Tokyo 2020 Olympic Swimming Previews: 3 World Record-Holders in W 100 Back

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Women’s 100 Backstroke

  • World Record: Kaylee McKeown (AUS) – 57.45 (2021)
  • Olympic Record: Emily Seebohm (AUS) – 58.23 (2012)
  • World Junior Record: Regan Smith (USA) – 57.57 (2019)
  • 2016 Olympic Champion: Katinka Hosszu (HUN) – 58.45

There’s no easy way to go about this. The women’s 100 backstroke has been one of the most mind-bending races to keep track of over the past few years and the talent that we’ve seen in the field makes it nearly impossible to feel confident about a pick for who will take gold in Tokyo.

We’ll start by identifying our likely uncontroversial top three contenders for gold: Kaylee McKeown, Kylie Masse, and Regan Smith. Those 3 women represent the 3 fastest women in the history of the event and the only 3 to have ever posted a time under 58 seconds. The first woman to do so was Regan Smith who swam a 57.57 during a relay leadoff at the 2019 World Swimming Championships which marked a new world record at the time, improving upon Kathleen Baker‘s 2018 mark of 58.00. Smith dipped under 58 for a second time at the 2021 US Olympic Trials when she swam a 57.92 for the win.

The second woman to break 58.00 was Kaylee McKeown when she hit a 57.93 in December of 2020. Months later, McKeown became the first woman to swim under 58 seconds more than once when she notched a 57.63 at the 2021 Sydney Open. McKeown pulled off the feat for a 3rd time at the 2021 Australian Olympic Trials by delivering a new world record in the event of 57.45. Kylie Masse became the most recent addition to the 57-second club when at the 2021 Canadian Olympic Trials she swam her way to a 57.70 to win the national title. That swim for Masse was a 0.40 seconds improvement upon her former Canadian record of 58.10 which was actually also a world record back in 2017.

So in summary, Smith has been under 58 twice (57.57, 57.92), McKeown thrice (57.45, 57.63, 57.93), and Masse once (57.70) and all 3 of them have at one point held the world record. So even without Kathleen Baker, who was a recent World Record breaker in this event as well but struggled at the Olympic Trials while recovering from a broken field, this race will have three 100 backstroke World Record breakers in it.

Kaylee McKeown

Kaylee McKeown, Swimming Australia, Ltd.

In terms of deciding who is the favorite to win gold in Tokyo, we’ll go with McKeown. Her improvement to world record speed in the event over the past few months and her consistency this season in the women’s 100 backstroke is hard to bet against. Not only has she been under 58 3 times this season as compared to Smith’s and Masse’s 1, but her season-best of 57.45 is also a full 0.25 seconds faster than Masses’s 57.70 and a full 0.47 seconds faster than Smith’s 57.92. With plenty of time to close the gap, Masse and Smith have some speed to make up if they want to catch world record holder and our top pick for gold in Tokyo: Kaylee McKeown.

Kylie Masse 2017 World Championships Budapest, Hungary (photo: Mike Lewis)

Our #2 pick here is Kylie Masse who comes in as the reigning Olympic bronze medalist and the 2-time defending world champion. Masse somehow faded from the popular conversation as McKeown rose in the ranks and the women’s 100 backstroke was widely regarded as a 2-woman race between Australia and the United States. That was also largely a result of Canada’s lack of high-level racing opportunities during the COVID-19 pandemic. After 2019 World Champs, we didn’t see much long course racing from Masse while continuing to get glimpses into where McKeown and Smith were. Masse put an end to that lul, however, with her recent 57.70 at Trials to remind us that she is not to be forgotten. As the most decorated woman in the field, Masse has proven that she knows how to get her hand on the wall when it counts and is our #2 pick behind McKeown.

Regan Smith 2019 FINA World Championship Gwangju courtesy of Rafael Domeyko

With McKeown and Masse out of the way, Smith is the obvious 3rd pick. Smith has raced more than Masse has over the past few seasons but we can’t fool ourselves into thinking that we’ve seen her at her best. Considering that she almost definitely wasn’t in full form at US Trials, we can assume that Smith hasn’t delivered a fully-tapered swim since Gwangju 2019. Smith is our #3 pick here but certainly can’t be counted out as she guns for gold at her first-ever Olympic Games.

Moving past our top 3 choices for the women’s 100 backstroke in Tokyo, we are left with many more talented women, all fighting to become the 4th woman under 58. We can predict confidently that it will take better than a 58.00 to medal in Tokyo which means that any of these women will need a PB in order to break into the top 3.

Rhyan White is one of the newest names to join this field of elite women and would likely not have been in contention had the Games occurred in 2020 as intended. Coming off a breakout NCAA season, White had a powerful performance at the US Olympic Trials and swam a 58.60 for 2nd place, joining Smith on the team. In order to do so, White had to fend off 58.30 swimmer and 2016 Olympian Olivia Smoliga, among many more talented American women. White has shown incredible improvement this season, shaving exactly 3 seconds off her 2018 PB of 1:01.60. The biggest signifier of White’s readiness to perform is that days after making the team in the 100, White defeated the heavy favorite and world record holder Regan Smith in the women’s 200 backstroke. That sheer competitive edge and ability to put her head down and race will be key for White in Tokyo. Combine that with her current momentum and we could very well see White deliver the next 57 in the women’s 100 backstroke.

Photo Andrea Staccioli / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

Kathleen Dawson holds the distinction of being the woman in this field who has come the closest to breaking 58 seconds without actually doing so. Her 58.08 from the 2021 European Championships marked a new European record and made her the 5th performer all-time behind McKeown, Smith, Masse, and Kathleen Baker who won’t be racing in Tokyo. Like White, Dawson has become much more of a threat in this event given the year-long delay. Prior to the 2021 season, Dawson held a PB of 59.68 from back in 2016. Dawson got under 59 for the first time in April 2021 with a 58.24 and has since delivered a 58.49, 58.44, 58.18, and a 58.08. Dawson showed off her capacity to keep her head in the game when at the 2021 European Swimming Championships she won gold not once, but twice.

Dawson first swam to gold by nearly a second in the event with a 58.18 to Kira Toussaint‘s 59.02 and Maria Kameneva‘s 59.13. When Sweden’s Louise Hansson reported that she hadn’t heard the start gun, however, it was announced that the final would be contested again. Dawson again delivered a European Championships-winning time and threw down a 58.49 to beat Margherita Panziera‘s 59.01 for silver and 59.22. Dawson’s proximity to the 58.00 barrier and her proven mental toughness make her a big threat in this lethal field.

Tollcross International Swimming Centre
Photo Giorgio Scala / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

2 of the final 8 women on this list were the 2 second-place finishers at the 2021 European Championships. Kira Toussaint took the first silver medal in a 59.02 but then fell to 4th in the second final with a 59.32. Margherita Panziera on the other hand was 4th originally in a 59.65 but managed to find her strength in the second run and hit a 59.01 for silver. That 59.01 for Panziera represents a season-best but she holds a PB in the event of 58.92 from back in 2019. Toussaint’s season and lifetime-best came in March 2021 when she hit a 58.65 at the Eindhoven Qualification meet. A few months will have passed since their European Championships performance once Tokyo 2020 rolls around and it will be exciting to see what the 2 silver medalists will bring this summer.



Emily Seebohm at the 2017 World Championships Budapest, Hungary (photo: Mike Lewis)

We have saved the most legendary for last on this list of elite 100 backstrokers. Emily Seebohm has been racing this event at the Olympic Games since 2008 when she placed 9th overall with a 1:00.31. 4 years later at London 2012, Seebohm nabbed silver in the event with a 58.68 but posted her current PB of 58.23 during the prelims there which still stands as an Olympic record in the event. At her most recent Games in 2016, she fell to 7th overall with a 59.19. Seebohm hasn’t gotten back to her 2012 form but wasn’t far off when she won World Championships gold in 2015 (58.26) and bronze in 2017 (58.59).

Seebohm has been a consistent member of team Australia for well over a decade and proved at the recent Australian Olympic Trials that you can never count out the veterans. Seebohm qualified to swim in Tokyo by hitting a 58.59 behind McKeown’s 57.45. Not many swimmers are able to remain at the forefront of an event for as long as Seebohm has and her recent ability to beat out young guns such as Minna Atherton and Molly O’Callaghan reminded us that she’s not yet finished with the event. Coming into her 4th Olympic Games, Seebohm has another shot at the podium and will be relying on her unique experience and the confidence that accompanies it.

Top 8:

Place Swimmer Country
Best Time Since 2016 Olympics
1 Kaylee McKeown AUS 57.45 (2021)
2 Kylie Masse CAN 57.70 (2021)
3 Regan Smith USA 57.57 (2019)
4 Rhyan White USA 58.60 (2021)
5 Kathleen Dawson GBR 58.08 (2021)
6 Kira Toussaint NED 58.65 (2021)
7 Emily Seebohm AUS 58.53 (2017)
8 Margherita Panziera ITA 58.92 (2019)

Dark Horse: Anastasia Fesikova (RUS) – Russian swimmer Anastasia Fesikova is expected to race the women’s 100 backstroke in Tokyo, having hit a 59.51 in March at the 2021 Russian National Swimming Championships. Fesikova, like Seebohm, has been on the international backstroke scene for more than a decade. Her current PB in the 100 actually comes from the 2009 World Championships where she hit a 58.18 to take the silver medal. Fesikova hasn’t been as fast in recent years and hasn’t collected a World Championships or Olympic medal since her silver in the 200 at London 2012. Fesikova hasn’t faded completely, however, having won gold in the 100 backstroke at the 2018 European Championships. Fesikova hit a 1:00.00 during the semi-finals at the 2021 European Championships and went on to place 7th with a 1:00.33. If she can get closer to her top form once she gets to Tokyo, Fesikova will have a shot at redemption and could make a statement about longevity at her 4th Olympic Games.

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1 year ago

Please do the Women’s 200 free next so it can revolve into another discussion of “who cares if the Aussies have the best times, they always choke at Olympics and Americans never do”. Those are really fun.

Reply to  Sub13
1 year ago

Can’t wait.

1 year ago

It’s a great field of backstrokers, the best ever. The three WR holders and the Olympic record holder all in one race. May never happen again.

I hope it lives up to expectations. No broken feet or other injuries or illnesses to hold anyone back.

It has the potential to be one of the Greatest Races in the history of Women’s Olympic Swimming.

Last edited 1 year ago by Marklewis
Drama King
1 year ago

Kaylee Mckeown 57.36 WR
Kyle Masse 57.68
Kathleen Dawason 57.84

Dark Horse – Rhyan White

1 year ago

One thing to keep in mind regarding Masse and her 57.7 is that it came untappered as she was pre-qualified in the event. Of course she likely rested a bit but… Certainly the fastest, by far, she’s ever bin heading into a major meet ..

1 year ago

Dawson has been a machine at posting low 58s. I’m really excited to see if she’ll be able to go sub-58 and snag a medal.

Reply to  Chad
1 year ago

She’s been better LCM than SCM to this point, but I agree that I’m excited for the potential.

1 year ago

This race, in my opinion, comes down to who has the best racing strategy. We all know that Mckeown has been an amazing closer and Masse is not far behind. With that being said, I honestly do not see Smith winning this race if she takes it out so fast, which she has a tendency to do especially in finals, and eventually has nothing left in the tank coming home in final meters. She has shown us many times she has the ability to close fast like Mckeown and Masse if she can just swim a more controlled, evenly-split race. Not saying she will win for sure but if she chooses to fly and die, chances are she will be… Read more »

Last edited 1 year ago by jonathankkh
Eric the eel > Phelps
1 year ago

First of all Aussie trials were moved in july the previous ones were in April-march.
Aussie swimmers had to peak two times because their trials are hard as well. Approaching the trials and OG like in the US is a great experiment, we may see amazing results from them this year

Reply to  Eric the eel > Phelps
1 year ago

Aussie works champ trials in 2019 were also in June/July. We did well in 2019

1 year ago

Ok a lot of people are counting out Regan Smith. She clearly didn’t quite hit the taper she wanted for trials and was worried after she didn’t do so well in the 100 fly. She has so much more in the tank than what we saw at trials and I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw a world record out of her. I think she has a great chance at gold but it’s certainly going to be a tight top three with 57s possibly across the podium.

Old Man Chalmers
Reply to  TeamDressel
1 year ago

please. no one’s slept on regan. she’s been all anyone ever talked about for the last 2 years of womens backstroke. masse won a world championship? well that doesnt matter because regan just broke 2 WRs. Mckeown is dropping a lot of time? regan is still faster. mckeown broke a wr? wait until until us trials. regan didnt reclaim the wr? wait until tokyo. regan never left conversation. if anything it’s masse who has gone under the radar since she won in 2018-19 without the fastest time in the world those years, and just dropped a 57.70 when all the focus was on regan and kaylee

Reply to  TeamDressel
1 year ago

I mean. Or she won’t. Like those are the two options, right? And not everyone has a great season every time.

These picks are always the “here’s what we project based on what we’ve seen” picks, and based on what we’ve seen, the above order makes sense. Of course there can always be surprises, that’s what makes sports fun. But, if Regan wins, it’s not her meeting the expectation, it’s her figuring something out and surprising us.

Remember – she wasn’t just not at her best during Trials, she struggled all season long. Our friends in the comments kept telling us “just wait, her 200 back will come around” after she went a 2:12 at a Pro Swim. And it… Read more »