Tokyo Ticket Dissolves Stress for Regan Smith as Battle vs. McKeown Awaits

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Regan Smith celebrates qualifying for her first Olympic team in the 100 back -- Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Tokyo Ticket Dissipates Stress for Regan Smith as Battle vs. McKeown Awaits

Just days after surrendering her 100 back world record to Australia’s Kaylee McKeown, Regan Smith secured her spot at her first Olympic Games with a victory in the 100 back at U.S. Olympic Trials. With all eyes on Smith, she went out hard and flipped in 27.90, two tenths under McKeown’s world record pace and with a significant lead. On the back half, Smith received pressure from Katharine Berkoff in the lane next to her, but she never slipped from the lead. Smith touched the wall in 58.35, a bit slower than her 57.92 from the previous night’s semifinals that ranks her second in the world for 2021 but enough to secure a spot in her first Olympic Games.

Smith had been in the spotlight since qualifying for her first World Championships at age 15, and she steadily ascended up the ranks of global backstroking, culminating in her two-world record breakout at the 2019 World Championships. But she had not had the opportunity to aim for an Olympic team before Tuesday night, and upon seeing that she had won, Smith began to tear up. The strongest emotion, Smith said, was relief, to finally breathe with the stress of trying to become an Olympian suddenly lifted.

“There were a ton of emotions after that race, and there still are, honestly,” Smith said. “I’m still trying to process everything, but it’s very special. That was a great race. I could have some things a little bit better. I had a great semis. I wish I could have repeated that, but you know what? It’s OK. I’m very happy with that race overall. Lots of relief, absolutely. I’m just very happy. It was very special. Now, going forward, I’m just excited to have some of the pressure off my back.”

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Rhyan White finished second to Regan Smith in the women’s 100 back at Olympic Trials — Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

In the battle for second place, Berkoff looked strong for much of the race, but she faded slightly at the very end. 2016 Olympian Olivia Smoliga was right there, but it was Alabama’s Rhyan White getting in just ahead and qualifying for her first Games. White swam a time of 58.60, and she has actually been faster this year, having swum a 58.60 that ranks fifth in the world in May in Atlanta.

I tried not to think about expecting anything. I was kind of freaking out toward the end thinking, my legs are kind of falling off. But luckily I pulled it through,” White said. “I was just going into this trying not to expect anything. I told my friend just before that whatever happens is supposed to happen and it’ll all fall into place.”

Smoliga took third in 58.72, off both her semifinals time of 58.72 and her season-best of 58.31 that ranks fourth in the world. However, Smoliga will not be able to compete in the event at the Tokyo Games. Berkhoff ended up fourth in 58.82, and Isabelle Stadden was fifth in 59.37.

One of the most eagerly anticipated showdowns of the Olympic Trials did not disappoint, and the final was an incredible showdown. Almost none of the top finishers would be pleased with their times under normal circumstances, but the job was simply to get onto the team, and both Smith and White accomplished that.

Between her rapid ascension to the pinnacle of women’s backstroke, Smith was forced to wait. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, she had no opportunities to compete at top form the year after breaking world records in both the 100 and 200 back. That gap in major races, the training time missed due to the pandemic and some resulting challenges in training and racing created some doubt. At the same time, fellow 19-year-old Kaylee McKeown was exploding onto the scene, blasting remarkable swims in both backstroke events, all leading to McKeown taking down Smith’s world record in the 100 back with a time of 57.45 less than 72 hours before Smith would contest the event at U.S. Olympic Trials.

Leading into Trials, Smith felt immense stress and the pressure. Was she still capable of such astounding performances, the likes of which had never been seem before 2019?

In the 100 back semifinals, we got a hint that she was. Smith swam the race in 57.92, only her second occasion breaking the 58-second barrier after her initial world record swim at the World Championships and the fourth-quickest performance in history, a time only McKeown and Smith herself had ever surpassed. Smith showed a big smile after that race, her confidence maybe restored to its highest point since the direct aftermath of the World Championships.

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Regan Smith after competing in the 100 back semifinals at Olympic Trials — Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

“It’s awesome. I haven’t been under 58 in a very long time, so that feels great,” Smith said after the semifinals.

As is always the case in an Olympic Trials final, the time did not matter as much as getting the hand on the wall. Smith admitted the adrenaline of the moment probably got the best at her and led her to over-exert herself on the first 50, which contributed to her slight fade at the end. Now that she is on the team, Smith thinks the pressure might lighten up heading into the remainder of her Trials program. She will be among the favorites to qualify for the Olympic team in the 200 fly, which has prelims beginning Wednesday morning, and the 200 back, where she remains the world record-holder, will begin on Friday.

After that, the question will turn to Tokyo, where the Smith vs. McKeown battle in both backstroke events will be a central focus. Asked about seeing her world record fall, Smith said she was happy for McKeown. “She had been very close to it multiple times, and so it was cool to see her grab it,” she said. “We have a great relationship. We don’t know each other super well, but I always send her a congratulatory text. I was just really, honestly, genuinely happy for her. And then it inspired me because I’ve had a tough year.”

That approach of congratulating and being happy for an in-the-pool rival stood in stark contrast to the swimmer seated next to Smith at the press conference podium, Lilly King, and at that point, King added, “What a nice kid,” prompting some laughter.

But Smith will surely have some work to do if she wants to go after McKeown in Tokyo, but simply getting Trials out of the way has restored some of her confidence that she will be up to the challenge.

“Now that I’ve made it and I can move on and compete with her head to head, it’s making me really excited to put my head down and train for a little bit, put my head down and see what I can do in Tokyo,” she said. “Now that this part’s behind me, yeah, I’m full-steam ahead, ready to go.”

Results

  1. Regan Smith 58.35
  2. Rhyan White 58.60
  3. Olivia Smoliga 58.72
  4. Katharine Berkoff 58.82
  5. Isabelle Stadden 59.37
  6. Phoebe Bacon 59.58
  7. Catie Deloof 59.87
  8. Lisa Bratton 1:00.24

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