Tokyo 2020 Olympic Swimming Previews: McKeown Staking Claim in Women’s 200 Back

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Women’s 200 Backstroke

After a shocking finish at the 2021 US Olympic Swimming Trials, the women’s 200 backstroke at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games will feature a field without world record holder Regan Smith. However, several women may still challenge for some of the fastest times in history, with one potentially pushing past Smith’s mark.

Prior to the pandemic, Australian Kaylee McKeown was one of many faces expected to contend for a medal in Tokyo, having placed second at the 2019 World Championships in the event with a time of 2:06.26. However, in late-2020, McKeown exploded in the pool, swimming some of the fastest 100 and 200 backstroke times in history to make her a gold medal threat in 2021. First, at the Queensland Medal Shots meet, McKeown scared Smith’s world record in the 200 back, posting a time of 2:04.49 to become the third-fastest performer in history. McKeown backed-up her performance in the 200 back by rocketing to a time of 57.93 in the 100 backstroke, making herself the 2nd fastest performer in history. 

Kaylee McKeown

Kaylee McKeown, Swimming Australia, Ltd.

Throughout 2021, McKeown continued to inch her way closer to Smith’s world records until she shattered the 100 backstroke world record at the 2021 Australian Olympic Trials. McKeown’s time of 57.45 chopped over a tenth off of Smith’s mark of 57.57. At the same competition, McKeown dropped a time of 2:04.28 in the 200, moving herself closer to Franklin and Smith in the all-time rankings. Without Smith racing the event in Tokyo, McKeown is the clear gold medal favorite, having been almost 2 seconds faster than any other swimmer in the field. 

At the 2021 US Olympic Trials, Smith faced a shocking third-place finish to Rhyan White and Phoebe Bacon down the stretch. Both swimmers posted times that currently rank within the top 5 in the world en route to claiming the roster spots for Tokyo, and with some international experience under their belts, both may challenge McKeown on the Olympic stage. 

White, like McKeown, was a beneficiary of the delayed Olympic Games. In 2020, White was largely unknown on the international, and even national, stages. Although she had represented the United States at the 2018 Youth Olympic Games, White had never been a member of the US National team. However, White rose to national recognition in the short course pool during the 2020-2021 NCAA season, where she won 4 SEC championship titles and had 2 runner-up finishes at the National Championships with the University of Alabama. White followed-up her performances in long course, dropping a personal best of 2:07.07 at the 2021 Atlanta Classic before blasting a 2:05.73 at the US Olympic Trials meet. With her time, White ranks 3rd in the world for 2021, and given her trajectory, she could drop more time in Tokyo to challenge McKeown for gold. 

Bacon has been a sizzling presence on the International stage for several years having represented the United States at the 2018 Junior Pan Pacific Championships and 2019 Pan American Championships, where she won the 100 backstroke. In 2021, Bacon also saw major drops in the short course pool, winning an NCAA title in the 200 backstroke (1:48.32) and placing 3rd overall in the 100 backstroke (50.39). Despite her successes, however, Bacon had never made a US A-team for an international meet before racing down Smith to touch second at Olympic Trials in a personal best of 2:06.46. Traditionally a 100 backstroker in long course, Bacon has made huge strides in this event, and will definitely be in the mix for a medal. 

Italian Margherita Panziera currently ranks as the 6th-fastest performer of all-time with her personal best of 2:05.56 that she swam at the 2021 Italian Olympic Trials meet. In the race, Panziera almost posted a negative-split, closing in a time of 31.74. Panziera is one of the most seasoned veterans in the field, having competed on the international stage since 2013. Given this experience, plus her closing speed, Panziera appears to be in the position to snag her first Olympic medal in the event. 

Emily Seebohm; Courtesy of Mine Kasapoglu for ISL With permission

Australian Emily Seebohm is another seasoned veteran, who has been competing internationally since 2007. The 2012 Olympic silver medalist in the 100 backstroke, Seebohm has experienced several ups and downs since then. At the 2016 Olympic Games, Seebohm didn’t even make the final in the event, placing 6th overall in her semi-final heat. Then, at the 2017 World Championships, Seebohm claimed gold in the 200 backstroke, swimming a new Australian Record of 2:05.68. However, she failed to qualify for Australia’s 2019 World Championships roster, missing her first major international team in over a decade. After contemplating retiring, Seebohm managed to qualify for Tokyo with a time of 2:06.38 at the Australian Olympic Trials meet that ranks her 4th in the world this season. If she is on in Tokyo, Seebohm will be a medal threat, but her irregular performances in recent years leave some room for her to fall in the rankings. 

Cassie Wild is the only person currently ranked in the top 10 in the world who doesn’t swim for the United States, Australia, or Italy. Wild, who represents Great Britain, had a monstrous swim at the 2021 European Championships, knocking nearly 2 seconds off of her best time to qualify for Tokyo in a time of 2:07.74. Although it will most likely take at least a 2:06 to medal in Tokyo, WIld certainly has the potential to reach that threshold with another drop. 

400m Individual Medley Women Final
Budapest – Hungary 17/5/2021
Duna Arena
XXXV LEN European Aquatic Championships
Photo Andrea Staccioli / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

Hungary has two viable candidates in the race in the form of Katinka Hosszu and Katalin Burian. Hosszu, the current world record holder in the IM events, was the silver medalist in this event at the 2016 Olympic Games. However, she hasn’t found the same success in the event since then, only finishing 8th overall at the 2019 World Championships. Hosszu has been known to take on some of the most rigorous schedules at major competitions, which could hurt her chances here at 32-years-old. Prior to the beginning of the 200 backstroke heats, she will already have potentially contested prelims, semi-finals, and finals of the 200 butterfly, 200 IM, and 400 IM. With this, it appears likely that Hosszu will opt to scratch the event, but she remains a contender if she remains in the race. 

Burian has a significantly smaller schedule at the Olympics, only swimming the 100 and 200 backstroke events. At the recent 2021 European Championship, Burian won a bronze medal in the 200 backstroke with a time of 2:07.87, coming within a half second of her personal best of 2:07.43 that she set at the 2018 edition of the meet. Although she will most likely be out of medal contention, Burian may sneak into the final given her recent performances.

Canadian Kylie Masse is another name to watch in this event. Masse, the former world record holder in the 100 backstroke, won a bronze medal in the 200 backstroke at the 2019 world championships. Masse’s personal best of 2:05.97 puts her right in the mix with the other swimmers, and given her trajectory in the 100 backstroke, she may have more left in the tank.

Note: Masse was originally excluded in the publication of this article, which has since been updated.

SwimSwam’s Picks

Swimmer Country
Best Time Since 2016 Olympics
1 Kaylee McKeown Australia 2:04.28
2 Rhyan White USA 2:05.73
3 Margherita Panziera Italy 2:05.56
4 Kylie Masse Canada 2:05.97
5 Phoebe Bacon USA 2:06.46
6 Cassie Wild Great Britain 2:07.74
7 Emily Seebohm Australia 2:05.68
8 Katalin Burian Hungary 2:07.43

Darkhorse Pick: Lena Grabowski (Austria) – The 18 year-old Grabowski had never broken the 2:10 barrier prior to the 2021 European Championships. Not only did Grabowski break that barrier during the meet, she shattered it, posting a new Austrian national record of 2:08.19 to claim 4th overall. Although she fell just short of the podium, Grabowski is peaking at the right time, and could push herself into the final in Tokyo. 

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2 months ago

Can’t knock the top three here – I have the same outcome in my picks. Fifth would be an ashtonishingly result for Cassie Wild, fingers crossed you’re right.

2 months ago

Over / under 2:04.0
I’ll go under here.
She swims a strong 200m

Reply to  Stephen
2 months ago

Where are you getting these over/under lines?

2 months ago

How is Kylie Masse not included in this?

Reply to  oldschoolswim
2 months ago

Yea, she should definitely final..

Last edited 2 months ago by SAMUEL HUNTINGTON
Reply to  oldschoolswim
2 months ago

Are they projecting her to miss the final/not race it?

Sapnu puas
2 months ago

Burian has the ugliest technique I think I’ve ever seen at an elite level? It’s so awful I kind of enjoy watching her

Reply to  Sapnu puas
2 months ago

Her head bobs up and down like 8 inches with every stroke. Hard to imagine her doing a water bottle drill successfully haha

2 months ago

Not sure if it was just oversight, but pretty bold to not have Masse in the top 8. I would not be surprised if she nabbed the bronze here.

Gen D
2 months ago

Kylie Masse went 2:06.Something at Canadian trials. Surely she should be ahead of Burian, Grabowski and Wild at least? I haven’t looked at Olympic psych sheets yet, did she scratch the event?

Edit: just checked, she did not scratch.

Last edited 2 months ago by Gen D
Reply to  Gen D
2 months ago

Yep, she’s listed with a seed time of 2:05.94.

McKeown heavy favorite for gold. Panziera, Masse, Bacon, Seebohm, and White in the running for medals. I am liking Panziera and Masse here, still fairly young with lots of experience.

2 months ago

I think this is McKeown strongest chance for a Gold medal in the 3 events that she will participate in, while the other 2 100 back & 200 IM, she is also favourite for, this I feel, if she swims to her best, she will win.

Reply to  Robbos
2 months ago

This is Mckeown strongest event i agree but i would say watch out for white she closed on smith in the 200 back so if shes close she will real in Mckeown

Reply to  Robbos
1 month ago

Fully agree, Rob. This is the one, of the three, where she appears to have a clear margin over the field. If she brings her A game, then she should win emphatically.

Rest of the podium ? Strongly leaning to Panziera being there and I’ve got her pegged for silver. Bronze, however is tricky. Whilst I think Masse is better over the shorter distance; she definitely has to be respected. Can’t see Seebohm turning back time sufficiently to be a factor. Whilst I think some Americans may be inflating White to some extent, its hard to bet against one of them being thereabouts.

  1. McKeown 2. Panziera 3. one of the Americans Spoiler: Masse
2 months ago

Shame Seebhom will not win an individual gold medal in her Olympic career, she will go down as one of the best backstrokers in her generation & I hope she can jag a medal here.

Reply to  Robbos
2 months ago

Did she ever say what happened to her in Rio? Going in as double world champion .. is it the endo issue plaguing her back then ?

Reply to  Verram
2 months ago

Yes. Endo. She’s said it in a few interviews.

Reply to  Verram
2 months ago

She was diagnosed with endo going into rio, but didn’t want to use it as an excuse .

Reply to  Nick
2 months ago

Yes unlike Campbell, who admitted she choked & McEvoy, who also choked, Seebohm actually was ill/injured in RIO.

Reply to  Robbos
1 month ago

It was a factor but doesn’t explain how she swam so erratically in both her individual swims yet was able to pull herself together in the 4XMED.

Her times in 2016 leading in were significantly below her 2015 but were still very much in the medal mix for both 100 & 200. Can’t help thinking that pressure (maybe partly from being part of an underperforming team) played a significant part in ‘scrambling her head’ whereas she may’ve walked away with at least 1 individual medal had she kept it together.

About Nicole Miller

Nicole Miller

Nicole has been with SwimSwam since April 2020, as both a reporter and social media contributor. Prior to joining the SwimSwam platform, Nicole also managed a successful Instagram platform, amassing over 20,000 followers. Currently, Nicole is pursuing her B.S. in Biomedical Engineering at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, where she is an active …

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