2023 W. NCAA Previews: Claire Curzan Chasing Title and American Record in 200 Back


Despite the fact that in the preseason poll, nine out of the eleven polled SwimSwam writers chose Phoebe Bacon as the 2023 200 backstroke champion, coming into the season this felt like one of the most wide open events. With American record holder and 2022 champion Regan Smith turning pro after just one season at Stanford, there was a case to be made for at least three athletes winning the race–Bacon, Isabelle Stadden, and Rhyan White.

Then, Claire Curzan hopped in the water.

Claire Curzan (photo: Jack Spitser)

Coming into the NCAA having already established herself as one of the most versatile swimmers on the U.S.’s international roster (she swam four individual events plus relays in Budapest and had 19 swims in Melbourne) there were plenty of lineup options for Curzan at the NCAA-level. It was possible that she would opt to focus on the sprints and not race this event at a championship level at all. But at NC State’s midseason invitational, she threw down a 1:48.50, a personal best for her which topped the NCAA by nearly two seconds.

At PAC-12s, she cut even more time off her best, blasting a 1:47.34. That makes her the fourth-fastest performer all-time, and the fastest since 2019, when Smith set the American record at 1:47.16. It also cements her as the favorite to win this event in Knoxville.

Yes, she is a freshman and hasn’t been to this meet before. Yes, she’s doing the 100 fly/100 back double the day before. But Curzan has proven herself capable of showing up in the big moments and of managing a busy schedule. NCAAs is a long meet and these factors are certainly worth making note of, but they aren’t enough to shake her from being the front-runner. In fact, based on her performance at PAC-12s, we’ll be on American record watch in this event, as she’s only .18 away from Smith’s mark.

U.S. International Team-ers

Isabelle Stadden (photo: Jack Spitser)

Stadden also swam a lifetime best at PAC-12s. She finished in 1:48.75, taking seven-tenths off her previous best from 2022 NCAAs. It was her first time under 1:49, and getting under that barrier sets her apart from the rest of the field. At NCAAs last year, Smith was the only person under that barrier, as Bacon and White grabbed second and third in 1:49.29 and 1:49.36, respectively.

Stadden is also the only person this season other than Curzan to get under 1:50 this season. She’s been on the rise ever since her 200 back win at U.S. LC Nationals, and looks in prime position to record her highest finish in the event at NCAAs. (She earned 3rd in 2021, and 4th in 2022).

And what about Bacon and White? They’ve been the U.S. representatives in the 200 back on two straight major international senior teams, first at the Tokyo Olympics then at 2022 Worlds. They’ve both been relatively quiet in yards this season and neither showed anything at their conference championships that leads us to expect them to be able to stage a real challenge against Curzan. Bacon scratched out of the 200 backstroke entirely at Big Tens, and White who was the defending SEC champion, had a misfire in prelims and missed the ‘A’ final.

Bacon is seeded eighth, and White ninth with their times from midseason. Both should still be in the mix in the ‘A’ final, but they have a gap to bridge if they want a shot at the title.

On The Rise

Olivia Bray (photo: Jack Spitser)

Before Curzan’s swim at the NC State Invitational, it was Tennessee’s Josephine Fuller who held the top time in the NCAA at 1:50.12. That time was a big jump for her; her fastest time before that swim was 1:52.73, which means she dropped 2.61 seconds. She’s holding down the fourth seed heading into the meet, and looks primed for her first ever ‘A’ final appearance. That said, it took breaking 1:50 to make top 6 last year. If the rest of the field is at their best, then she will likely need to swim another best to be in the mix in the final.

Texas’ Olivia Bray has made big strides in a number of events this season, which has resulted in her opting for a very different NCAA lineup than she’s gone for in previous years. Historically, she’s raced the 200 back at Big-12s then the 200 fly at NCAAs. But Texas has such a high powered fly group that they don’t need Bray in the fly, giving her a chance to fill in the gap in the backstroke, as the Longhorns lost Julia Cook to graduation.

At Big-12s, Bray dropped a lifetime best of 1:50.09, cutting over a second off her previous best. That vaulted her up to third in the NCAA this season, which is where she sits on the psych sheet. 1:50.09 would have finished seventh at NCAAs last year, so like Fuller, Bray projects to be in the top-8 but will need to be at or faster than her best to grab a higher spot on the podium.

NC State’s 1-2 Punch

Kennedy Noble (photo: Jack Spitser)

The Wolfpack has a powerful backstroke duo in freshman Kennedy Noble and senior Emma Muzzy. At ACCs, they went 1-2 in this event, with Noble earning the win in 1:50.24. That was her first time getting under 1:51, and if she can replicate that, it will likely earn her a lane in the ‘A’ final. Last season, it took 1:51.20 to make the championship heat.

At ACCs, Noble had a massive final 50, splitting 28.19 to put distance between herself and Muzzy. In 2022, second through sixth place were separated by .57, and if the field is that close this year, having a strong final lap could give Noble the edge for a spot higher on the podium.

Muzzy’s personal best is 1:50.12 from 2021 ACCs and last year she finished seventh in 1:51.18. The last two years she’s added time from ACCs to NCAAs, which is a trend it’s important that she reverse in a field this crowded. Her season-best is 1:50.96, which puts her sixth. Hitting that time probably secures a spot in the ‘A’ final, but if she wants to leap up from seventh it’ll be crucial that she improves on her seed. NC State has a solid grip on fourth since Alabama lost a couple key stars and Muzzy and Noble have a chance to shore up big points for the Wolfpack in both backstrokes.

Other Returning ‘A’ Finalists

Reilly Tiltmann (photo: Jack Spitser)

Seven of the eight ‘A’ finalists from last year return to compete in Knoxville. The ones that we haven’t talked about yet are Reilly Tiltmann, Emma Atkinson, and Lucie Nordmann.

Tiltmann finished the highest of the three in 2022, earning fifth. She swam a personal best of 1:49.63, improving on the best she’d swum at ACCs. She’s dropped time from ACCs to NCAAs the last two years, so it seems a safe bet that pattern will continue this year.

Tiltmann is seeded seventh in 1:51.05. She was UVA’s only scorer in the event last year (Ella Bathurst was first alternate) and projects to be the same this year. Points aren’t exactly going to be had for UVA to come by, but it’s still going to be important that Tiltmann finishes highly to keep a gap between the Cavaliers and the rest of the teams.

Emma Atkinson, who finished sixth last year, is seeded 18th with the 1:52.46 she swam at February’s Virginia Tech Invitational. At ACCs, she finished sixth in 1:52.68. Her personal best is 1:49.86, so we know that she’s capable of hanging with the top contenders. Like Tiltmann, she’s improved from ACCs to NCAAs the last two years, but she’ll likely need a big push to get back into the championship heat.

Speaking of, Nordmann is hanging out way down at the 32nd seed with a season-best of 1:53.70. It will be interesting to see if with a full taper she’ll be able to move up the ranks and earn a second swim.

Curzan has established herself as the favorite, but this is an incredibly crowded field. Behind her, there’s a tight race shaping up just to even make the ‘A’ final–there are at least ten swimmers who you could reasonably make a case for being in the top eight. This is an event where few of the swimmers will be able to cruise in the morning. The field is an interesting mix of up-and-comers along with established veterans who haven’t necessarily shown us their best yet this season. We’ve given our take on how the race will play out below, but there are a myriad of ways this final could go down.


Dark Horse: Felicia Pasadyn (Ohio State) — Pasadyn transferred from Harvard to Ohio State for her fifth-year of eligibility. An NCAA qualifier last year, she’s made significant improvements in this event since joining the Buckeyes. Her lifetime best before joining them was 1:53.58 and she’s set two best times since, lowering her mark to 1:52.29. In this crowded a field, it will be a big challenge for her to break into the ‘A’ final, but her best would have earned her a spot in the ‘B’ final in 2022. And if she has another big drop in her, she could join the group duking it out in prelims for a top 8 spot. 

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