Analysis: Women's 100m Backstroke
Craig Lord
Coventry left it too late: Coughlin plunged backwards, with shoulder extending in desperation, and the crown was hers in an American record that made her the first to retain the title


Beijing 2008:


  • 1. Coughlin (USA) 58.96
  • 2. Coventry (ZIM) 59.19
  • 3. Hoelzer (USA) 59.34
  • Fastest field -  Beijing final: 58.96 - 1:00.18  
  • Fastest qualification - Beijing semi: 58.77 - 1:00.19
Comparison fields - finals:

Melbourne 2007: 59.44 - 1:02.68
Athens 2004: 1:00.37 - 1:01.76


Facts going into the race:


  • World record: 58.97 - Natalie Coughlin (USA), Omaha, 1.7.08
  • Olympic champion: Coughlin 1:00.37
  • World champion: Coughlin 59.44


Impact of morning finals:

Evening heats produced a qualification for semis in a range from 59.00 to 1:00.70. The equivalent range for Melbourne 2007 was 1:00.38 to 1:02.11, in the morning. Some jump, especially if you favour the argument of some at the Games who argue that morning finals make no difference. Well, something did - and how!

What it took to make the semis:

  • Beijing 2008: 59.00 - 1:00.70
  • Melbourne 2007: 1:00.38 - 1:02.11
  • Athens 2004: 1:01.27 - 1:02.39

Notes from the race:
Kirsty Coventry, the US-based Zimbabwean, set the world record at 58.77 in the semis. In the final, she had a poor start compared to Natalie Coughlin (USA), who had a great start. The American defending champion held her nerve, her body position and her stroke rate down the opening length and turned in 28.52, 0.34sec up on her world-record pace. Coventry was just 0.4sec behind at the turn but Coughlin had the better turn and maintained her momentum for just about 40 metres until Coventry started to claw back the deficit in the hunt for the wall. She left it too late: Coughlin plunged backwards, with shoulder extending in desperation, and the crown was hers in an American record 0.01sec inside the time she set at the US trials in Omaha on July 1. Coventry came home in 30.27, compared to splits of 30.44 for Coughlin and 30.23 for Margaret Holzer (USA), who will meet Coventry, her former Austin dorm-mate in the 200m backstroke. The fastest homecoming split of all was 30.23, from Gemma Spofforth (GBR), based in Florida. That left her just 0.04sec shy of the podium but gave her the European record by 0.02sec, inside the standard set in March by Anastasia Zueva (RUS), who was just 0.03sec behind the Brit in the final. Back in 7th was Laure Manaudou, 2004 medallist and a French Olympic champion of 2004 who looks poised to quit the sport.

Impact on all-time top 10:


  • 58.96 Coughlin, Natalie USA BEIJING F
  • 58.97 Coventry, Kirsty ZIM BEIJING S
  • 59.11 McGregory, Hayley USA
  • 59.21 Hoelzer, Margaret USA
  • 59.36 Nakamura, Reiko JPN BEIJING H
  • 59.38 Spofforth, Gemma  GBR BEIJING F
  • 59.40 Zueva, Anastasia RUS BEIJING F
  • 59.50 Manaudou, Laure FRA
  • 59.59 Seebohm, Emily AUS
  • 59.81 Zhao, Jing CHN


All-time top 10, end 2007:


  • 59.44 Coughlin (USA) 2007
  • 59.85 Coventry (ZIM) 2007
  • 59.87 Manaudou (FRA) 2007
  • 1:00.16 He Cihong (CHN)* 1994
  • 1:00.21 Mocanu (ROM) 2000
  • 1:00.22 Zhen Yingjuan 1997 (1996 best: 1:04.71)
  • 1:00.29 Nakamura (JPN) 
  • 1:00.31 Egerszegi (HUN) 
  • 1:00.33 Buschschulte (GER)
  • 1:00.48 Ornstedt (DEN) 



In Beijing, Natalie Coughlin became the first woman ever to retain the crown. The 2004 and 2008 results boasted the same top 2, with Kirsty Coventry taking silver in both races. Of the 20 finals contested since 1924, the USA leads the way with 11 golden moments, while Americans have also taken the lioness's share of all medals, stepping onto the podium 23 times out of 60 possibilities. before Beijing, no woman had raced below the minute in Olympic waters. Now, six have done so.  

Fastest: 58.77 (semi-final) Kirsty Coventry (ZIM); 58.96 (final), Natalie Coughlin (USA). 

World Record wins: Ferguson, 1964, Hall, 1968, Reinisch, 1980.

Biggest margin: Sybil Bauer's 1:23.2 in 1924 brought her victory by 4.2sec. Bauer died of cancer in 1927 at 22. Five years earlier, she swam 440 yards backstroke faster (6min 24) than any man had at the time. In the modern era, the blue pills fuelled Richter to the helm by 1.58sec in 1980.

Closest shave: The GDR won all three titles that they could have won, in 1976, 1980 and 1988 on the back of State Plan 14:25, and we will never know what the likes of Reinisch might have been capable of off her own steam and whether Nancy Garapick (CAN), among others, might have been an Olympic champion.