Women’s 100 Backstroke: The Best Race of Olympic Trials Just Got Even Faster

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Olivia Smoliga is one of the top contenders for the U.S. Olympic team in the 100 back -- Photo Courtesy: Mine Kasapoglu / ISL

Women’s 100 Backstroke: The Best Race of Olympic Trials Just Got Even Faster

For almost two years, the women’s 100 backstroke at the United States Olympic Trials has been billed as the showdown of showdowns, a clash with just two Olympic berths available and multiple medal contenders certain to be locked out. The field was projected to include the world record-holder, the most recent previous world-record holder, the 2019 World Championships bronze medalist and the 2019 Pan American Games champion. No one would dispute that this was the race to circle for the Olympic Trials, the most competitive event on the program.

And maybe we were still underselling this 100 back. After three races at three different meets in the eastern U.S. on Saturday night, the field looks even more competitive and has even more players in the mix for spots on the Olympic team.

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Regan Smith, the world record-holder in the 100 backstroke, at the TYR Pro Swim Series in Indianapolis — Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Regan Smith went first, as the world record-holder swam a 58.77 at the TYR Pro Swim Series in Indianapolis, topping her morning swim effort of 58.81 that was her fastest swim of the year by more than a half second. Solid but certainly overshadowed by Australia’s Kaylee McKeown, Smith’s top challenger for Olympic gold medals in both backstroke events. McKeown has fired off startling swims left and right this season, and less than 24 hours prior, she had swum a 57.63 100 back to just miss Smith’s world record. But for Smith, the swim was solid, nothing to be concerned with a month out from Olympic Trials.

But shortly after that, Olivia Smoliga and Rhyan White each recorded stunning 100 back efforts at the Atlanta Classic. Smoliga, the aforementioned World Championships bronze medalist who also was the Olympic Trials winner in 2016 and an Olympic finalist in Rio, swam a 58.31. That beat her personal best by four tenths and continued an impressive meet for Smoliga, who also swam a 1:57.04 in the 200 free Friday to move herself into 800 free relay Olympic contention.

White finished just behind in 58.43, beating her own best time of 58.98 from the morning prelims, which in turn crushed her previous best of 59.66 from the TYR Pro Swim Series in Mission Viejo last month. Before that, White’s best time had been a 1:00.60 from 2018. White has been a fast riser all year, and she is carrying momentum from a junior year at the University of Alabama which culminated with runnerup finishes in the 100 and 200-yard back at the NCAA championships. But it was impossible to foresee White coming from completely off the radar and developing into a national-level threat so quickly.

As if that was insufficient for the evening, Claire Curzan blasted a 58.82 while competing in her home pool in Cary, N.C., and that took down her previous best time of 59.37. Curzan is expected to be among the Trials favorites in the 100 fly, 50 free and perhaps other events.

So, to recap, that’s four Americans who broke 59 in the span of a little over an hour. Prior to Saturday, no American had swum under 59 yet in 2021.

Eight total Americans have ever broken 59, and one of the others is Phoebe Bacon, who won the Pan American Games gold medal in 2019 and has been as fast as 58.63. Bacon finished second behind Smith in Indianapolis in 59.62, but her recent form suggests her best shot at making the Olympics could be in the 200 back. Bacon won the NCAA title this year in the 200-yard back and edged out Smith for the win in that event Friday, 2:06.84 to 2:06.90.

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Kathleen Baker held the world record in the women’s 100 backstroke from 2018 to 2019 — Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

The other active American who has been sub-59 is Kathleen Baker, who won silver in the 100 back at the 2016 Olympics and set the world record at 58.00 back in 2018, only for Smith to lower the mark a year later. Baker did not compete this weekend, but she swam a 59.45 at the Mission Viejo meet last month.

The final two Americans who have been under 59 are both Olympic champions, 2004 and 2008 gold medalist Natalie Coughlin and 2012 winner Missy Franklin. But the active swimmers continue to bump that golden duo down the all-time American list, which now goes in this order: Smith, Baker, Smoliga, Franklin, White, Bacon, Curzan, Coughlin.

In the all-time world rankings for the 100 back, Smoliga jumped to ninth, White moved to 11th, and Curzan also ranks in the top 25 (while Smith and Baker continue to rank first and third, respectively). The Americans now dominate the 2021 world rankings in the 100 back: Smoliga ranks third, White fourth, Smith sixth and Curzan seventh.

It’s not unprecedented for the Americans to be so deep in one event that would-be medal contenders do not qualify for the Olympics. Take the men’s 100 back, where the Americans have put two on the podium for three straight Olympics. The third-place finishers at each of those Trials—Ryan Lochte in 2008, David Plummer in 2012 and Matt Grevers in 2016—would each have certainly been in the mix if they had gotten past the gauntlet of Olympic Trials or perhaps if the two-per-country rule were not in effect.

But here we have possibly six swimmers who could be medal contenders if the cards break right, and don’t count out someone like 100-yard back NCAA champion Katharine Berkoff jumping into that mix as well. And given her world record credentials, Smith remains the favorite for the first qualifying spot in the event, which would mean only one spot left available for a big crowd of swimmers.

That stockpile of depth could push the women to incredible swims, so could a 57-second performance be required just to qualify for the Olympics? That’s especially insane to consider when remembering that Katinka Hosszu’s 2016 Olympic gold medal-winning time was 58.45, and Kylie Masse won the 2019 world title in 58.60. Smoliga and White each swam faster on a random Saturday evening in mid-May!

All that’s certain in this extraordinary event is that whoever does survive the test in Omaha will head to Tokyo as a medal favorite.

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