U.S. Olympic swimming trials: Regan Smith shatters world record in 100-meter backstroke

INDIANAPOLIS — Regan Smith, after nearly five years filled with self-doubt, reclaimed the world record in the women’s 100-meter backstroke here at U.S. Olympic swimming trials, outdueling her biggest rival from halfway around the world a month before they’ll meet head-to-head in Paris.

Smith went 57.13 in Tuesday’s final, shattering Australian Kaylee McKeown’s previous mark by two full tenths of a second.

At the sight of her time on a center-hung scoreboard, she slammed the water, and smiled in delight, and"f*** yeah," she thought.

"I was just psyched out of my mind," she later said.

And she was proud, because this moment had been years in the making.

INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA - JUNE 18: Regan Smith of the United States reacts after setting the world record in the Women's 100m backstroke final on Day Four of the 2024 U.S. Olympic Team Swimming Trials at Lucas Oil Stadium on June 18, 2024 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
Regan Smith reacts after setting the world record in the Women's 100m backstroke final on Day Four of the 2024 U.S. Olympic Team Swimming Trials at Lucas Oil Stadium on June 18, 2024 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)

Smith, now 22, first snatched the world record at age 17, in 2019 and out of nowhere. In a span of roughly 48 hours at world championships that summer, she also broke the 200-meter record, and burst into swimming's limelight. "I really just shocked myself at that meet," she said.

But then, for the better part of three years, she crumbled under the pressure that records and hype heaped onto her. She came to fear what were once her signature races. She walked into the 200 at Olympic trials in 2021 scared, and failed to even qualify.

She made it to those Olympics in the 100 back and 100 butterfly. She ultimately medaled in both events But something inside her seemed broken. By 2022, after one year at Stanford, she had fallen out of love with swimming. And, not that it mattered, but her world record in the 100 back had also fallen. In fact, it felt more distant than ever before.

"There were many years that went by after 2019 where I thought that I would never do that ever again," Smith said Tuesday.

It was in the fall of 2022 that she began to rebuild, after leaving Stanford, going pro, and going to train with revered coach Bob Bowman at Arizona State. Slowly but surely, she began to build confidence in her aerobic capability.

In the meantime, McKeown took both her records, and established herself as the woman to beat in all backstroke events.

But in 2024, after a bout with mononucleosis in December, Smith began "knocking on the door," as she said Tuesday. She had a "slight mental block," which separated her from the 57.57 she ripped off in 2019. She finally broke through in May, four years and 10 months later, with a 57.51.

And that, she said, "opened the floodgates for me to do something great."

She dropped four more hundredths in Monday's semifinal. As she came home over the final 50 meters, staring toward the cavernous ceiling of Lucas Oil Stadium, she saw that yellow world-record line at her fingertips on the JumboTron, superimposed on video of the race — which was weird.

So, 24 hours later, she avoided it. She didn't want to think about chasing records during her race. But she knew she was capable of toppling this one, and breaking through once again.

So she sped toward the wall, and looked up, and erupted, but not in shock like she had five years earlier. This, she said, had been "a long time coming." And, well, it made sense. It was the product of Bowman's "insane" practice sets, and of intentionally banishing self-doubt, and of "being around a lot of male teammates who are just so good at being dogs every day in practice," Smith said. It was the product of work and belief and trust — in others, and in herself.

"I think I'm really starting to do a good job at staying logical and knowing what I'm capable of," Smith said.

And on that note: She knows she is capable of more. Tuesday's 57.13 is not her upper limit. "That was an amazing race, but it wasn't a perfect race," she said.

She was asked if she'll go faster in Paris, and her teenage self almost surely would have answered reticently. But here, with some of her final words of the night, Smith said: "I hope so. I'd love to. I think 56 is a possibility, for sure."