Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick
By David Rieder.
Exactly seven months ago, a teary-eyed Katie Ledecky stood in the mixed zone in Rio after winning her fourth gold medal at the Olympic Games. After a long but wildly successful week, the 19-year-old was reflective as her four-year journey to those Games had come to an end.
After a few minutes, one reporter asked Ledecky to comment on her future.
“I can’t wait to be part of the Stanford team, set some team goals and some individual goals and have a lot of fun,” she responded.
Getting back in the present, that’s exactly what has happened. Ledecky has already broken more records—four short course yards American records, to be exact—and the Cardinal team has already won a Pac-12 team championship. But the biggest goals for Stanford and every other Division I team in the country involve one of two upcoming meets in Indianapolis.
That would be the NCAA championships, March 15-18 for the women and March 22-25 for the men. The meets each begin with a Wednesday night cameo before three intense and emotional days of racing that can include up to 14 total races for some swimmers. And these championship meets have a sense of finality to them that nearly all other swim meets lack.
Well, you might argue, three-quarters of the swimmers competing are not seniors and will be back for another season. Yes, that’s true, and a small minority of the seniors will keep on competing through this summer’s long course season and beyond.
But that’s not the point. Almost every swim meet, even a championship meet, is a lead-up to something else. Not NCAAs.
In college swimming, that’s dual meet season, the mid-season invitationals and the conference championships, where athletes are focused on attaining for NCAA qualifying times. In long course swimming, anything aside from the Olympics—even a national championship or a World Championships—can be seen as a preparation meet for something.
Think back to the last significant meet held in Indianapolis—which took place all of eight days ago. At the arena Pro Swim Series event at the same IUPUI Natatorium, the places hardly mattered. Sure, prize money and series points were at stake, but history will have little room for who made the podium at a meet that didn’t even hand out awards.
Vladimir Morozov and Marcelo Cherighini missed the A-final of the 100 free? Okay, well they still had a shot to swim in the B-final, and they each finished in 49.56, a perfectly respectable effort for early March.
At the NCAA championships, second chances exist, but the consolation finals are not so forgiving. At the women’s meet last year, Olivia Smoliga finished tenth in the prelims of the 100 back, and that meant there was no way she could score more than nine points in the event. If she had made the A-final, anything aside from a disqualification would have resulted in 11 or more points.
Sure enough, Smoliga won the B-final in 50.58, faster than any swimmer in the A-final aside from Rachel Bootsma. Instead of the 17 points she would have received as the runner-up, she picked up nine.
That miss didn’t end up coming back to bite Smoliga’s Georgia Bulldogs, who went on to finish 19 points ahead of Stanford to win the national championship, the program’s third title in four years.
But it could have—in 2010, the Florida women won the national title by a mere 2.5 points.
Obviously, plenty of us analysts out there will put time and energy into trying to figure out how so-and-so’s short course yards time will translate into the long course pool, but that’s a conversation for much later.
During the meet, records are great—and undoubtedly, plenty will be broken over the next two weeks in Indy—but ultimately meaningless to the ultimate goal: the team race.
For the first time since the Olympic Games, the results—the places, that is—will matter above all for every single swimmer. Even during conference championships, this wasn’t the case, as plenty of swimmers were aiming for their NCAA qualifying times, and some teams (think Georgia and Missouri) deliberately held back on their tapers.
Stanford coach Greg Meehan even admitted that Ledecky swam a 400 IM-200 free double at Pac-12s with the future in mind, considering she might be placed into such uncomfortable situations at the World Championships.
No such chances taken at NCAAs. Ledecky broke the American record in the 400 IM at Pac-12s and would be seeded first in that event by almost three seconds at NCAAs. But instrad, she is entered in the 200, 500 and 1650 free, the events that Meehan believed would optimize the Cardinal’s point totals.
What the NCAA meets have that so many others lack is a sense of finality—no one is working for some other meet down the pipe. That was the case even last season, when Canadian swimmers were mere weeks away from the Olympic Trials. Just ask Brittany MacLean how much it meant to her to win the NCAA title in the 200 free or to lead Georgia to a team championship as a senior. (Answer: a lot.)
The points race even takes utmost importance for the Olympians that will be in action, and there will be many. Nine U.S. Olympians from 2016 will compete at the women’s meet, while 11 men will be in Indy a week later (up from the two male American Olympians that returned to the NCAA meet in 2013).
With the intensity, drama and level of competition of the NCAA championships, it figures to be a fun two-week stretch coming up in Indianapolis.
All commentaries are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Swimming World Magazine nor its staff.
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