The Congestion In U.S. Women’s Backstroke Heading Into 2020


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The women’s backstroke scene in the United States has been building over the last three years.

At the 2016 Olympic Trials, a 19-year-old Kathleen Baker and 21-year-old Olivia Smoliga sprung to the top of the heap in the 100 backstroke and qualified for the Olympic team. That final specifically signalled a changing of the guard of sorts, as former Olympic champions in the event Missy Franklin (2012) and Natalie Coughlin (2004, 2008) finished seventh and eighth in the race.

Franklin and Maya Dirado fended off the youngsters in the 200 back in Omaha, but the next generation has completely taken over recently and the overabundance of talent that exists in women’s backstroke in the country is staggering.

After winning back-to-back silver medals in Rio and Budapest, Baker had a breakthrough swim last summer by setting the world record in the 100 back in a time of 58.00.

This year, we saw Regan Smith explode for new world records in both the 100 and 200, winning the World Championship title in the longer event in the process.

She’s all of a sudden number one with a bullet in both events leading into the 2020 Olympic Trials, and the established presences of Baker and Smoliga are now feeling the pressure from the up-and-comers behind them.

100 Backstroke

With World Juniors still to come, the United States have eight swimmers inside the worlds top-20 in 2019, all under 1:00.

Behind Smith, there are seven women within a second of each other based on times this year, ranging from Smoliga’s 58.73 to Isabelle Stadden‘s recent 59.69 at Pan Ams.

With Stadden just 17, Katharine Berkoff 18 and Phoebe Bacon days away from her 17th birthday, these women are still young enough that they could plausibly see a drop in the next year that puts them right in the mix with Baker and Smoliga.

Bacon just reeled off a 59.47 in the Pan Am final en route to gold, while Berkoff swam a lifetime bests to win gold last month at the World University Games. Getting some senior international experience under their belt could be crucial heading into next summer as they deal with the pressure of Trials.

Note: Elise Haan, who won silver in both the 50 and 100 backstroke at WUGs,  announced her retirement from the sport on Thursday.

Swimmer Lifetime Best 2019 Season-Best 2019 World Rank
Regan Smith 57.57 57.57 1
Olivia Smoliga 58.73 58.73 5
Kathleen Baker 58.00 59.03 7
Katharine Berkoff 59.29 59.29 10
Phoebe Bacon 59.12 59.47 13
Elise Haan 59.62 59.62 17
Amy Bilquist 59.37 59.64 18
Isabelle Stadden 59.69 59.69 20
Ali DeLoof 59.43 1:00.08 28
Lisa Bratton 59.76 1:00.25 35

200 Backstroke

The 200 back yields the exact same numbers as the 100, with four inside the top-10 and eight in the top-20 in the 2019 world rankings.

Smith is now head and shoulders ahead of anyone in the world, but that #2 spot is very much up for grabs at Trials.

Despite an off-year, Baker remains the front-runner having been 2:06 six times. But Lisa Bratton got herself under 2:08 at WUGs, and Alex Walsh and Isabelle Stadden had very strong swims to go 1-2 at Pan Ams. Their times of 2:08.30 and 2:08.39 respectively ranked them sixth and seventh overall respectively in the U.S. 17-18 age group.


  1. Regan Smith, 2:03.35
  2. Missy Franklin, 2:04.06
  3. Elizabeth Beisel, 2:07.82
  4. Elizabeth Pelton, 2:08.06
  5. Amy Bilquist / Alex Walsh, 2:08.30
  6. Isabelle Stadden, 2:08.39
  7. Bonnie Brandon, 2:09.03
  8. Kylie Stewart / Alex Sumner, 2:09.04

The ninth-fastest American so far this year, Rye Ulett will have an opportunity to improve her ranking at the upcoming World Junior Championships. Claire Curzan, who ranks 10th, won’t swim this event but will have the 100 back in Budapest.

Swimmer Lifetime Best 2019 Season-Best 2019 World Rank
Regan Smith 2:03.35 2:03.35 1
Lisa Bratton 2:07.91 2:07.91 8
Kathleen Baker 2:06.14 2:08.08 9
Alex Walsh 2:08.30 2:08.30 10
Hali Flickinger 2:08.36 2:08.36 11
Isabelle Stadden 2:08.24 2:08.39 12
Asia Seidt 2:08.56 2:08.56 15
Phoebe Bacon 2:09.11 2:09.11 18
Rye Ulett 2:09.70 2:09.70 23
Claire Curzan 2:10.16 2:10.16 29

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4×100 back relay. Sub 3:56


Sub 3:52 with relay starts!


Sub 3:55 even!


Hey, I actually swam on a 4×100 bk relay once, and we won. (It was scy, in the 1970s, and as I recall we went ~4:21.) Swimmers 2-4 did dive starts and had to be on the back when surfacing. Fun times!



Now let’s starting working on the women’s 100 m butterfly.


Exactly. We at least need someone who can consistently swim 56-low times. Dahlia seems to be getting slower and slower. Maybe she needs a coaching change? I wouldn’t be surprised if some up-and-comer youngsters keep her out of the Olympics.


It was good but disappointing seeing her split 56.1 on the medley relay but 57.0-57.1 individually, I get relays are “meant to be quicker” but given that she has a 56.3 PB and – from what I can find – 56.1 is her quickest split, it was a little disappointing to say the least.


100 backstroke for women is going to be like the 2016 men’s race where it was Grevers and Plummer and Murphy for only two spots.


Totally agree, except this time you have a final full of Grevers, Plummer and Murphy fighting for two spots

The michael phelps caterpillar

Plummer was a legend.

About James Sutherland

James Sutherland

James swam five years at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario, specializing in the 200 free, back and IM. He finished up his collegiate swimming career in 2018, graduating with a bachelor's degree in economics. In 2019 he completed his graduate degree in sports journalism. Prior to going to Laurentian, James swam …

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