USA’s Regan Smith sets world record in 100m backstroke at Olympic trials

This world record was five years in the making for Regan Smith.

What an up and down journey it has been.

Returning from a close-but-no-Olympics in her first race, Smith set a world record in the women’s 100-meter backstroke at the U.S. swimming trials on Tuesday night.

The 22-year-old Minnesota native touched the ball in 57.13 seconds, easily beating Australian Kaylee McKeown’s mark of 57.33 from a year ago.

Smith was just 17 years old when she set her first world record in the 100 at the 2019 world championships. But she struggled to cope with the sudden newfound fame and ceding dominance in the event to McKeown.

“It’s going to be a long time,” Smith said. “It’s about time.”

There was never any doubt about Smith’s talent, but a lack of confidence was almost crippling at times.

She has been working with a sports psychologist since October, which has helped turn things around from a mental perspective. Her coach, Bob Bowman, best known for his work with 23-time gold medalist Michael Phelps, took care of the physical side with a grueling training regimen.

“This is incredibly rewarding,” said Smith. “When I was a teenager, I hadn’t done much. There was no pressure on me. I was always the youngest. Nobody expected much from me. I could go into it without fear.”

Once she tasted success, it was hard to get back on track. She was on the U.S. team for the Tokyo Olympics, but finished third in the backstroke when McKeown took the gold.

“Physically I’ve always had it, but not mentally,” Smith admitted. “I just didn’t have it here,” pointing to her head.

Smith showed how much her confidence has grown and bounced back emphatically after securing a spot on the US team in the 100 butterfly, where she finished third behind Gretchen Walsh and Torri Huske.

Smith turned onto her back and set the second world record of the trials, following Walsh’s mark in the semifinals of the 100 fly.

Katharine Berkoff claimed the second expected Olympic spot for the US with a time of 57.91.

In the other final of the evening, Bobby Finke earned the right to defend the gold in the 800 freestyle that he won in Tokyo with a time of 7 minutes, 44.22 seconds.

Finke had to work hard to reach the wall ahead of 18-year-old phenom Luke Whitlock of Indiana, who set a national age record at 7:45.19 and will likely head to his first Olympics with the U.S. finishing second.

No one else was within four seconds of the top two.

“I find that I need pressure to do well, at least in my eyes,” Finke said. “So I feel like the more pressure I feel, the more likely I am to do well. Happy with the time we got.”

Whitlock made an emphatic splash after going virtually stroke for stroke with the reigning Olympic champion, who swept the 800 and 1,500 frees in Tokyo.

He is expected to become the youngest male swimmer to make the U.S. team since Phelps, who was 15 when he qualified for his first Olympic Games in Sydney in 2000.

“It’s actually only been in the last two months, my training has really improved and now talking to my coach, we just had a really good plan,” Whitlock said. “We had everything planned out about a month and a half before and I was really confident in the work I had put in, so I knew I could execute.”

Two of America’s biggest swimming stars, Caeleb Dressel and Simone Manuel, had impressive debuts at the trials, although there is still work to be done to return to the Olympics.

Dressel was the third-fastest qualifier in the preliminaries and semifinals of the men’s 100 freestyle, finishing behind Jack Alexy and Chris Guiliano both times. The tattooed Floridian will have to beat at least one of them in the final Wednesday night for a chance to defend his Olympic title in that event.

Manuel was the fastest qualifier in the women’s 100 free preliminaries and took second place behind Torri Huske in the semifinals.

Dressel and Manuel are both returning from long layoffs that raised doubts over whether they could qualify for Paris.

Dressel, winner of five gold medals at the Tokyo Olympics, mysteriously walked out in the middle of the 2022 world championships, later revealing he needed an extended break to rekindle his love for the sport.

Manuel, the first black female swimmer to win an individual gold medal, was diagnosed with overtraining syndrome ahead of the last Olympics. She barely managed to qualify for the US team and subsequently stopped all physical activities under a doctor’s supervision to allow her body to recover.