2022 World Champs Previews: Four Women Fighting For Gold In 50 Back

2022 FINA WORLD AQUATICS CHAMPIONSHIPS

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By The Numbers:

  • World Record: Liu Xiang, China – 26.98 (2018)
  • Championship Record: Zhao Jing, China – 27.06 (2009)
  • 2019 World Champion: Olivia Smoliga, United States – 27.33
  • FINA ‘A’ Cut – 28.22

Even with world record holder Liu Xiang being absent from the World Championships, the race in the women’s 50 back is going to be one for the ages.

First off, there are currently three swimmers this year who are faster than the 27.33 Olivia Smoliga went to win the 2019 World title, and 16 swimmers faster than the 27.79 it took to final at that same meet.

In the women’s 100 back preview, we talked about the trio of Regan Smith, Kaylee McKeown, and Kylie Masse that would dominate the race and most likely claim the three medals. The 50 back would have been the same story, with Smith, McKeown and Masse being heavy favorites, until it was Katharine Berkoff who soared to the top of the world rankings this year to spoil the party.

That means that this time around, we are going to have not three but four women contending for gold in the ever-growing field of women’s backstroke.

The Big Four

Let’s delve into the top four swimmers in this event: Berkoff, Smith, McKeown and Masse. Their best times are only separated by 0.13 seconds, meaning that they all have a good chance of coming out on top.

Berkoff first raised the idea that she was a serious threat when she destroyed Smith’s 100-yard back NCAA, US Open, and American record in a time of 48.74, becoming the first woman under the 49-second barrier. One month later, at U.S. trials, she went on to break the American record in the 50 back, clocking a time of 27.12 to claim the #1 rank in the world and become the fifth-fastest performer of all time.

The NC State swimmer is one of the fastest-rising backstrokers in the world this year. However, can she maintain her momentum on the biggest international stage?

The person who finished behind Berkoff at U.S. trials was Smith, who swam a time of 27.25 that is not only ranked fourth in the world, but also under Olivia Smoliga’s previous American record of 27.33.

Smith is the world record holder in the 200 back and a former world record holder in the 100 back, but we don’t see her swim the 50 back all that often. In fact, this is the first time she’s swum the event at a major international meet, making her relatively inexperienced in this event compared to the rest of the field.

However, given how good Smith is in the 100 back (she opened her former world record swim in 27.74), she’s likely to have a lot of untapped potential in the 50 back. In addition, the fact that she’s been missing international teams in the 200 back but has been dropping sub-58 swims in the 100 back has shown that her strength lies more in the sprints, which bodes well for an event like the 50.

Then we’ve got McKeown, who didn’t swim this event at Australian trials but is set to race it at Worlds. Her season-best time of 27.61 is ranked eighth in the world, but she set a best of 27.16 last year, which makes her the seventh-fastest performer of all time. The 50 back is McKeown’s third individual event on her very crowded schedule. However, the finals of the event fall on a day when she has no other races in the morning or evening session, allowing her to be fresh coming into this race.

But what might give McKeown leverage over the rest of her competitors is that according to her former head coach, Chris Mooney, she has broken the 50 back world record not once but multiple times in practice before.

“Unofficially, we did a couple of pace suited 50s, and she [went] 26.6, 26.7, which is actually under the world record,” Mooney told SwimSwam’s Coleman Hodges in a podcast interview last September.

If McKeown actually broke the world record in practice and it wasn’t just a result of a fast watch, we could be in for something special here. She is the world record holder in the 100 back, and with an official PB that’s just 0.18 away from the 50 back world record, why can’t she take a shot at it in Budapest?

The last person we have to mention in our top four is Masse. She wasn’t really in the medal conversation for the 50 back as much as she was in the 100/200 back, as her best time before this year was a 27.64. At Canadian trials this year, she got it down to a 27.18 to break a National Record and briefly, an Americas Record (until Berkoff broke it a few weeks later). That proves that she is just as capable in the 50 as she is in the other backstroke events.

Masse is constantly looked over in people’s backstroke predictions because she doesn’t have as high of a ceiling as a swimmer like Smith, Berkoff, or McKeown. However, she’s known to be more consistent than all three of them, so if any of them are having an “off” meet, this is her time to step up.

Toussaint: Is She Back In Old Form?

Kira Toussaint

Kira Toussaint (photo: Alfredo Falcone )

You might be wondering why we left Dutch swimmer Kira Toussaint out of the “top” category. She does have a best time of 27.10, which she swam at the Eindhoven qualification meet last April, which is faster than McKeown, Masse, Smith, or Berkoff. However, she hasn’t really been as strong as the rest of her competitors recently.

Toussaint didn’t have the greatest international performance at Europeans and the Olympics, adding a significant amount of time from Eindhoven in both meets. In addition, despite being the former world record holder in the short course 50 back, she failed to make the finals in the event at Short Course Worlds. Her season-best time of 27.71 this year is a far cry from the top, and recently moving across oceans from the Netherlands to train in Tennessee means that she’s had to make many adjustments in a short amount of time. That doesn’t exactly bode well for such a high-level meet like worlds, but we shall see shortly if Toussaint is back in her April 2021 shape or not.

Outside Looking In

There’s still a handful of 27-mid swimmers entered in this event that we haven’t mentioned yet.

Frenchwoman Analia Pigree went 27.41 at the French Winter Championships in December 2021, and then later clocked a 27.72 at the spring version of the meet. She finished fourth in the 50 back at Short Course worlds last year, and looks to translate her success into the big pool. 16-year-old Mary Moluh, who beat Pigree in a time of 27.70 at the French Spring Championships, will not be swimming at worlds.

Another swimmer who has seen a lot of short course success is Ingrid Wilm. She’s constantly fallen short of opportunities to race at major international meets, as first she finished third in the 100 back at the Canadian Trials to miss the Olympic team, and then was not named to Canada’s short course worlds roster despite holding the national record in the SCM 100 back. This year, Wilm was named onto her first Worlds team after finishing second in the 50 back at trials, and her 27.63 is ranked 10th in the world this year and seventh out of all the women competing. This meet could be Wilm’s chance to finally break out at a big meet.

Italy’s Silvia Scalia swam her fastest time in two years at the 2022 Italian Sprint Championships, clocking a best time of 27.66 to rank 11th in the world. If she replicates a similar time at Worlds, look to see her in the mix to final as well. The same goes for Maaike De Waard, who went 27.75 to finish 0.04 behind her Dutch teammate Toussaint at the Heidelberg Q! Cup this April. We will go with De Waard to final because she has experience racing swimmers like Toussaint, and has historically performed better than Scalia at major international meets.

Alongside Toussaint and McKeown, Austria’s Caroline Pilhatsch is one of the only swimmers entered that competed in the 50 back finals at the 2019 Worlds. She finished seventh at that meet in 27.78, and set a best time of 27.77 in the semifinals. Her season-best time this year is only 28.30, so she’s going to have to be a lot faster to get a finals berth this time around.

Some notable swimmers missing from this field include Olivia Smoliga, Etiene Medeiros, and Daria Vaskina, the gold, silver, and bronze medalists from 2019. Smoliga didn’t qualify for the U.S. Worlds team, Medeiros missed Brazil’s Worlds qualifying meet due to a torn ACL, and Vaskina’s country of Russia is banned from participating at Worlds. 18-year-old Mollie O’Callaghan, who swam a time of 27.46 at Australian trials, will not be swimming this event at Worlds.

SwimSwam’s Top 8 Picks

Rank Swimmer Country Season Best Lifetime Best
1 Kaylee McKeown Australia 27.61 27.16
2 Katharine Berkoff United States 27.12 27.12
3 Kylie Masse Canada 27.18 27.18
4 Regan Smith United States 27.25 27.25
5 Analia Pigree France 27.41 27.41
6 Kira Toussaint Netherlands 27.71 27.10
7 Ingrid Wilm Canada 27.63 27.63
8 Maaike De Waard Netherlands 27.75 27.69

Dark Horse: Theodora Drakou, Greece – The 30-year-old veteran dipped under the 28-second barrier this March, clocking a time of 27.96 to set a new best time. That was her first PB in the event since 2016, where she swam a 28.00. She finished 21st at 2019 Worlds in a time of 28.48, and looks to make a huge jump from that ranking this year.

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NathenDrake
5 months ago

There is a big possibility even for a world record. This pool has some amazing times in 50 and 100 meter events back in 2017 or during 2020 ISL season (I know it short course), but some of those times were insane.

Troyy
Reply to  NathenDrake
5 months ago

Multiple swimmers have potential to break the WR. Perhaps it could go in the semis and again in the final.

Taa
5 months ago

Any chance we can get Berkhoff a prelim relay swim in the 100? Curzan has enough on her plate.

Taa
Reply to  Yanyan Li
5 months ago

White is another good option maybe let one do the womens relay and one the mixed.

Admin
Reply to  Taa
5 months ago

I think it’s totally possible. Especially if the plan is to use maybe Curzan and Huske on the back end of the finals relay.

But I don’t know if DeSorbo wants to give NC State a gold medal to have to recruit against ;-). Kidding. Mostly.

It takes a lot of political fortitude to make that call. I think DeSorbo and Nesty are probably more likely to make those off-beat relay choices than their predecessors were.

jamesjabc
5 months ago

McKeown is an interesting pick. Not who I was expecting. She is basically never leading the pack at the first 50 when she races the 100 or 200, but her PB is second in the field and she has apparently got WR potential.

I am still very up in the air about her. She swam slower at trials than she has at random meets earlier this year in 3/4 events. Yes, she wasn’t tapered, but who knows what will happen. Would love to see her take multiple individual golds but her trials times do give me some pause.

I’m tempted to go with Masse because she takes it out fast and is usually in front most of the way for… Read more »

Troyy
Reply to  jamesjabc
5 months ago

Those times in February were before she started to ramp volume up again.

jamesjabc
Reply to  Troyy
5 months ago

Yes that’s a fair point. I’m just hesitant to say ‘oh she wasn’t tapered at trials so she will definitely drop heaps of time at worlds’. It certainly could happen. But I would rather be cautious and pleasantly surprised than expect her to win and be disappointed.

Madman2028
Reply to  jamesjabc
5 months ago

If anyone is slightly off or messes up Masse wins.

Troyy
Reply to  Madman2028
5 months ago

Masse could win without anyone being off or messing up.

commonwombat
5 months ago

Tricky customer !!

Just how seriously will the “big three” take this one … indeed will all three actually start or swim through the rounds ? McKeown is the most obvious name in this bracket as this will mean 4 “three rounders” plus potentially 2 relays; but this question can also apply to both Smith & Masse.

Therefore I don’t see a “big three” sweep with Berkoff being the most obvious intruder. For me, it will be curious to see how known SC names like Toussaint & Wilm perform; particularly with 50 being Toussaint’s optimal distance.

Thinks its most likely between Berkoff and Masse with Smith being the X factor. I suspect McKeown will either be a non-starter or ditch… Read more »

Sub13
Reply to  commonwombat
5 months ago

What makes you think Kaylee won’t start? A 50 isn’t very taxing and doesn’t really impact her schedule.

Saturday is 2IM heats/semis, Sunday is 100 heats/semis and 2IM final, Monday is 100 final, Tuesday is 50 heats/semis and MMR final (75 mins between events), Wednesday is 50 finals, Thursday is 200 heats/semis, Friday is 200 final and Saturday is medley relay final.

The only reason to drop this would be to prioritise MMR but that’s not necessary at all. Much more likely to get gold in the 50 than the MMR.

Troyy
Reply to  Sub13
5 months ago

Agree, the 50 fits nicely into her program.

commonwombat
Reply to  Sub13
5 months ago

I grant that there certainly is a case to be made for her pursuing this one and in many ways I’d like to see her give it a bash. My point is that there are valid counter arguments to be made and these are still 3 extra swims and at least two of them would be high intensity.

I think it may hinge on how seriously they choose to pursue MMR. Whilst they can get away with a male backstroker for heats; they’re still likely to call upon her for the final if they are actually pursuing a medal.

Stephen
Reply to  commonwombat
5 months ago

McKeown will only swim the 50m if she’s successful in the 200m IM.

That’s my view

Sub13
Reply to  Stephen
5 months ago

Based on what? It’s fine to have that view but show your reasoning

oxyswim
5 months ago

I don’t put a lot of stock in second hand training times from a year ago. If Kaylee doesn’t win this we have a candidate to replace Joe Schooling practice jokes.

jamesjabc
Reply to  oxyswim
5 months ago

Her coach said once, a year ago, that she broke the WR in training. Seems a bit strange to be preparing to trash her now if she doesn’t win. But honestly pretty typical of the attitude of a lot of commenters on here.

Snarky
Reply to  jamesjabc
5 months ago

I broke a lot of world records in practice. So did a lot of people. Happens every day. 🤪

Sub13
Reply to  Snarky
5 months ago

Are you currently a multiple Olympic champion and multiple world record holder? Kaylee is. Claims about records are probably a bit more credible coming from her than you.

RMS
5 months ago

Berkoff for the win!

Sherry Smit
5 months ago

So McKeown takes home the 50/200 BK but not the 100…?

Fobby Binke
Reply to  Sherry Smit
5 months ago

It has happened before.

In 2013 Barcelona, Efimova won 50 and 200 breast but not 100.

iLikePsych
Reply to  Fobby Binke
5 months ago

With the cherry on top of beating the WR holders who had just set the WR in semis

NJones
5 months ago

Until it possibly happens I’ll always wonder to what Maggie MacNeil could transfer her 25.2 short course to long course. Surely 1 single turn/underwater could not be more than a 1.6sec difference…?

oxyswim
Reply to  NJones
5 months ago

Maggie was 59.4 in the 100 at the same meet where she swam a 57.7 in the 100 fly. She’s probably capable of a 58 mid 100 backstroke with a little focus, but I don’t see that equating to a 26.8 but any means. Gretchen Walsh is the fastest ever in the 50 back in SCY, but 27.7 in LC. I’d guess Maggie would be 27.1-27.4

Eddie
Reply to  oxyswim
5 months ago

actually berkoff became the fastest 50 back in SCY at NCAAs

Snarky
Reply to  oxyswim
5 months ago

Second fastest. Berkoff 22.74. Walsh 22.82

njones
Reply to  oxyswim
5 months ago

Remarkable that 1 turn is that significant. I can see a little over a second especially with backstroke, but literally 2 sec or slightly more ….?!

About Yanyan Li

Yanyan Li

Although Yanyan wasn't the greatest competitive swimmer, she learned more about the sport of swimming through scoring countless dual meets, being a timer, and keeping track of her teammates' best times for three years as a team manager. She eventually ventured into the realm of writing and joined SwimSwam in …

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