Women’s ISL Performance of the Year: Kelsi Dahlia Breaks 100 Fly World Record

kelsi dahlia
Kelsi Dahlia -- Photo Courtesy: Mine Kasapoglu/ISL

Women’s ISL Performance of the Year: Kelsi Dahlia Breaks 100 Fly World Record

In the years following the 2016 Olympics, Kelsi Dahlia became the top American swimmer in the 100 butterfly. She won bronze in the event at the 2017 World Championships, silver at the 2018 Pan Pacific Championships and gold at the 2018 Short Course World Championships. She was part of two world-record-setting U.S. women’s 400 medley relays, at the 2017 and 2019 Worlds.

But in 2021, Dahlia found herself off the team this time as teenagers Torri Huske and Claire Curzan went 1-2. Both swam faster times than Dahlia had ever recorded, and Huske took down the American record. Dahlia, who recorded her fastest time in four years with a 56.56 in prelims, ended up fourth in the final.

Perhaps surprisingly, Dahlia’s immediate reaction to the result was not a feeling of piercing anguish. Instead, she felt mostly relief. The long build-up to the critical moment had weighed on Dahlia, including during the one-year delay of the Olympics.

“I was just glad it was done, even though it wasn’t the result that I had hoped for,” Dahlia said. “As hard as I was trying to not [put pressure on myself], it was still there, and I couldn’t deny that.”

Of course, Dahlia was still disappointed to not have finished in the top-two, but realizing that “Torri and Claire were the best people for our country” and that her performances at the meet really had been strong provided some solace. Then, she got her own chance to shine a few months later during the International Swimming League season, where she would again represent the Cali Condors.

Following Trials, Dahlia needed a reset, so she returned to the pool by swimming outdoors with her husband, former French national teamer Thomas Dahlia. She called that experience “really therapeutic,” and she found herself enjoying being in the water again. When she returned to regular training at Louisville, she began spending more time in the sprint group, and she swam only one practice per day. Dahlia explained that her no-doubles approach allowed her to push harder in the weight room and make significant strength gains there.

Dahlia had excelled during her college days at Louisville thanks to her powerful underwater dolphin kicks, and those skills were again on display in the short course meters format of the ISL as she recorded 17 wins spanning all three butterfly races and 50-meter butterfly skins. Six of those wins came in the 100 fly, where she lost only once all year. In her second of three playoff matches, she won the event in 54.89, just five hundredths off her American record of 54.84 and less than three tenths from Sarah Sjostrom’s world record of 54.61.

With that performance, Dahlia realized that she could break the world record in the final, but she wanted to keep her attention elsewhere in the days leading up to the race. “Whenever I focus on the time, it typically doesn’t happen, so I’m just trying to focus on my race strategy and staying relaxed,” Dahlia said.

In the ISL final, Dahlia faced off against a field that included Sjostrom as well as Tokyo Olympic bronze medalist Emma McKeon, but on that particular day, neither was any match for the American on this day. She went out in 25.85, a tenth under Sjostrom’s world-record pace (25.96). McKeon was just a tenth behind at that point, but Dahlia exploded off the walls and pulled away on the second 50. Dahlia finished in 54.59, clipping Sjostrom’s 2014 world record by two hundredths. McKeon finished second, more than a second behind, while Sjostrom ended up almost a second-and-a-half adrift.

“It’s so surreal. I don’t think it will hit me for a bit. It’s really special,” Dahlia said in an on-deck interview after the race. “That was an amazing heat. They were all great competitors. I was just sticking to my race plan. I wanted to get the match off to a great start for the Condors.”