World Championships Throwback: Rebecca Soni Ties Up in 200 Breast Final in 2009; Nadja Higl Scores Upset

Rebecca Soni tied up in the 200 breast final in 2009 allowing Serbia's Nadja Higl to win the gold medal; Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

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Throwback race between Rebecca Soni and Nadja Higl. Each week leading up to the 2019 World Championships in Gwangju, Swimming World will do a special look-back on some of the most memorable races in World Championships history.

Read up on last week’s throwback: Men’s 200 Free – 2007

Women’s 200 Breast, 2009 World Championships – Rome

It has been ten years since the 2009 World Championships in Rome. It was one of the most memorable swim meets of all-time outside of the Olympics with 42 world records falling throughout the eight day competition. Almost every single event saw a world record fall during the competition and the women’s 200 breast was no exception.

Canada’s Annamay Pierse took down Rebecca Soni’s world record in the semi-finals with a 2:20.12, lowering the 2:20.22 set at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. It was the first time a Canadian held a world record in the women’s 200 breaststroke since Allison Higson set it in 1988 before the Seoul Olympic Games.

Soni was the second seed heading into finals with a 2:20.93. It was fully expected that the winner was going to have to go under 2:20 and become the first woman to do so. Soni was a 2:20.38 at the US Nationals a few weeks before Worlds and it seemed highly likely she was going to win the gold medal in Rome and break the world record in the process. But all of a sudden, Pierse stood in her way and the two were set for a showdown in Rome.

The Race between Rebecca Soni and Nadja Higl:

In the final, Soni took the race out hard. Very hard. In fact, I don’t think any woman has gone out this fast in the ten years since. Soni was out a 1:05.73 in the final. The world record pace was a 1:07.28 and she was about a second and a half under the world record pace. She was almost two full seconds ahead of second place Pierse at 1:07.67. The question was whether she was going to hold this pace and just smash the world record or she was going to come back to the field and just die.

She was the Olympic Champion, there was no way she was going to die.

At the 150, she was a 1:42.20, still well under the world record pace of 1:43.42. Soni was two and a half seconds ahead of second place Pierse at 1:44.66. 50 more meters and the world record and the gold medal were hers. Just 50 more meters. That wall was so close.

It was very clear Soni had started to tie up on the last 50 when the world record line started to get away from her. There was a tight battle behind her for the minor medals between Pierse, Austria’s Mirna Jukic and Serbia’s Nadja Higl.

Jukic was fourth in Beijing the year before and also made the final in Athens. She was an established name on the international stage but hadn’t been higher than third at the world level. Pierse was sixth in Beijing but now had the title of “world record holder” to her name as the 25-year-old was looking for her first medal at the world level.

Those watching could see Soni was struggling to get to the wall. She fought hard with every stroke but the other three were starting to catch her. The four of them got to the wall and the winner was…Higl? Pierse was second, Jukic was third, and Soni was left off the podium. The winning time was 2:21.62, nowhere close to the world record.

Surprising Moment

It was a completely surprising moment when the 22-year-old from Serbia touched first. It was so clear that Soni was going to win for 190 meters that nobody was prepared for a different result. When it showed Higl touched first, it took the production crew 12 seconds to even get a camera focused on Higl to get a winner’s reaction. Usually it takes about four or five seconds for the winner to be shown on camera but Higl’s win was so unexpected that it seemed like the crew was scrambling to get any sort of footage of her because she swam the whole race unnoticed.

At the end of each race, there is always a short highlight reel of the race, usually equipped with close-up shots of the winners. But the replay of this race only featured generic shots of the race and included a close-up of Pierse, who may have been incorrectly identified as Higl in the scrum because she had a white cap.

“Sometimes, it’s just not there,” Soni said after the race. “The first 100 felt really good, and I just started to cramp up and didn’t have enough. Sometimes, it just doesn’t work out.”

Higl, who placed 33rd a year prior in the 200 breast at the Olympic Games, became Serbia’s first ever gold medalist in women’s swimming at the World Aquatics Championships with her swim. She and Milorad Cavic won Serbia’s first medals at the World Championships since Darjan Petric won bronze in the 1500 in 1982 for Yugoslavia. Cavic won the 50 butterfly earlier in the meet and won the silver medal the next night in the famous 100 fly duel with Michael Phelps.

Results:

  1. Nadja Higl, SRB, 2:21.62 (European Record)
  2. Annamay Pierse, CAN, 2:21.84
  3. Mirna Jukic, AUT, 2:21.97 (Austrian Record)
  4. Rebecca Soni, USA, 2:22.15
  5. Rie Kaneto, JPN, 2:23.03
  6. Nanaka Tamura, JPN, 2:23.12
  7. Martha McCabe, CAN, 2:23.36
  8. Joline Hostman, SWE, 2:23.62

Aftermath:

Soni remained unbeaten after this race, winning the Pan Pac title in 2010, the World title in 2011, and the Olympic gold in 2012. After she won the gold medal in 2011, Swimming World wrote:

“WHILE she didn’t threaten either the world record or the textile best in the women’s 200 breast, USA’s Rebecca Soni completed what she set out to do and that was erase one of the biggest stains on her career.

With a dominant 2:21.47 in the women’s 200 breast, Soni collected the world title at the FINA World Long Course Championships. Similar to a boxer gaining some revenge for a loss on their record with a win in a rematch, Soni had been looking to wipe away the taint of her 2009 performance in the women’s 200 breast.”

She became the first woman to break 2:20 in the event in the final of the Olympic Games in 2012 with a 2:19.59. Her record was broken the next year by Rikke Pedersen at the 2013 Worlds which still stands today.

Higl had a hard time getting back to her 2009 form. She was eighth at the European Championships in 2010 with a 2:29. Higl returned to the World Championship final in 2011 where she placed sixth with a 2:25, which was her fastest time outside of 2009. She placed 25th in the London Olympic Games in 2012 with a 2:28. She has not swam in a meet since 2013.

Pierse was derailed by illnesses in 2010 but swam a 2:23 at Pan Pacs for a bronze medal. She returned to the World Championship final in 2011 where she placed eighth with a 2:27. She failed to make the Olympic team in 2012 and retired at the age of 29.

Jukic retired after the 2009 Worlds as she had already achieved a medal at every major international meet. Her bronze in the 200 in 2009 added to her bronze she won in the 2005 Worlds in the 200 and the bronze she won in the 2008 Olympics in the 100.

Rie Kaneto stuck around the longest as she placed fifth in this race in Rome ten years ago at the age of 20. She won the Olympic gold medal in 2016 at the age of 27 for her first medal at the Worlds or Olympics. Kaneto retired in March 2018.