The United States has a tradition of Olympic dominance in both men’s and women’s backstroke. In years past, the 3rd and 4th-place finishers in either the 100 or 200 backstrokes at US Olympic Trials have now and then posted fast enough times to medal in the following Olympic Games–if only they had been faster than at least two other American swimmers.
While this article focuses exclusively on American men’s backstroke during a specific point in time (2000-2012), Team USA’s women have and continue to be equally-impressive in the backstroke.
At age 17, Peirsol won the Olympic silver medal behind American teammate Lenny Krayzelburg at the Sydney Games in 2000. Krayzelburg also won the 100 backstroke and was a member of the champion 400 medley relay in Sydney. The following year would see the torch passed on to Peirsol.
Peirsol was the king of backstroke from 2001 to 2009, though in 2007 and 2008 Lochte was better at the 200 backstroke, and even pushed Peirsol in the 100.
Though better known as a 200-meter specialist, Lochte was for a time Team USA’s second-fastest 100 backstroker. Though Michael Phelps never seriously swam the 100 backstroke, there’s an argument to be made that if he had he could have perhaps added a 9th gold medal to his tally in Beijing after posting a 53.01 to win the National Title in 2007 within an hour of winning the 200 freestyle. Phelps admittedly glanced at the scoreboard to see his split during the race, which could have made for the 0.03 difference between his time and the then-World Record of 52.98 set by Peirsol in March at the 2007 World Championships. In any case, Phelps did not pursue the backstroke as an event at the World Championships or the Olympics whereas Lochte did.
At the 2007 World Championships in Melbourne, Lochte swam a 53.50 to take silver in the 100 backstroke behind Peirsol who posted a 52.98, the first-ever sub-53 performance in history. Lochte pursued the 100 backstroke into 2008, though Northwestern’s Matt Grevers edged him out for 2nd place at the 2008 Olympic Trials in Omaha, touching 53.19 to Lochte’s 53.37. Peirsol, meanwhile, won the race at Trials in 52.89, a new World Record.
Lochte won the 200 backstroke at the 2007 World Championships, beating Peirsol in the pool and lowering his two-year-old World Record to a 1:54.32.
Peirsol one-upped Lochte at the 2008 US Olympic Trials in Omaha and tied his World Record, besting Lochte by a mere 0.02.
Peirsol and Grevers won gold and silver, respectively, in the 100 backstroke at the Beijing Olympics, Peirsol doing so in World Record fashion. Grevers would go on to swim the prelims of the 400 medley relay which Peirsol would lead off in the finals, securing another gold medal for Team USA and the 8th medal overall for Phelps at those Beijing Olympics, setting World and Olympic Records in the process.
Lochte, however, bested Peirsol in the finals of the 200 backstroke to win his first individual Olympic gold medal, taking the World Record into previously-uncharted territory with a 1:53.94. Peirsol took silver in 1:54.33, nearly tying he and Lochte’s co-record but falling short of defending his 2004 crown.
Peirsol would go on to win the 2009 US National Championships in both the 100 and 200 backstrokes, setting World Records in both. In the 100, Peirsol swam a 51.94 which was finally downed by Ryan Murphy at the 2016 Olympics. In the 200, Peirsol posted a 1:53.08 to demolish Lochte’s record from Beijing.
At the 2009 World Championships in Rome, Peirsol dominated the 200 backstroke, winning gold in 1:51.92. Lochte would take bronze with a 1:53.82, falling also to Ryosuke Irie (1:52.51) of Japan, who up until that race was the World Record holder, having taken it from Peirsol in the time between US World Trials and the big show in Rome. Peirsol did not advance to the ‘A’ final of the 100 backstroke in Rome and conceded his crown to Japan’s Junya Koga (52.26).
The 2010 Pan Pacific Championships in Irvine, California, was Peirsol’s final international meet. Peirsol ended his career with gold medals in the 100 backstroke and finally the 400 medley relay, helping the United States to gold.
Though Peirsol remained dominant in the 100 backstroke at the 2010 Pan Pacs, Lochte was again the star of the 200, winning gold in 1:54.12. Peirsol, however, did not advance to the ‘A’ final, and the silver went to fellow American and 2012 Olympic gold medalist Tyler Clary in 1:54.90. Furthermore, Peirsol was very fortunate to have the opportunity to swim in the ‘A’ final of the 100 back; of the four American men that swam the race in Irvine, Peirsol was only the third-fastest among them after the prelims, being out-done by Lochte and David Plummer. Lochte scratched from the finals of the 100 back to focus on the 200 freestyle, which he won by nearly a second.
Clary won individual gold in the 200 back at the London 2012 Olympics, leaving silver to Japan’s Irie and bronze to Lochte. American duo Grevers and Nick Thoman won gold and silver, respectively, in the 100 backstroke, and each earned gold medals for the 400 medley relay, which Grevers led off in the finals.
Lochte was absolutely dominant at the 2011 FINA World Championships in Shanghai, where he won individual gold in the 200 backstroke (1:52.96), 200 freestyle (1:44.44), 200 IM (1:54.00 WR), and 400 IM (4:07.13). Though he settled for bronze in the 200 backstroke at the 2012 Olympic Games, falling behind Clary and Japan’s Ryosuke Irie down the final 50 meters, he reprised his gold medal at the 2013 FINA World Championships, pushing Clary to bronze and Irie off the podium.
Lochte’s victory in the 200 backstroke at the 2008 Beijing Olympics cemented his place in history and proved that 2007 wasn’t a fluke.
Peirsol made his big debut on the international stage when he won the silver medal in the 200 backstroke at the Sydney Olympics in 2000 behind then-backstroke king Lenny Krayzelburg. Peirsol became World Champion in the 200 back in 2001, won both the 100 and 200 backstrokes at the 2002 Pan Pacific Championships, won both backstrokes again at the 2003 World Championships, 2004 Olympic Games, the 2005 World Championships, and the 2006 Pan Pacific Championships, in which Lochte took silver behind Peirsol in the 100 while Phelps took silver in the 200. Peirsol’s gold at the 2004 Olympic Games came a mere 0.32 ahead of fellow American Krayzelburg who touched 4th in 54.38. Krayzelburg still took home a gold medal for his prelims swim on the 400 medley relay.