SwimmingAmerican Women's Backstroke Remains an All-Time Strength

American Women’s Backstroke Remains an All-Time Strength

American Women’s Backstroke Remains an All-Time Strength

Over the weekend at the European U23 Championships, Cal swimmer Isabelle Stadden shined in the backstroke races, claiming first place in the 100 and 200-meter events and a runnerup result in the 50 back. The 21-year-old from Blaine, Minn., won bronze in the 200 back at the 2021 Short Course World Championships, and she currently ranks 11th in the world in the 100 back and 14th globally over 200 meters.

Despite that, Stadden’s chances at breaking onto a senior-level American team because of the country’s talent and ridiculous depth in the stroke. For instance, Stadden owns a season-best time of 59.07 in the 100 back, which she recorded in her fifth-place finish at U.S. Nationals in June. That time would have been good enough for fourth place at the World Championships, just ahead of Kylie Masse’s 59.09. Two of those swimmers who finished ahead of Masse were Americans, silver medalist Regan Smith and bronze medalist Katharine Berkoff, so the only international swimmer who beat the fifth-place time from U.S. Nationals was Australia’s Kaylee McKeown.

An examination of the full 100 back world rankings shows nine swimmers having broken 59 this year, four of them Americans, with Claire Curzan and Olivia Smoliga, both bronze medalists in this event at past World Championships, having missed this year’s team in the event despite sub-59 showings at Nationals.

The landscape in the 200 back is even more jarring. McKeown is ranked first in the world, having set the world record of 2:03.14 in March, and she is followed by five Americans. Yes, after all the summer’s major meets are concluded, American swimmers still occupy five of the top six slots in the world rankings. Regan Smith, history’s No. 2 all-time performer, is second at 2:03.80, followed by Rhyan White (2:05.77), Curzan (2:06.35), Kennedy Noble (2:06.54) and Phoebe Bacon (2:06.59).

Sixth in the world rankings is China’s Peng Xuwei at 2:06.74, a time that she swam to win bronze behind McKeown and Smith in Fukuoka. White qualified for that final but ended up sixth, almost three seconds shy of her season-best time. But at Nationals, when all five Americans swam their season-best marks, all went quicker than the eventual bronze-medal-winning time.

Qualification for that Worlds final required a time of 2:09.74, with Aussie Jenna Forrester edging out Hungary’s Eszter Szabo-Feltothy by six hundredths. Four weeks earlier in Indianapolis, Jo Jo Ramey required a mark of 2:09.69 to earn the No. 8 seed at the American selection meet. Plenty of countries have depth in one event — Australia is an obvious example with the Dolphins’ strength in the women’s 100 freestyle — but an entire heat of swimmers quick enough to make a Worlds final? Unheard of in any country, in any event.

Natalie Coughlin won two Olympic gold medals in the women’s 100 backstroke — Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

And this run of incredible backstroke times? Nothing new. In the 100 back, the run has lasted almost uninterrupted for more than two decades. Natalie Coughlin began the streak when captured her first world title in 2001 and became the first woman under 1:00 one year later. Since then, an American has reached the podium in the women’s 100 back at every World Championships or Olympics except two: in 2003, when an ill Coughlin withdrew from the event, and in 2015. In that span, Coughlin, Hayley McGregoryKathleen Baker and most recently Smith have all owned the world record at one point or another while Coughlin (2004 & 2008) and Missy Franklin (2012) won Olympic gold medals, with Margaret Hoelzer (2008), Baker (2016) and Smith (2021) also reaching the podium.

At the 2008 Olympic Trials, McGregory owned the world record for one heat, beating Coughlin’s existing mark in prelims before Coughlin took it back in the final heat. The next day, Coughlin became the first woman ever to swim under 59 while McGregory missed the Olympic team, placing just behind Hoelzer in a heartbreaking result. At that point, only three American women had ever broken 1:00; now, that number is 29, and 10 of them have broken 58. Coughlin’s all-time best of 58.94 ranks ninth all-time in the U.S., with Stadden 10th at 58.99.

The successful stretch in the 200 back commenced more recently, with Hoelzer snatching the world record at the 2008 Trials before winning Olympic silver in Beijing. The next two Olympic gold medals belonged to Americans, with Franklin securing the 2012 title in dominating fashion, setting a world record of 2:04.06 that would last seven years, and Maya DiRado claiming gold in a magical, come-from-behind effort in 2016, winning by six hundredths over Katinka Hosszu.

The last time an American was the undisputed top backstroker in the world was 2019, when Smith beat world records in both distances at the World Championships, becoming the first woman ever under 2:04 in the 200 and first ever under 58 in the 100 (more than a decade after Coughlin paved the way under both 1:00 and 59). Smith struggled in the Olympic year but has regained her footing in 2023, even though McKeown remains slightly ahead.

The all-time global rankings in women’s backstroke paint a red, white and blue picture. In the 100 back, Smith sits second all-time while Baker and Berkoff are fourth and fifth, respectively. Behind them, Smoliga ranks 10th followed by Franklin (11th), Curzan (12th) and White (14th). Over four laps, four of the top seven performers in history are Americans: Smith, Franklin, Bacon and White. The only others in that territory are McKeown plus Kirsty Coventry and Anastasia Zueva, who reached 2:04-territory during the polyurethane-suit era.

To sum up, domination of the all-time rankings and this year’s world rankings plus an extremely consistent presence on international podiums stretching back a decade (at least). So to any aspiring elite backstrokers in the United States, good luck.

Your greatest challenge will be breaking through to the international level. Once you’re there, your best times are likely already good enough to get on the podium.

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