OMAHA – Phoebe Bacon said she never imagined making the U.S. Olympic team in the women's 200-meter backstroke. Most people couldn't imagine Regan Smith not making it.
Yet that's what happened Saturday in perhaps the biggest upset at the Olympic trials. Smith, the world record holder from Lakeville, finished third behind Rhyan White and Bacon in the finals of the 200 back and will not swim that race at the Olympics. She ended her week at the trials with spots in two events for the Tokyo Summer Games, in the 100 backstroke and 200 butterfly, and could swim medley relays as well.
During an exhausting and often stressful week, Smith, 19, won the 100 backstroke and placed second in the 200 fly. She led through the first 150 meters Saturday at CHI Health Center, but she tired near the end of her 11th race in seven days.
White, a junior at Alabama, roared through the final 50 to win in 2 minutes, 5.73 seconds, followed by Bacon (2:06.46) and Smith (2:06.79). Isabelle Stadden of Blaine was fourth in 2:07.86.
Smith was not available for comment after the race. Her father, Paul, said via text message that Smith "swam her hardest and simply came up short."
"It's a brutal week of intense competition," Paul Smith said. "Regan swam a tough schedule. She's thrilled to have qualified for the team in two of three events where she had a solid chance."
Smith exited the trials with a season-best time and U.S. Open record in the 100 back (57.92), which makes her the second-fastest woman in the world this year. Australia's Kaylee McKeown took down Smith's 100 back world record last Sunday with a swim of 57.45.
In the 200 fly, Smith's second-place time of 2:06.99 in the finals made her the fourth-fastest performer in the world this year.
Competition in the backstroke events runs fast and deep among the American women, a point proven again Saturday. Smith set a world record of 2:03.35 in the 200 back in 2019. At the trials, she faced both established rivals and newcomers who used the one-year Olympic delay to get stronger and swifter.
Smith's time Saturday was her fastest this year, but not enough to stave off two women coming off successful college seasons. At the halfway point, she touched the wall first in 1:01.01, with White .63 of a second behind in fourth place. With 50 meters left, Smith's lead had dwindled to .21 over White, who overtook Bacon as Stadden dropped back.
White ripped home in 31.96 seconds, more than a second faster than Smith's 33.23. Bacon, a freshman at Wisconsin last season, and White finished first and second in the women's 200-yard back at last spring's NCAA championships.
"I was trying to keep up with Regan for the first 100," White said. "I think we all kind of know she likes to take it out.
"To see first and second for us is really exciting. I was a little surprised."
Smith will return home to Minnesota for a brief training block at her home pool, Bluewater Aquatic Center in Apple Valley, before heading to Honolulu with the full Olympic swim team for a pre-Olympic training camp. There, Smith will work with the coach she will swim for in college beginning this fall: Stanford's Greg Meehan, who will oversee the U.S. women's team in Tokyo.
Her current coach, Mike Parratto, was proud of Smith for withstanding the pressure brought by the one-year postponement of the Olympics. She set world records in the 100 and 200 back at the 2019 world championships, then continued to progress in 2020 before COVID-19 brought the sports world to a halt.
That meant 12 extra months of waiting for the Olympic trials and the Games, while shouldering the burden of public expectations and the emotional highs and lows of training through a pandemic.
"It's hard to carry those expectations for another year," Parratto said. "It's been difficult for a lot of people, including Regan. But I'm not surprised by anything good Regan does."