Throwback Thursday: When Tara Kirk Completed An Undefeated Career In Style In 100 Breaststroke

STANFORD, CA - OCTOBER 3: Tara Kirk of the Stanford Cardinal during Stanford's 170-102 win over San Jose State on October 3, 2008 at the Avery Aquatic Center in Stanford, California.

Throwback Thursday: When Tara Kirk Completed An Undefeated Career In Style In 100 Breaststroke

In this Throwback Thursday, we visit the 2004 college campaign and Tara Kirk’s global standard at the NCAA Championships in the short-course meters version of the 100 breaststroke. The effort enabled Kirk to put a bow on an extraordinary college career at Stanford University.


There was an added dynamic to the NCAA Championships of the 2004 season. After months of racing in the short-course yards format, the predominant setup for collegiate action in the United States, the title competitions featured a change in approach. In their season-ending meets, athletes were asked to navigate the short-course meters format.

Because 2004 was an Olympic year, the Games eventually held in Athens, officials opted to contest racing in a course that allowed for global comparisons. This path was followed in successful fashion in 2000, when the Olympics unfolded in Sydney, and another go would provide an opportunity to establish world records.

Tara Kirk took advantage.


Heading into the NCAA Championships at the Texas A&M Recreation Center, Kirk was the undisputed favorite to claim victory in the 100 breaststroke. She carried an unblemished record in the event for her career. Thirty-five starts. Thirty-five wins. No slipups in dual-meet action. A perfect run through the Pac-12 Champs. Three consecutive triumphs at the NCAA Champs.

As much as her 35-0 record shined brilliantly, Kirk was not immune to the pressure that is annually felt at NCAAs. It’s the norm, and college swimming’s seasonal exclamation point is a unique meet, as it combines individual expectations with the heat of delivering for the team. Ahead of the NCAA Championships, a surprise outcome jolted another Stanford program.

During Kirk’s preparation for the postseason, the Stanford men’s basketball team saw its 26-0 start to the season come to a halt with an early-March loss to the University of Washington. During an interview right before NCAAs, Kirk said that defeat weighed on her as she managed her own unbeaten streak (over several seasons). However, the anticipation of a big performance and experience ultimately enabled Kirk to enter competition in a strong state of mind.

“I definitely felt that I had a really good chance to break the world record that day,” Kirk told Swimming World in a recent interview. “My converted times (from yards to meters) indicated that I had a good shot, and I was swimming great. I suppose I did feel pressure to perform, but it seemed like more of an opportunity. Short course, at NCAAs, that was generally a pretty comfortable scenario for me.”

As Kirk stepped onto the blocks for the final of the 100 breaststroke, she was in control. Coming off an NCAA record of 1:05.44 from the preliminaries, a fourth straight crown was not in dispute. The question was whether Kirk could take down the world record, which belonged to Australian star Leisel Jones at 1:05.09.

By the time Kirk hit the midway point of the race, Jones’ global standard was on life support. Kirk made the turn in 30.29, which was good for an American record, and she continued to surge over the last two laps. As Kirk touched the wall, the scoreboard flashed a mark of 1:04.79, making the senior the first woman to crack the 1:05 barrier. Kirk was so dominant that runner-up Sarah Poewe, a German from the University of Georgia, was more than a second back in 1:06.02.

Kirk’s world record endured for more than two years, until Jones fired back at the 2006 Australian Short Course Championships. On back-to-back days, Jones popped performances of 1:04.12 and 1:03.86, and got as low as 1:03.00 by the 2009 season. These days, the world record stands at 1:02.36, jointly owned by Lithuania’s Ruta Meilutyte and Jamaica’s Alia Atkinson.

Although her effort in the 100 breaststroke served as the highlight of her NCAA farewell, Kirk also bested the field in the 200 breaststroke, that win—in an American record time of 2:20.70—marking her 19th straight in the event. Overall, she departed college competition with 11 collegiate titles, and was named NCAA Swimmer of the Year for the 2003-04 campaign.


With her college days completed, Kirk turned her attention to the biggest summer of her career. In Long Beach, Calif., a second-place finish in the 100 breaststroke at the United States Olympic Trials secured a berth to the Athens Games. When the Olympics returned to their birthplace, Kirk posted a sixth-place showing in the 100 breast. She also earned a silver medal in the 400 medley relay, thanks to her breaststroke leg during the event’s preliminary heats. She shared her Olympic experience with her younger sister, Dana, who represented Team USA in the 200 butterfly.

“It meant a lot to me,” Kirk said of her world record. “I really appreciated being able to end my college career on such a high note. But it was also an Olympic year, so it wasn’t something where there was a lot of opportunity to dwell on it. There were bigger challenges coming just a few months ahead to work toward.”

After the Athens Games, Kirk earned the bronze medal in the 100 breaststroke at the 2005 World Championships and was the gold medalist in the event at the 2006 Pan Pacific Championships. At the 2007 World Championships, Kirk picked up a silver medal in the 100 breaststroke and secured bronze in the 50 breaststroke.

At the 2008 Olympic Trials, a third-place finish in the 100 breaststroke left Kirk shy of an invitation to the Beijing Games. When Jessica Hardy, the winner of the event at Trials, failed a doping test, it appeared Kirk might be named to the team. Instead, the deadline for Kirk to be instituted as a replacement had passed, and Kirk was left home.


Now married and a mom, Kirk is a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security and an associate professor in the Department of Environmental Health and Engineering at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. She has played a critical role during the COVID-19 pandemic, including providing input on the reopening of K-12 schools and analyzing non-pharmaceutical interventions to control the spread of the coronavirus.

Although it has been nearly two decades since she was a star athlete in northern California and a regular fixture on the United States national team, Kirk fondly looks back on her career. Her time at Stanford was particularly special.

“I had the best time at Stanford,” Kirk said. “I look back and just think about the opportunities and the open doors and am just so thankful that I went to Stanford.

“Although a lot of work went into both my swimming and my studies, it still seems like such an idyllic time for me, filled with thrilling challenges, an amazing support system, good friends and really nice weather. I see it as the launch pad for the life I have today and am certainly grateful for that.”

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