U.S. Nationals: Regan Smith Swims Fourth-Fastest Time in History in 200 Backstroke at 2:03.80

Regan Smith -- Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

U.S. Nationals: Regan Smith Swims Fourth-Fastest Time in History in 200 Backstroke at 2:03.80

She was a world-record holder and world champion in the 200 backstroke at age 17, but when high-level swimming returned in 2021 after the COVID-19 pandemic, Regan Smith did not qualify for the U.S. Olympic team in what she had considered her best event. In the Olympic Trials final, Smith led for most of the race, but she faded on the final length as Rhyan White and Phoebe Bacon surged ahead. Smith went to Tokyo and earned three medals, but she was left dissatisfied with her efforts in the 200 back.

One year later, Smith again did not qualify for the U.S. team in the 200 back, with the same duo claiming the World Championships spots before winning medals in Budapest. Several months later, when she chose to turn professional and move her training to coach Bob Bowman’s group at Arizona State University, she made clear her ambition to return to the top in the 200 back.

Through all that time, Smith was still the world-record holder. Her 2:03.35 from the 2019 World Championships had survived more than three years, but that changed in March when Australia’s Kaylee McKeown swam a 2:03.14 to snatch away the mark. At the same time, Smith began finding her form once again in the event, swimming as fast as 2:04.76 in April, her fastest ever in-season time and her fastest time overall since 2019.

And entering the national final Wednesday evening, Smith said that she once again felt comfortable in the race.

My backstroke has felt really great all season,” Smith said after winning the 200 butterfly Tuesday. “I have a really rocky relationship with my backstroke, as people know by now. But it’s been feeling great all season. Honestly, the world record just felt like a target on my back, and all I wanted was to get it off me. I’m really happy that I can go into it and just be me and swim my race and not think about expectations and just do my thing.

“No matter what happens, I’m going to be proud of myself because I’m still competing in this race after everything I’ve been through with it, and I’m starting to love it again, which is the most important part.”

And after swimming four lengths of backstroke and beating the field by almost two seconds, Smith loved the result, with the swim as meaningful if not more meaningful than any other in her career. She swam in first place from the initial meters of the race, and immediately, she was out under world-record pace, flipping at 28.98 after one length and 1:00.00 after two. Still under pace with a 1:31.49 off the final turn, it became clear that Smith was about to achieve the swim she had been seeking for four years.

She touched the wall in 2:03.80, and immediately, the often-reserved Smith pounded the water and pumped her fist in celebration. The time was the fourth-fastest performance ever, with only McKeown’s time from earlier this year and a pair of Smith’s performances from 2019 ahead on the all-time list.

“It felt really great. I’ve just put in a lot of hard work with my backstroke this year. I just feel like I’ve come a long way with it the past year in particular. Bob has really helped me work hard on it, and I have a great group of guys to swim at ASU who are all great backstrokers. They’ve helped me a lot with confidence. I just think I’ve been really building up my confidence this whole year. This is great. I’m psyched,” Smith said.

“I wanted 2:03 so bad. That was my goal. To know that I did that, I had a bad finish, so I was nervous I wouldn’t be able to sneak under, but seeing that I still was able to do that, I was so psyched and so relieved, too. To know that I was still that swimmer was really gratifying.”

More work remains, including a world-title showdown with McKeown in one month, where it might take a 2:02 to win gold. After a race where she excelled over the first 150 meters before fading down the stretch, Smith knows that she will need to do a better job of sustaining her pace on the final length against the fast-finishing Aussie.

“I’m really excited for it. I think Kaylee and I swim the race differently, which is really cool. I think it’s dope how she’s able to finish, so I’m just really excited to hopefully push her and take her out really hard, and she’ll push me coming home. I think it will allow us both to have a really, really great swim. I’m just excited for it. I like her a lot as a person, so I’m just excited for good healthy competition,” Smith said.

“It’s cool to go back-and-forth and feel like I’m in the mix again. For a long time, I felt like I wasn’t there anymore and I wasn’t really a part of it, so it’s cool to have come back and really challenge her again, so I think it’s going to be awesome to compete against her in this event because it’s been so long.”

While Smith was alone ahead of the field, White was also having a fine performance two lanes over. White swam in second place for most of the race and ended up a half-second clear of Claire Curzan for the No. 2 spot. White’s time of 2:05.78 was six tenths off her best time of 2:05.13, but she still swam the third-fastest time in the world behind McKeown and Curzan. After winning bronze at Worlds last year, White will head to Fukuoka with a very real chance of another medal-winning performance.

White recently left Alabama after completing her five years of college swimming, relocating to Raleigh and the pro group at NC State University. She said that the switch has helped her recapture the mental aspects which have made her a successful racer.

“Going into tonight, I had no expectations,” White said. “I talked to (NC State coach) Braden (Holloway) beforehand, and I said, ‘I need someone else to tell me it doesn’t matter what happens.’ I’d been trying to tell myself this, but I needed to hear it from another person. He told me, ‘Have fun. You moved to Raleigh to have fun, to get back into racing, get back to where you were.’

“I was trying not to be nervous, not have expectations. I knew I had to go out a little faster than I did in the morning while trying to hold on for the back half. I enjoyed it a lot. It was fun to enjoy racing again.”

Curzan finished third in 2:06.35, a best time by a second. She has yet to qualify for the World Championships team, but this swim was a big improvement on her day one performance in the 100 free, where she missed the A-final. She will have further chances in the 100 fly, 100 back and 50 free. Kennedy Noble ended up fourth (2:06.54) while Bacon placed fifth (2:06.59).

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