2021 U.S. Olympic Trials Previews: Murphy Seeks Bounce-Back in Men’s 100 Back

See all of our U.S. Olympic Trials previews & picks here.


Men’s 100 Back

  • World Record: Ryan Murphy (USA) – 51.85 (2016)
  • American Record: Ryan Murphy (USA) – 51.85 (2016)
  • US Open Record: Aaron Peirsol (USA) – 51.94 (2009)
  • World Junior Record: Kliment Kolesnikov (RUS) – 52.53 (2018)
  • 2016 Olympic Champion: Ryan Murphy (USA) – 51.97
  • 2016 US Olympic Trials Champion: Ryan Murphy – 52.26
  • Wave I Cut: 56.59
  • Wave II Cut: 55.51

For years, the men’s 100 backstroke has been one of the most consistently brutal event at any Team USA selection meet. Over the last 25 years, the U.S. has won every single Olympic gold medal in the men’s 100 back, and typically the third-place swimmer left off the Olympic team has been a true gold medal threat himself.

Case in point: the last three ‘Trials Thirds’ in this race have been Matt Grevers (2016), David Plummer (2012), and Ryan Lochte (2008).

In 2021, though, the field is arguably a little bit less loaded than it’s been in past years. Plummer is retired. Lochte doesn’t really swim the event anymore. Grevers just turned 36 and is almost ten years removed from his lifetime-best.

The favorite, without question, is Ryan Murphywho broke his way onto the 2016 Olympic team at age 20 and went on to break the world record in Rio. Murphy has had his ups and downs since – he was 51.8 in Rio, then just 52.3 in 2017, falling to bronze at Worlds. He cut back to 51.9 in 2018, then struggled again to a 52.4 in 2019 and missed the Worlds podium entirely.

In terms of Olympic Trials storylines, how Murphy swims at Trials will probably start to answer a lot of questions about how he should be viewed heading into the Olympics. (The defending Olympic champ and reigning world record-holder still in his athletic prime at age 25 should be an obvious choice for Olympic gold favorite, but that roller coaster of year-to-year production complicates things a little until we see if we’re getting Odd-Year-Murphy or Even-Year-Murphy).

But domestically, Murphy really has no questions to answer. He’s been the #1 American in the event since the 2018 season, and it’d be a surprise to see him finish anywhere but first at Olympic Trials.

The battle for the second Olympic spot should be fierce – and the main contenders are as different as can be.

If anyone is going to actually upset Murphy, it’s probably the fast-rising youngster, Shaine CasasA rising senior for the Texas A&M Aggies, Casas has been tearing up the NCAA over the past three seasons. This past year, Casas came within .02 seconds of breaking Murphy’s American record in the 200 short course yard backstroke. Casas smashed his way to a 52.72 in the long course 100 in the summer of 2019. And when he dropped 1.5 seconds in short course yards during the following college season, Casas looked on track to go 52-low or better in the Olympic year. The coronavirus pandemic delayed that some, but Casas might be looking at two summers’-worth of time drops this year.

On the other end of the age spectrum is the 36-year-old Grevers, a good 15 years older than Casas. (In 2008, Grevers was making his first Olympic team four months before Casas logged his first-ever swims in the USA Swimming database at the age of 8). Grevers has the advantage of experience in the Olympic Trials spotlight, and he’s a rock of consistency. Grevers was 52.6 at the 2016 Olympic Trials. He had a great bounceback in 2017 after missing the Olympic Team, going 52.1, then was 52.5 and 52.6 in the next two seasons.

Justin Ress is the speedster extending his range. At age 23, he’s directly between Murphy (25) and Casas (21) in the age spectrum. He actually competed against both at the college level – Murphy was a California junior when Ress was a freshman at NC State. Then after Murphy graduated, Ress was a senior when Casas debuted for A&M.

Ress was mostly a 50 back standout in long course, making the U.S. World Championships team in the 50 back in 2017. But he’s really started to extend his top-level speed to the 100-meter distance, hitting a career-best 53.00 earlier this month. That time currently ranks him #2 among all Americans this season, just .05 behind Murphy’s season-best. Ress has previously won this event at World University Games in 2017.

Those four are the class of the field. But coming out of the pandemic, we’re likely to see some big time drops from swimmers who would have put themselves in the conversation last summer, had the season not been mostly canceled.

The Cal Crew:

The University of California has become a backstroke powerhouse, and they’ve got a crowd of potential contenders behind Murphy. Jacob Pebley was a 2016 Olympian in the 200 back – he’s definitely a bigger threat in the 200, but did go 52.9 in this event at 2016 Trials. Daniel Carr won golds in the 100 and 200 backs at the Pan American Games in 2019. He just finished up his senior season, then came within two tenths of a second of his career-best in this race with a 53.65 earlier this month in Atlanta. Bryce Mefford was 53.8 back in 2018, but hasn’t broken 54 since. Like Carr, he’s coming off of his senior season for the Golden Bears.

We’ll add one more Cal Bear to watch in our Dark Horse section at the bottom.

The Wolfpack: 

Ress isn’t the only NC State standout in the mix. Coleman Stewart is the #2 performer of all-time in the short course yards 100 back (43.62), and has been as fast as 53.8 in long course meters. Meanwhile current NC State rising junior Hunter Tapp just cracked 54 for the first time ever earlier this month, going 53.95.

The Busy Bees:

Michael Andrew has been 53.4 in this race, and has been on fire recently in breaststroke and butterfly. But it’s probably doubtful that he swims this event at Olympic Trials. The 100 back semifinal comes quickly after the 100 breast final on night 2. The 100 breast final looks like Andrew’s best shot at making his first Olympic team, and there’s a good argument to be made that he should focus on that event first, rather than swimming 100 back heats in the morning before a 100 breast/100 back double at night.

The same could probably be said for Dean Farris, the former NCAA 100 back champ and #3 swimmer of all-time in the 100-yard back. The 200 free shares a session with the 100 back for heats, semifinals, and finals, and Farris probably stands a better shot of making the Olympic team in the 200, where the top 6 will likely be selected to fill relay spots. If Farris does try this event, though, he’s been 53.9 back in 2019 and went 54.3 just this month.

The Late Risers:

Hunter Armstrong had a great sophomore season for Ohio State. And earlier this month on the Pro Swim Series, he dropped 1.1 seconds from his lifetime-best to go 53.69. That’s the kind of trajectory that could lead to an upset spot in the top five at Trials for the 20-year-old.

Meanwhile Will Grant went 53.8 at World Juniors in 2019 leading off a gold-medal mixed medley relay. Grant would have been a Harvard sophomore this year, but with the Ivy League canceling winter sports, he’s been able to focus more heavily on long course meters, going 54.2 in May.

Top 8 Picks:

Place Swimmer Lifetime-best Season-best
1 Ryan Murphy 51.85 52.95
2 Shaine Casas 52.72 54.32
3 Justin Ress 53.00 53.00
4 Matt Grevers 52.08 54.27
5 Coleman Stewart 53.85 54.37
6 Daniel Carr 53.50 53.65
7 Hunter Armstrong 53.69 53.69
8 Bryce Mefford 53.84 54.63

Dark horse: Destin Lasco (Lifetime-best/season-best 55.04). The 19-year-old had a sensational freshman season for California, dropping a second and a half in the 100-yard backstroke and taking third at NCAAs in 44.49. (He tied Grevers as the 11th-fastest all-time). Lasco just recently hacked a half-second off his long course best time with a 55.04, but his short course speed would suggest he’s got a much faster long course race in him. Given Cal’s pedigree with training backstrokers, Lasco could be a sneaky pick to snag a finals spot here.

Wave I Standout: Ziyad Saleem (lifetime-best/season-best 55.54). The 17-year-old Saleem has had an explosive 2021, emerging from the pandemic to drop 1.5 seconds in the 100-yard back, 3.6 seconds in the 200-yard back, 4.3 seconds in the 200-meter back and 2.4 seconds in this event, the 100-meter back. He missed the Wave II cut by just .04 back in November, but based on his improvements over the last year, he’s got a legimitate shot to pop a huge swim out of the Wave I meet and advance to Wave II.

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1 year ago

Casas didn’t seem to deal with the nerves of NCAAs that well. He talked about getting taken out of what he wanted to do in certain races, and was slower than some random fall meets. Hopefully that was just a learning experience, and doesn’t portend how he’ll handle the even more heightened nerves of trials.

Reply to  oxyswim
1 year ago

He went 3 for 3 despite not being at his best and still produced SOME best times. I think he’s ready.

Sunday Morning Grind
Reply to  Fan
1 year ago

And he hasn’t been resting for random meets and dual meets

1 year ago

Destin is a better dark horse for the 200 back. Or is he a top 8 contender at that point? I’m not sure lol. Either way, I feel like he could perform but his amazing underwaters wont help as much LCM compared to SCY.

Mr Piano
1 year ago

My man Grevers has at least one more 52 in him

Mr Piano
1 year ago

Murphy is going 51.7 in Tokyo

Last edited 1 year ago by Mr Piano
Casas 100 back gold in Tokyo
Reply to  Mr Piano
1 year ago

I wouldn’t be surprised if Casas or Kolesnikov breaks wr.
Would be a little surprised if Rylov breaks it.
Would be very surprised if Murphy breaks it.
Would even be surprised if Xu breaks 52.
However I wouldn’t be surprised if either of the above wins. I think the winning time will be more likely to be 52 than being a new WR.

1 year ago

Did I miss the women’s 400 free and 100 fly? I thought they were going in order 🤔

1 year ago

Without a doubt, the Wave II competition is going to be exciting with Murphy vs. Casas vs. the rest of the field. However, as I have written before, Murphy remains “the man” as far as I can see. Even having watched the LEN European Swimming Championships [still going on!] I see Murphy stoutly challenged by two Russians, but in Tokyo, its TEAM USA with Murphy for the gold.

1 year ago

Reds was just 53.00, feel like he could drop to 52 mid at trials, but casas should also.

Reply to  Hswimmer
1 year ago

Ress** damn autocorrect

1 year ago

Everyone is ignoring the two time world champion from Eastern Asia.

There's no doubt that he's tightening up
Reply to  whever
1 year ago

Who has been within 0.01 from Murphy’s WR too.

Reply to  whever
1 year ago

He swims insanely fast at the trials meet in China and then usually swims slower at the major championship (to be fair the last 2 100 back finals at worlds have been a lot slower than they should have been so everyone has been lacking) and he’s been fairly quiet this year, which may actually be a good thing. I definitely think Xu will be on the podium again, but I think one of the Russians will win it at the moment and I could definitely see Rylov doing the 100-200 double

About Jared Anderson

Jared Anderson

Jared Anderson swam for nearly twenty years. Then, Jared Anderson stopped swimming and started writing about swimming. He's not sick of swimming yet. Swimming might be sick of him, though. Jared was a YMCA and high school swimmer in northern Minnesota, and spent his college years swimming breaststroke and occasionally pretending …

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