2021 U.S. Olympic Trials Previews: Vets V. Rising Stars In The Women’s 100 Back

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

2021 U.S. OLYMPIC SWIMMING TRIALS

WOMEN’S 100 BACK

  • World Record: Regan Smith (USA) – 57.57 (2019)
  • American Record: Regan Smith – 57.57 (2019)
  • US Open Record: Kathleen Baker (USA) – 58.00 (2018)
  • World Junior Record: Regan Smith (USA) – 57.57 (2019)
  • 2016 Olympic Champion: Katinka Hosszu (HUN) – 58.45
  • 2016 US Olympic Trials Champion: Olivia Smoliga – 59.02
  • Wave I Cut: 1:02.69
  • Wave II Cut: 1:01.49

I recently asked the SwimSwam Slack group chat how much of an uproar they think there would be if I picked anyone other than Regan Smith as my top pick for the 100 backstroke at the 2021 USA Olympic trials. The consensus was that the uproar would be significant. For that reason and many others, our official top pick for the event goes to Smith.

It’s hard not to pick the current world record holder as the favorite to win gold at the Olympics, let alone at US Trials and Regan Smith’s 57.57 remains the fastest swim by any woman of all time and the fastest swim by an American woman by 0.43, followed by Kathleen Baker’s 58.00 from back in 2018. While Smith hasn’t been under 58 seconds again since her world record-breaking swim, that’s likely due to the fact that she hasn’t yet raced at a major international competition since then due to the long-term COVID-19 related cancellations.

The decision of who to put at the top of this list was fairly simple, the real debate to have is over who gets the second spot. Among those in the running are 2016 Olympian and former world record holder in the event Kathleen Baker, 2016 Olympian Olivia Smoliga, NCAA stars Rhyan White and Phoebe Bacon, up-and-coming junior Claire Curzan.

American Women’s 100 Backstroke Rankings (November 28, 2018 – May 24, 2021)

  1. Regan Smith – 57.57 (2019)
  2. Olivia Smoliga – 58.31 (2021)
  3. Rhyan White – 58.43 (2021)
  4. Kathleen Baker – 58.56 (2020)
  5. Phoebe Bacon – 58.63 (2019)
  6. Claire Curzan – 58.82 (2021)
  7. Katharine Berkoff – 59.29 (2019)
  8. Isabelle Stadden – 59.33 (2021)
  9. Elise Haan – 59.62 (2019)
  10. Amy Bilquist – 59.64 (2019)
  11. Catie DeLoof – 59.71 (2021)
  12. Ali DeLoof – 1:00.08 (2019)

American Women’s 100 Backstroke Rankings (September 1, 2020 – May 24, 2021)

  1. Olivia Smoliga – 58.31
  2. Rhyan White – 58.43
  3. Regan Smith – 58.77
  4. Claire Curzan – 58.82
  5. Isabelle Stadden – 59.33 (2021)
  6. Katharine Berkoff – 59.38
  7. Kathleen Baker – 59.45
  8. Phoebe Bacon – 59.62
  9. Catie DeLoof – 59.71

Olivia Smoliga has seen been representing the United States internationally consistently since her Olympic debut, racing at the 2017 World Championships, 2018 Pan Pacs, and 2019 World Championships. Smoliga swam a best time at the 2016 US Olympic Trials with a 59.02 and got under 59 for the first time at the Olympic Games, swimming a 58.95 for 6th place in the final. Since then, Smoliga has been under 59 another with her 58.77 from 2017 Worlds, her 58.75 at 2018 US Nationals, a 58.73 at the TYR Pro Swim Series in Richmond, a 58.91 and 58.79 at 2019 Worlds, and most recently a 58.31 at the 2021 Atlanta Classic. It’s significant that with a month to go until Olympic Trials, Olivia Smoliga managed to post a new best time and give herself a #1 ranking in the US this season.

Smoliga’s experience at the international level and her proven ability to deliver a solid swim when it matters compliment her recent speed in the event. In a crowded and talented field, Smoliga is our pick for the silver medal at Trials and the second spot on the 2021 US Olympic team in the women’s 100 back.

Smoliga’s record, while impressive, is not impervious to the campaign of 100 backstrokers coming into trials who have also seen success in the event internationally over the past few years and this past season. The 2 names we need to mention first are Rhyan White and Claire Curzan.

White, a member of the University of Alabama women’s swim team came off a banner NCAA season, taking silver in the 100 and 200 backstrokes, and quickly began delivering top-caliber long course performances. White established a #2 ranking in the long course 100 back this season by hitting a 58.43 100 backstroke swimming at the same meet as Smoliga’s 58.31. White’s strongest case this year comes from the fact that she’s seen significant improvement this season. Prior to the 2020-2021 season, White’s PB was a 1:01.58 from 2018, meaning that she’s shaved more than 3 seconds off her best this season. White’s drop this season gives her a solid starting point for Trials and could certainly provide the needed momentum for an Olympic-qualifying swim.

The only other swimmer to crack 59 this season in the US has been Claire Curzan who hit a 58.82 at the 2021 NC TAC Spring Invitational. At only 16 years old, Curzan’s sub-59 is an impressive drop from her 1:00.00 PB heading into this year. While her 100 backstroke is promising, Curzan has bigger prospects at the upcoming Olympic Trials. Curzan is currently the top-ranked American woman in both the 50 freestyle and 100 butterfly thanks to her powerful world junior records of 24.17 and 56.20. Additionally, Curzan is ranked 3rd in the 100 freestyle which, if he can hold, will be good enough to qualify for a spot on the 4×100 freestyle relay. So while in isolation, Curzan could definitely pull off a top 2 finish in the 100 backstroke, it’s not even a sure bet that she will race the event. Since she will have a split focus, we’ll give her a spot in the A final here but not an Olympic spot for backstroke this year.

2 years ago, it would be shocking to see that Kathleen Baker was not the top pick in the women’s 100 backstroke for US Trials. That’s because, at the 2018 Phillips 66 National Championships, Baker became the fastest woman in the history of the event with a 58.00. Since then, however, Baker hasn’t remained at the top of the scene neither globally nor within the US. Over the course of the Olympic Trials qualification period, Baker is 3rd to Smith and Smoliga with a 58.56 which she hit at the 2020 Pro Swim Series – Des Moines. Since we’ve seen racing make a comeback after the widespread COVID-19 shutdowns Baker’s fastest swim has been a 59.45 which puts her at 6th in the country.

While she hasn’t quite gotten back to her peak this season, a look at her 2016 and 2018 seasons will show that Baker is not to be counted out yet. Before 2016 Trials, Baker’s season-best was a 1:00.04 and she swam a 59.29 to make the US Olympic Team. Two years later her season-best was a 1:00.20 heading into nationals, and she shaved a full 1.20 seconds off that time to hit a 58.00 world record. There’s nothing to say that she will be able to make the same drops at this year’s Trials but her historic ability to perform when it matters will keep her in the running. As brutal as this field is, Baker might actually find an easier path to the Olympics in the 200 IM and/or 200 back, and there’s a chance she’s tailored her training accordingly.

We can round this list out nicely by adding the only other swimmers who have been under a minute so far this season. Those swimmers would be Katharine Berkoff with a 59.38, Isabelle Stadden‘s 59.33, Phoebe Bacon with a 59.62, and Catie DeLoof with a 59.71. Looking back to November 28, 2018, when the qualification period began, we could also add Elise Haan’s 59.62 and Amy Bilquist’s 59.64.

Amy Bilquist was 3rd to Baker and Smoliga back at the 2016 Olympic Trials with a 59.37 for third place, just missing the Olympic team. Bilquist hasn’t been performing as fast lately, however, with her most recent 59 coming at the 2019 US Open. Catie DeLoof, meanwhile also has potential to perform here but 59.71 PB and a potential focus on other events such as the 50 freestyle in which she’s the 7th fastest during the qualification period and 8th fastest this season push her just beyond 8th on our list. Elisa Haan is another elimination from the list as she retirement back in 2019.

Instead, Phoebe Bacon, Katharine Berkoff, and Isabelle Stadden will fill out the rest of our predicted top 8.

Bacon has been as fast as a 58.55 in the 100 backstroke before, having swum that time back in 2019 at the US Open. Her current season-best sits at a 59.62 which won’t be enough to qualify for the team but leaves her enough room to get down to the 58 low/mid it will likely take to qualify.

Berkoff on the other hand will need to rely on significant improvement to qualify for the team, holding a PB of 59.29 from the 2019 World University Games. Considering that she got rather close to that PB in May 2021 with a 59.38 after a season without dipping under a minute, Berkoff seems to be in shape and could use that momentum to shave off another half-second.

Our final pick, Isabelle Stadden, is in a similar situation to Berkoff in terms of recently hitting a 59 low after a season-long period of not getting under a minute. Throughout 2019-2020 Stadden’s fastest time was a 1:00.24 but she recently got all the way down to a 59.33 in May 2021. Like Berkoff, Stadden’s not yet out of the running, but it will surely take an efficient use of momentum to make a bid for a top 2 finish.

Place Swimmer Lifetime-best Season-best
1 Regan Smith 57.57 58.77
2 Olivia Smoliga 58.31 58.31
3 Rhyan White 58.43 58.43
4 Claire Curzan 58.82 58.82
5 Kathleen Baker 58.00 59.45
6 Phoebe Bacon 58.63 59.63
7 Katharine Berkoff 59.38 59.29
8 Isabelle Stadden 59.33 59.33

Dark Horse Pick: Linnea Mack (PB – 1:00.96) At age 25, Linnea Mack recently posted a new best time in the long course 100 backstroke of 1:00.96. She swam that time during the prelims of the event at the Pro Swim Series – Indianapolis but decided to scratch the finals. That swim alone is not enough to give Mack consideration for the 100 backstroke considering it will likely take a time more than a second faster to qualify for the A final. The indication that Mack may have something to deliver at Trials is the fact that at that same meet, she swam a 53.78 best time in the 100 freestyle which was a full second faster than her 54.78 best time. We won’t know how fast Mack would have been in that final but the recent drop in time suggests that she could potentially show up in Omaha ready to race in multiple events.

Wave I Standout: Aria Bernal (PB – 1:01.70) While Aria Bernal hasn’t qualified for Wave II of Olympic Trials in the 100 backstroke, her 1:01.70 best time makes her a strong contender to move on to Wave II as she sits just over the 1:01.49 qualifying time. Bernal hasn’t been very active over the past season outside of the NCAA where she pulled of a 6th place finish at 2021 Pac-12s in the 100 back for Arizona with a 52.63. We almost got a chance to see Bernal in the long course at the 2021 Pro Swim Series – Mission Viejo but she scratched from the 100 backstroke which was her only event. Assuming she races at Wave I, she will certainly be one to watch.

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Bobo Gigi
11 months ago

I’ve 2 concerns about Regan Smith, a swimmer I’m rooting for and I follow for almost a decade now since she broke her first NAG records at 10.
Has she trained the best she could do it in the last 14 months? I know that restrictions were not the same in all the states and it can have affected the training of some swimmers more than some others.
And considering the insane high level of that event in USA I wonder if she will dare not fully taper for the trials with the goal of peaking at olympics which is the best thing to do if you want to swim at your best there. But it puts her… Read more »

Smith-King-Dahlia-Manuel
Reply to  Bobo Gigi
11 months ago

If Regan Smith wants to play it safe, don’t bother with the women’s 100 meter butterfly at the 2021 Olympic Team Trials:

W 100 BK
W 200 FL
W 200 BK

Tea rex
Reply to  Bobo Gigi
11 months ago

I think for a young female swimmer like Regan, 2-3 weeks taper is all she needs. Go up in yardage for a week or two, then back down for games. I don’t she will have trouble holding taper.

sepgup
11 months ago

I don’t think Curzan would focus on the 100 back the same way why Smith wouldn’t focus on the 100 fly, the schedule clashes and both know they have a better chance to make it in their specialty event, but we’ll see if they try to do the double. It’s just a semifinal so at least it’s better than Ledecky’s 200/1500 double.

oxyswim
Reply to  sepgup
11 months ago

I don’t think that is much of a clash, particularly for a young swimmer. First and last event of the session is pretty manageable, particularly when the final of the fly is first.

Smith-King-Dahlia-Manuel
Reply to  sepgup
11 months ago

Regan Smith has not declared her intentions with regard to the women’s 100 meter butterfly.

Swimfan
11 months ago

If curzan puts up a big performance inhe 100 fly (close to world record) and breaks the American record I believe that she couple potentially pull a shocker and win trials. But then again anything can happen. A swimmer could place 6th,7th or 8th at trials and be a potential medalist and still stay home . Heck 6 swimmers are capable of winning gold at Tokyo (curzan, smith, white, smoligia, bacon and baker)

Ger
11 months ago

I don’t understand the assumption that Regan Smith will qualify which is largely based on what she did two years ago. Will she be in that kind of form when trials come ’round? I hope so, but I haven’t been inspired by what I’ve seen this season, albeit unrested. And as things stand now, Kaylee McKeown is favourite for Olympic gold because she is swimming fast, consistently. Her form is outstanding and she has made big improvements across the board.

KeithM
Reply to  Ger
11 months ago

McKeown might certainly win Gold. It seemed a foregone conclusion that Regan would enter the games as an overwhelming odds on to win. That may not be the case entering the games this year. However I would wait until the respective qualifying meets have concluded to be anointing a favorite. Doing otherwise seems a bit premature, even a little impulsive. You’re “unrested” caveat is a little weak & understated. Regan had a single rested 100 back swim in the last 2 1\2 yrs. A relay lead-off was all she swam in Gwangju due to the absurd qualifying process. It seems a bit more than harsh to relegate her prospects. Especially since there’s nothing to indicate she’s off pace or plan… Read more »

Smith-King-Dahlia-Manuel
11 months ago

Motivation for the Riptide Rocket:

https://youtu.be/YXOWdBpvrFY

Pinkunicorns
11 months ago

Bilquist was 3rd to Baker and Smoliga at the 2016 Olympic trials, not Smith and Smoliga?

Smith-King-Dahlia-Manuel
Reply to  Pinkunicorns
11 months ago

2016 Olympic Team Trials
Women’s 100 meter backstroke
Smoliga – 59.02
Baker – 59.29
Bilquist – 59.37

oxyswim
11 months ago

I don’t envy y’all having to make picks in this one, but it seems like a little bit of recency bias. White didn’t have much more to drop from SECs to NCs this year, and Curzan racing in her home pool isn’t exactly high pressure.

It’s hard to really know where Baker is at, but she’s always shown up at big meets (excluding the one summer she broke her ribs), and Marsh is a taper master. Bacon has talked about how training at Wisconsin has been harder than anything she’s had to deal with in the past, and I think it’ll show when she gets rest. She’s also been next to Regan many times and always been up for… Read more »

oxyswim
11 months ago

The correct time for Stadden is listed a couple times in the body of the article and the picks, but it’s incorrect in the American women’s rankings higher up.