look at the women's 100-meter backstroke. The event doesn't have the depth of some of the other events on the international scene, but the top tier of the discipline is quite strong, with defending champion Natalie Coughlin leading the way.

Historical Perspective:
Defending Champion: Natalie Coughlin (United States) – 1:00.37
World-Record Holder: Natalie Coughlin (United States) – 59.44
Most Titles: United States (Nine) – Sybil Bauer (1924); Eleanor Holm (1932); Lynn Burke (1960); Cathy Ferguson (1964); Kaye Hall (1968); Melissa Belote (1972); Theresa Andrews (1984); Beth Botsford (1996); Natalie Coughlin (2004).
Of Note: There has never been a repeat champion since the event debuted at the 1924 Olympics in Paris. Natalie Coughlin will have a chance to change that history if she qualifies for the 2008 Games in Beijing.

Here's a look at the top contenders in the event.

Natalie Coughlin: The American and reigning Olympic champ has owned the 100 backstroke this decade, easily establishing herself as the greatest performer in the history of the event. Coughlin has eight of the 10-fastest times in history and has broken the one-minute barrier on five occasions. Kirsty Coventry and Laure Manaudou are the only other individuals to crack the minute mark.

After setting the world record at 59.58 in Fort Lauderdale in 2002, Coughlin spent five years searching for a quicker time. During that stretch, she experimented with ways to improve and that patience paid off last year when Coughlin won gold at the World Championships in Melbourne with a global standard of 59.44. If Coughlin is in prime condition, she'll be tough to deny in Beijing. We're calling for a repeat.

Kirsty Coventry: The native of Zimbabwe is best known for her ability in the 200 backstroke, where she is the two-time defending world champ. But, Coventry is also a big-time talent in the shorter distance, evident in her No. 2 world ranking in 2007. At the Japan International Swim Meet over the summer, she posted a personal-best mark of 59.85.

Coventry knocked off Coughlin at the 2005 World Champs in Montreal, so there is support that she can defeat the world-record holder. Coventry, like Coughlin, is likely to have a busy schedule in China, as she'll also contend both medley events, along with the 200 back. Anything less than a podium finish would be a surprise.

Laure Manaudou: The Frenchwoman has been in the headlines more frequently lately for leaving her longtime coach, Philippe Lucas, and then the Italian club to which she had moved, along with other off the deck issues. Now that she's training under the watch of her young brother, there have been doubts as to her ability to maintain her worldwide standing.

Still, Manaudou is an amazing talent and was the bronze medalist at the 2004 Games in Athens, placing behind Coughlin and Coventry. At last year's World Championships, Manaudou was the silver medalist with a time of 59.87. That effort arrived amid a stacked slate in which she also won the 200 and 400 freestyles and took silver in the 800 free. Look for Manaudou to claim a medal.

Reiko Nakamura: The dropoff from the top three to the remainder of the contenders is significant, but this Japanese star has an impressive portfolio. The bronze medalist in the 100 and 200 backstrokes at last year's World Champs, Nakamura ranked fourth in the world with a best time of 1:00.29. She'll likely need to push the minute mark for a medal, but it's a scenario that is not out of the question.

Emily Seebohm: The Australian teenager made her name known on the international stage at the World Championships, where she turned in a personal-best time of 1:00.51. Born in 1993, Seebohm obviously is just tapping into her talent and should see improvements in her time. Whether she is fast enough to challenge for a medal remains to be seen.

Hanae Ito: Another Japanese standout, Ito ranked sixth in the world last year, with her best time being the 1:00.62 she delivered at the World Championships. That time, however, leaves Ito nearly a second behind the best of Coventry and Manaudou, suggesting that a run at a medal might be asking too much. Hey, we said this event was top heavy.

Margaret Hoelzer: The American-record holder in the 200 backstroke, Hoelzer registered the seventh-fastest time of 2007 while competing at the Duel in the Pool. At that meet, Hoelzer clocked in at 1:00.66, an effort that indicates she'll be a leading challenger for the second American berth to Beijing. She might not be a medal hope in the 100 back, but Hoelzer undoubtedly is a gold-medal possibility in the 200 distance.

Leila Vaziri: At the World Champs in Melbourne, Vaziri twice set the world record in the 50 backstroke and walked away with gold. But, the 50 distances are not part of the Olympic program, so Vaziri's best chance to earn a trip to Beijing will be in the 100 back. She went a best of 1:00.79 in 2007, achieved at the Duel in the Pool. Expect Vaziri to push for the second U.S. spot at the American Trials in Omaha.

The Others: In other events, we'll certainly focus on a few more individuals. In this event, however, we've reached the point where a blanket can be thrown over a sizable group that in 2007 posted times in the high-1:00 range to low-1:01 territory. This group includes Ukrainian Irina Amshennikova and the United States' Hayley McGregory, who was third at the 2004 U.S. Trials in both backstrokes. Also keep an eye on British youngster Elizabeth Simmons, a rising star in her homeland.