2023 World Champs Preview: Can Berkoff Blast Off to a 50 Back Gold in Fukuoka?


By the Numbers – Women’s  50 Backstroke

  • World Record: LIU Xiang, China – 26.98 (2018)
  • World Junior Record: Minna Atherton, Australia – 27.49 (2016)
  • Championship Record: ZHAO Jing, China – 27.06 (2009)
  • 2022 World Champion: Kylie Masse, Canada – 27.31

In an event that already has the three fastest times this season under last year’s winning time, it’s a little surprising that the World and Championship records have lasted this long. But when it gets to the finals of the Woman’s 50 back, it all comes down to getting a hand on the wall to win.

Looking to go one-two and sitting at the top of the world rankings is the American duo of Katharine Berkoff and Regan Smith.

The American Hope

The pair represented the US in this event last year in Budapest. Berkoff, swimming in her first major international long course meet, held her own qualifying 2nd out of prelims (27.49), 5th out of the semis (27.40), and ultimately finished with the silver medal (27.39).

Her winning time at this year’s team trials, 27.13, is just .01 slower than the time she swam to win last year’s trials, showing she should be on track to contend for the medals again. The only downside to this is that the time she swam at trials last year would have won the event at the 2022 Worlds.

Berkoff has also added events to her schedule due to placing second in the 100 back, so she likely will have to deal with the finals of the 100 back, which occur the night before the heats of 50 back, and the prelims of the medley relay which swim on the last day.

While Berkoff may not have any conflicting schedule, her compatriot Smith certainly does. Smith who placed 2nd in the 50 by just .01 (27.14) was awarded the 2nd 50 spot due to her winning the 100 back. However, her conflict in the 50 back lies with the 200 fly, which is scheduled to have its final on the same day as the final of the 50 back.

Last year, like Berkoff, Smith entered the meet with a time that ultimately ended up being faster than the gold medal-winning time. In fact, Smith’s semi-final time of 27.29, would also have topped the field in the final, but she ultimately fell to 5th place in the final, touching in 27.47. She also finished off the podium in the 200 fly (4th 2:06.79).

Sitting in third and fifth in the world ranking and perhaps the stiffest competition to Berkoff and Smith going one-two in the 50 back are the Aussies.

The Aussies Strike Back

Kaylee McKeown courtesy World Aquatics

Hailing from a land Down Under, backstroke ace Kaylee McKeown will be looking to add the last remaining long-course backstroke world record to her resume. Her time from March of 27.31 would have equaled the gold-winning time in last year’s final. In said final, Mckeown ultimately placed 5th, tying with Smith.

McKeown did not swim the 50 back at the Aussie Trials, as it is a non-selection event, but she did post a world-leading 57.50 in the 100 back. While this time certainly shows off her speed, McKeown did opt to scratch the 100 back last year in favor of the 200 IM, so her focus may be on longer events than the 50.

On the other hand, one can not deny the sprinting prowess of McKeown’s teammate Mollie O’Callaghan. In Budapest last summer, she walked away with six medals, three of which were gold, but all in freestyle. However, at the Commonwealth Games, she swam to silver in the 50 back, and later on in the year at Short Course Worlds she added a bronze in the 50 back and a silver in the 100 back, showing some true backstroke credentials.

Her 27.38 from March currently ranks 5th in the world this season and she swam a 58.42 at the Australian Swimming Trials to place 2nd, so if she wants to swim the 50 back, the spot would be hers. That being said, reports about a knee injury may hamper her ability to contest such a heavy schedule.

The French Connection

Last year’s bronze medalist, Analia Pigree also looks to be in the mix this year. She currently sits in 9th in the world rankings with a time of 27.61 that she swam to win the French Championships in mid-June. A time that is just .21 off her bronze medal-winning time. Pigree, like Smith posted a time of 27.29 (French National Record) in the semi-finals that ultimately would have won the gold in the finals.

Joining Pigree in the 50 back this year is fellow Frenchwoman, Mary-Ambre Moluh. Moluh, just 17, swam 27.69 which was good for 2nd at the French Championships and was selected for the team as her time was under the French Federation mandated time of 27.72. Her time currently ranks her 13th in the world, there are five Americans ahead of her, though, and with only two per country able to compete, Moluh could find herself among the top eight.

The Return of the Canadians

If you combine potatoes, gravy, and cheese you get poutine. If you combine the French and English speakers you get Canada and no women’s backstroke preview would be complete without mentioning the Canadian contingent.

Last year’s gold medalist Kylie Masse will look to throw her hat into the ring as well. In 2022, Masse seemed to have an infatuation with the time 27.31. It won her gold in Budapest as well as gold at the Commonwealth Games. Like Smith and Pigree, Masse’s prelim time of 27.26 and semi’s time of 27.22 were ultimately faster than her winning time, supporting the idea that in the 50 back it is more about touching first in the final.

Masse currently sits fifth in the world ranking (tied with O’Callaghan) at 27.38, a time she swam at the Knoxville PSS back in January. While not a selection event, she did swim the 50 back at the Canadian Trials, touching 1st in 27.41.

Behind her at those trials, but ahead of her in the world rankings is her teammate, Ingrid Wilm. Wilm currently sits one spot ahead of Masse in the rankings with a time of 27.37 from the Monaco stop of the Mare Nostrum Swim Tour. At their Trials, she finished .18 behind Masse in the 50 but set a new personal best of 58.80 to beat Masse in the 100. Wilm finished just off the podium last year touching 4th in 27.43.

The Field Awakens

After placing two swimmers in the top three in 2013 and 2015, and one in 2017, the Chinese women have been relatively quiet as of late. Despite holding both the World and Championship records, Chinese sprint backstrokers failed to make the final at the last two iterations. But this is likely to change, as both Wan Letian and Wang Xueer rank inside the world’s top 10. Wan sits in 7th and Wang in 10th with times of 27.51 and 27.62 respectively.

Team GB also has two potential contenders in the form of Lauren Cox and Medi Harris. Harris, who placed 7th last summer enters the meet with a season-best of 27.86, just behind Cox’s 27.81.

Ranking ahead of the Brits in the world rankings is Ireland’s Danielle Hill who set a personal best this past April of 27.69, which ties with Moluh in the rankings at 13th.

Sitting just in 25th in the world rankings with a time of 28.02 but always dangerous is last year’s 8th-place finisher Kira Toussaint of the Netherlands. Toussaint, despite being off her best, has a personal best of 27.10 dating back to 2021.

The Verdict

Ultimately, as last year’s times show, it comes down to who can post a time fast enough to make the final and then just slug it out in the final. Smith’s double with the 200 fly might just be too much and if O’Callaghan swims the 50 back it would double up with the semis of the 100 free. So while both of them certainly have chances to podium in the 50 back, their sights are most likely set on winning gold in those Olympic Events. Between Masse, McKeown, and Berkoff it is very close and any three could wind up at the top, but Berkoff has the fastest time this season and won’t have the nerves associated with competing on your first senior international long course team, as she did last summer.

SwimSwam’s Picks

Rank Swimmer Personal Best Season Best
1 Katharine Berkoff (USA) 27.12 27.13
2 Kylie Masse (CAN) 27.18 27.38
3 Kaylee McKeown (AUS) 27.16 27.31
4 Regan Smith (USA) 27.14 27.14
5 Analia Pigree (FRA) 27.27 27.61
6 Ingrid Wilm (CAN) 27.37 27.37
7 Mollie O’Callaghan (AUS) 27.38 27.38
8 Wan Letian (CHN) 27.51 27.51

Dark Horse: Maaike De Waard, Netherlands – Often behind compatriot Toussaint in the rankings, De Waard has a season-best of 27.94 from the prelims of the Eindhoven meet in April While that time is slower than the Brits mentioned above, De Waard’s personal best is 27.54 which was good for bronze at the 2022 European Championships, behind the aforementioned Pigree and Italy’s Silvia Scalia who was not named to the Italian team. Harris and Scalia tied for 8th place in the semi-finals with a 27.72, so if De Waard is near her best she could sneak through.

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Joshua Liendo-Edwards-Smith
4 months ago

Masse is an interesting choice for silver. She’s looked a little off this year.

Swim Fast Swim Pretty
4 months ago


4 months ago

Is Sjostrom swimming or not? Last I heard she hadn’t made her mind up on 50 back and 100 free. Only that she’d do relays, 50 fly/free.

bubble bubble bubble
Reply to  Splash
4 months ago

Swedish media asked her about 50back before and she said she would not swim it in worlds. Not sure about 100free.

Reply to  bubble bubble bubble
4 months ago

Just got confirmation- no 100 free. But I’d imagine she’ll probably lead off the relay though.

bubble bubble bubble
Reply to  Splash
4 months ago

Source on no 100 free?

Reply to  bubble bubble bubble
4 months ago

Swedish media. 50 free, 50 fly, relays.

bubble bubble bubble
Reply to  Splash
4 months ago


4 months ago

Sadly the fastest current 50 backstroker isn’t even swimming it.
McNeil gets to swim, it’s silver and bronze for everyone else.

Reply to  Justanopinion
4 months ago

Macneil wouldnt win the 50 back long course. Period. She doesnt have the backstroke swimming speed. Her fantastic underwaters win her the 50 back short course, but they wouldnt be enough for long course.

4 months ago

Joke, Regan isn’t missing the medals

4 months ago

I don’t think Mollie will swim it because it doesn’t fit her schedule very well.

I agree with Wow. Kaylee skipped it at trials because she knows she’s got the WR and wanted the money for doing it at worlds haha. I’m like… 40% joking

Reply to  Sub13
4 months ago

Mollie needs to save her energy for the 4×2!

4 months ago


4 months ago

love the star wars references

Ceccon - Kamminga - Milak - Popovici
4 months ago

What Star Wars references?

Emily Se-Bom Lee

A New (The American) Hope
The Empire (Aussies) Strikes Back
Return of the (Canadians) Jedi
The Force (Field) Awakens

any of these individually could be coincidental, but their collective presence makes it seem very deliberate

Ceccon - Kamminga - Milak - Popovici
Reply to  Emily Se-Bom Lee
4 months ago

Oh yeah that’s 100% STAR WARS