Ryan Murphy poses for a portrait during the Team USA Tokyo 2020 Olympics shoot on Nov. 23, 2019 in West Hollywood, Calif.
When it comes to U.S. athletes winning Olympic medals, the swimming pool is a veritable well of gold, silver, and bronze. And the backstroke is the deepest well of all.
Since the 1996 Games, U.S. men have won Olympic gold medals in both the 100- and 200-meter backstroke races in six consecutive Olympiads. And looking at historical results—from the first men’s 100-meter backstroke race at the 1908 Games through the Olympic Games Rio 2016—American swimmers have won the race about two-thirds of the time. And two men have finished on the Olympic podium 60 percent of the time. They have been similarly dominant in the 200-meter backstroke.
Historically, the U.S. women have been almost as dominant, winning half of the 100-meter backstroke races since the event made its Olympic debut in 1924. They have been less dominant at the longer distance, but U.S. women have won the 200 backstroke at the past two Olympiads, with Missy Franklin taking gold in 2012 and Maya DiRado in 2016.
So what’s led to this dominance?
Ryan Murphy has a theory. He’s the reigning Olympic backstroke champion at both distances, and he currently holds the world record in the 100 (51.97 seconds).
“The U.S backstrokers are consistently a little bit more built, more muscular compared to [swimmers] from other countries,” he said by phone from his home in California. “Backstroke is so taxing on the body, so you have to be willing to go into a lot of pain and be able to adjust your stroke throughout the race, so having a little more muscle mass helps with that.”
As proof of backstrokers’ fitness, look no farther than their lactic acid levels, said Murphy. Backstrokers typically have higher concentrations of lactic acid in their muscles after hard workouts—and “lactic acid equals pain,” he explained.
The reason? In every other stroke, breath is the limiting factor—how much oxygen swimmers can get into their lungs when they come up for air. But in backstroke, “you’re getting as much breath as you want,” said Murphy.
“So the limiting factor then becomes how much can your muscles take while you’re getting as much oxygen as you need?” he explained.
Olivia Smoliga—a 2016 Olympic gold medalist in the medley relay and a world championship bronze medalist in backstroke—agrees that backstrokers know how to suffer (although she added that she feels the same pain no matter what stroke she is swimming). She speculated that American backstroke dominance comes from underwater.
Backstrokers can stay underwater doing a dolphin kick until the 15-meter mark after the start and after each turn. It’s a skill, Smoliga said, that U.S. swimmers focus on—and one that athletes like Michael Phelps, and backstroke Olympic gold medalists Natalie Coughlin, Ryan Lochte, and Aaron Peirsol perfected.
“The U.S. team in general is just tough,” said Smoliga. “We really work hard to be as dominant as we can be.”
Murphy will have his work cut out for him should he qualify for the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020. World champions Evgeny Rylov from Russia, Xu Jiaya from China, and Mitch Larkin from Australia would no doubt like to break the U.S. men’s Olympic backstroke winning streak.
Women’s Backstroke At U.S. Olympic Team Trials
The field of backstrokers going to the U.S. Olympic Trials—Swimming in June is deep, perhaps deepest among the women. American women hold six of the 12 fastest times in the 100 back so far this year, and five of the top eight fastest times in the 200.
As Swimming World magazine recently noted, the 100-meter backstroke at trials will be “the showdown of showdowns.”
The list of favorites in the backstroke races at trials is long. Let’s start with Smoliga. After swimming a 58.31 at a meet in mid-May, the 26-year-old is currently ranked third in the world in the 100 back.
As a 21-year-old college student, Smoliga won the 100 backstroke at 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials—Swimming and remembers reporters pointing out that American women have long done well in the 100 back, with Natalie Coughlin and Missy Franklin having kept the Olympic title in American hands since the 2008 Olympic Games. The reporter then asked Smoliga how she felt now that it would be her responsibility to follow in their wakes.
Smoliga answered politely but inside, did not feel up to the challenge.
At the Rio Games, Smoliga swam a personal best of 58.85 and finished sixth, just a tenth of a second behind teammate Kathleen Baker who won an Olympic silver medal in the 100 back.
“I was super nervous [at the 2016 Olympics],” Smoliga confessed. “Maybe I felt that pressure subconsciously.”
Should she qualify for the Tokyo Games, Smoliga has gained experience in the past five years—along with a handful of world championship medals. If asked about the U.S.’s backstroke legacy at trials this time, she will answer with confidence that she’s ready for the challenge.
“I would definitely have a different inner dialogue with myself,” she said. “I feel a lot more prepared.”
Right behind Smoliga in the 100 back is 20-year-old Rhyan White, runner-up in both the 100 and 200-yard backstrokes at the 2021 NCAA championships in March. The University of Alabama junior is currently ranked fourth in the world in the 100 back.
In the 200-meter backstroke world rankings, Phoebe Bacon sits third in the world, just ahead of reigning world champion and world record holder Regan Smith, 19, who was once thought of as a shoo-in to make her first Olympic Games.
Bacon, 18, won the 2021 NCAA 200-yd backstroke title as a freshman at the University of Wisconsin and was the 2019 Pan Am gold medalist in the 100 back.
Then there’s Kathleen Baker, the 2016 Olympic silver medalist and former world record holder in the 100 back, who’s making a go for another Olympic team. Baker, 24, won silver and bronze medals in the 100 and 200 backstrokes at the 2017 world championships.
To name a few …
Smoliga summed it up when she said, “I’m really excited to see what my teammates can do, and what I can do. The U.S. shows up no matter what.”
Men’s Backstroke At U.S. Olympic Team Trials
Defending Olympic gold medalist Ryan Murphy, 25, will headline the backstroke fields at trials. Although he finished fourth in the 100-backstroke at the 2019 world championships, his time in the 100 has steadily decreased this year, and he feels stronger than ever.
Matt Grevers, 36, who kept the U.S.’s 100-backstroke gold-medal streak alive at the 2012 London Olympic Games and won a silver medal to Peirsol in 2008, is trying for his third Games. He just missed qualifying for Rio in the 100 backstroke and tearfully watched the race on his phone while he sat on an airport runway.
Coming up are a few strong challengers, including Texas A&M senior Shaine Casas, 21, who burst onto the scene at the 2019 national championships when he won the 100 backstroke and swam the seventh fastest time ever for an American (reported Swimming World magazine).
Swimming at the Olympic Games has been on Casas’s radar since high school, “but winning nationals, that’s when it became a reality and something I could see myself achieving,” he said by phone from Texas.
Most recently, Casas—who says backstroke picked him (he has long arms and a strong cardiovascular system thanks in part to running cross-country in high school)—won 2021 NCAA titles in the 100- and 200-yard backstrokes, as well as the 200 individual medley.
Interestingly, at 2021 NCAAs, Casas swam the second fastest 200-yard backstroke in history—just two-hundredths of a second slower than Murphy’s time when he won the NCAA 200 back title in 2016, a few months prior to the Rio Games.
Casas has shown talent since he first started swimming at age five or six. But he has blossomed in college, in part because he has matured physically but also because of what Texas A&M has to offer.
“I was given the tools I needed to unlock my potential,” he said. “I always worked hard and always believed in myself, but I really have started to excel because of the new instruments that I have.”
Casas has looked up to Murphy, who recently told him to trust the process and have confidence as he tries to make his first Olympic team.
“We're allowed to have two guys on the podium [at the Olympic Games], and that's a really great thing,” Murphy said near the end of a SwimSwam “Gold Medal Minute” video in early February. “So I do want to do what I can to help Shaine become really confident. And hopefully, push him onto the Olympic team.”