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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Drama King
1 year ago

Gold – Kaylee Mckeown – 2.03.98
Silver – Margherita Panziera – 2.05.49
Bronze – Phoebe Bacon – 2.05.88

4. Rhyan White – 2.05.93
5. Kyle Masse – 2.06.24
6. Emily Seebohm – 2.06.79
7. Katalin Burian – 2.07.13
8. Wang Xueer – 2.07.34 ( ???)

Dark Horse – Taylor Ruck

1 year ago

I think Ryan White If she pulls a shock and wins a minor medal in the 100 back I think she will win the 200 back she keeps dropping time like maya Dirado did in rio…

1 year ago

Pinnacle Odds To Win Gold

McKeown -371 (78.8%)
Panziera +489 (17%)
Masse +502 (16.6%)
White +570 (14.9%)
Seebohm +1053 (8.7%)
Bacon +1073 (8.7%)

Unibet has McKeown at a cheaper price of -225. I think that’s pretty reasonable. Only question is who will get on the podium with her.

Do you think there is any value for a podium bet with like Cassie Wild (+2500 to win, maybe +800 to medal) or Grabowski (+5000 to win, maybe +1500 to medal)? Or will silver and bronze come from Panz/Masse/White/Bacon/Seebohm?

Reply to  Gambler
1 year ago

I think White could be the upset here. I don’t really see her winning, but I wouldn’t put it past her to nab silver.

Reply to  Gambler
1 year ago

They had McKeown at 2.25 to win when they opened, great present from them.

1 year ago

Unpopular opinion, WR holders should be granted a free spot that doesn’t count against a teams eligible members. Golf lets former masters winners play every masters, and while everyone knows they won’t win, it’s cool to see. And in Regans case, we won’t see the best 200m Backstroker ever in her prime. Let’s remember that sports are purely entertainment for most and a way to learn discipline for us swammers that has followed us even after it’s over, and it’s entertaining to see the best ever race. Under my new rule, the story of Lochtes comeback story would’ve continued and it would’ve brought more attention to swimming from the general population, which brings in more money which allows swimming to… Read more »

Reply to  Ragnar
1 year ago

So you think sun yang should swim in Tokyo then ? Lol

Old Man Chalmers
Reply to  Verram
1 year ago

biedermann to take wellbrock’s 400 free spot

Reply to  Ragnar
1 year ago

michael phelps 2020 400 IM?????????????

Reply to  Ragnar
1 year ago

Not so unpopular, I’ve said for years that there needs to be some ‘pre qualified’ or other means to qualify outside of countries own trials for those very select few who perform at the very top end, to add to the entertainment value and add to the professionalism of the sport. Similar as you say to golf, some tennis, etc. For Olympics it would be difficult to add a great deal of numbers to the mix, my suggestions either like yours:

  • world record holder gets a bye
  • previous years world champion gets a bye
  • Fina “C” or other 3rd standard, very hard top 8 or so in the world, that allows a 3rd entry per country at their trials
… Read more »

The unoriginal Tim
Reply to  Ragnar
1 year ago

Not world record holders but some version of this idea could be used to ensure we get to see all the top swimmers.

I would like to see all swimmers in the world top 16 (using times from the current calendar year) that are not picked by their national sporting body get a wildcard invite from the IOC. That way we get the best attending. It would stop selectors leaving people at home because they set the QTs well below FINA A etc. This approach would address the small fields we see in Womens 2Fly amd W4IM which frankly are a disgrace. There are only 17 swimmers entered in the W200 Fly and Austrailia have left Dekkers at home. I… Read more »

Reply to  The unoriginal Tim
1 year ago

Who pays for them? What happens if a country consistently just doesn’t choose their best swimmers because they know that the IOC will have to invite them?

The unoriginal Tim
Reply to  Sub13
1 year ago

The IOC can just get sponsors to pay. They could even have branded teams like Team Coke and Team McDonalds instead of countries.

I would find it amusing to see Dekkers swim for Team Coke and take down the US swimmer.

Casas 100 back gold in Fukuoka
1 year ago

This one should have been one of the best races to watch at the Games, but now with Smith out, it’s becoming less exciting. McKeown should win easily. If she loses it will be one of the biggest upsets in Tokyo.

Reply to  Casas 100 back gold in Fukuoka
1 year ago

I would say she’s a favourite but not the heaviest favourite. Dressel in 100 fly, Peaty in 100 breast, King in 100 breast and Katie in 1500 free would surely be considered the most locked events.

Casas 100 back gold in Fukuoka
Reply to  Sub13
1 year ago

more than 1.5s in 200 is a big advantage.
Agree with Peaty, Dressel and Ledecky, but I don’t think King’s 100 breast is more locked than McKeown 200 back.

Reply to  Casas 100 back gold in Fukuoka
1 year ago

I somewhat recall susie O’Neill had a massive lead over misty hyman leading into the sydney Olympics in terms of personal bests before the Games so anything is possible

1 year ago

I’d be interested in understanding the author’s thinking on Masse. Was it a mistake/oversight, or does she really think Masse won’t even be top 8? She looks to be clearly in the mix for a medal – and hard to imagine a scenario where she doesn’t even make final. Bad call on this one.

Reply to  CanSwimFan
1 year ago

I’m thinking it’s an oversight as they’re too busy focusing on regan smith not making it lol

Reply to  CanSwimFan
1 year ago

It was an oversight. Our picks have been updated.

1 year ago

1. McKeown
2. White
3. Panziera
4. Masse
5. Seebhom
6. Bacon
7. Wild
8. Burian

1 year ago

Seebohm did not win the silver in this event in London (it was the 100m)…also she is two time world champion in this event in 2015 and 2017…..

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. After competing for the swim …

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