Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick
Morning Splash by David Rieder.
Let’s be honest: It’s really tough to imagine a team other than Stanford taking home the women’s NCAA Division I swimming team title this week. The Cardinal, with two Olympic gold medalists leading the way and an abundance of depth, return almost all the pieces (aside from Lia Neal) of last year’s team that won the national title by 160 points.
Sure, Texas A&M looks tough, after finishing ahead of Stanford at the Art Adamson Invitational in November and winning its third straight SEC title, but the California Golden Bears, runners-up last year, failed to mount much of a threat to Stanford at the Pac-12 championships despite winning four of five relays.
But this week’s championships in Columbus, Ohio, should still be filled with drama and some of the best racing of the year. Sure, plenty of events have favorites, but in others, there are three or more swimmers who you wouldn’t be surprised to see touching the wall first.
Make no mistake: Simone Manuel should be considered the big favorite in both the 50 and 100 free. The Stanford senior the reigning NCAA champion in both events, and last year in the 100, she swam a time of 45.66 to crush the American record.
But Manuel will have her challengers, particularly in the 50 free. Her season-best time is 21.20, just off her lifetime best of 21.17 and Abbey Weitzeil’s American record of 21.12, but Liz Li is seeded just behind at 21.28. Erika Brown (21.39), Weitzeil (21.41) and Caroline Baldwin (21.48) are all within three tenths. And the 50 is short enough where something crazy could happen.
Manuel should have a slightly greater advantage in the 100 free, but you wouldn’t put it past Weitzeil or Mallory Comerford to sneak an upset. Speaking of Comerford…
The 200 free. There will be no rematch between last year’s co-champions, Comerford and Katie Ledecky, but a Manuel-Comerford dual should be plenty to look forward to. Manuel uses more speed than anyone else in the field in a 200-yard race, and Comerford closes like few others can. Michigan’s Siobhan Haughey, who has 1:41 credentials, will try to play spoiler.
And yes, Missy Franklin’s American record, that amazing 1:39.10 set three years ago in Greensboro, could be threatened.
As for the 500 and 1650 free, no one is coming close to Ledecky. She’s seeded first in the 500 by nine seconds and in the mile by 40. Yes, 40 seconds. As we’ve all witnessed so many times, it will be Ledecky vs. the clock—and her records, by the way, are 4:24.06 and 15:03.31.
For obvious reasons, Cal’s Kathleen Baker should be the favorite in both dorsal events. She is the Olympic silver medalist in the 100-meter event, a World Championship medalist in both the 100 and 200 back over the summer, and she won both events (in yards) at last year’s championships.
But the 100 back is perhaps the most intriguing race of the meet. It was less than 13 months ago that Stanford’s Ally Howe took down Natalie Coughlin’s 15-year-old American record in the 100 back, becoming only the second woman to break 50 seconds, and now, three others have joined her under that vaunted standard: Baker, Wisconsin’s Beata Nelson and Howe’s teammate Janet Hu.
For the 200 back, Baker will try to track down the American and NCAA records, both held by Elizabeth Pelton for the past five years at 1:47.84. Behind her, four other swimmers—Hu, Nelson, Asia Seidt and Lisa Bratton—have already swum under 1:50 this season.
All Lilly King, right? Well, in the 100 breast, absolutely. Even with both Lindsey Kozelsky and Miranda Tucker getting under 58 in the 100 breast final at the Big Ten championships, neither was anywhere close to King. The now-21-year-old from Indiana has her sights set on history’s first sub-56. King’s American and NCAA record stands at 56.30, and she won the Big Ten meet in 56.46.
As for the 200 breast, on the other hand, that could get interesting, thanks to some Aggies from Texas A&M. Bethany Galat won the silver medal in the 200-meter breast at the World Championships—finishing two spots ahead of King—but in short course, the biggest threat to King is another Aggie, Sydney Pickrem.
Pickrem actually enters NCAAs with the top seed in the event at 2:04.62, just ahead of King’s 2:04.68. King has the American record at 2:03.18, but Pickrem thinks she still has room in the tank. Of course, when King thinks she has a challenge, that’s when she performs her best.
Erika Brown, the Tennessee sophomore who didn’t even swim individually at NCAAs last year, became just the second woman to break 50 in the 100 fly at the SEC championships. But at 49.85, she’s seeded not too far ahead of Louise Hansson, the Swede representing USC, who’s entered with a time of 50.17.
In case you’ve never watched Brown race, her underwaters are likely the best in the country, and she will legitimately spend more than half of her 100 fly below the surface. But Hansson and Liz Li, in her home pool, poise legitimate threats.
Almost none of the top seeds in the 100 fly are doubling with the 200 fly, with Hansson the lone exception. Hansson is actually seeded second at 1:51.13 after a huge swim at the Pac-12 championships where she jumped out to a massive lead and faded badly coming home.
The woman that passed her that night in Federal Way, Wash.? Ella Eastin, who broke a nine-year-old American record with her time of 1:49.51. Eastin is also last year’s champion and understandably the big favorite.
Meanwhile, Eastin’s Stanford teammate Katie Drabot is seeded third after adding the 200 fly this season, and don’t forget about Cal’s Katie McLaughlin, last year’s runner-up, even though she only enters as the 21st seed in the event. Also looking to move up will be the Texas duo of Lauren Case and Remedy Rule, who are seeded 23rd 24th, respectively.
Kathleen Baker is the defending NCAA champion in the 200 IM, and her race against American record-holder Ella Eastin and Texas A&M standout Sydney Pickrem should be fascinating if for no other reason than all three have different strengths. Baker typically uses her speed to take the race out hard early, Eastin has no real weak stroke and excellent underwaters, and Pickrem uses a world-class breaststroke to compensate for her butterfly.
Anyone else breaking into the top three would be considered a surprise, and it’s just the same in the 400 IM, only take out Baker and enter Katie Ledecky. While Brooke Forde and Bethany Galat have excellent credentials in the event, Ledecky, Eastin and Pickrem are the only women in the field who have ever cracked 4:00.
Ledecky broke Katinka Hosszu’s 10-year-old NCAA record in the 400 IM by one hundredth at the Pac-12 championships, and while she is by no means subpar at any of the strokes, she can close like no one else in the field thanks to her signature freestyle. So if she’s anywhere close at the 300, she has the edge.
Cal has the top seed in three relays, the 4×50 and 4×100 free relays plus the 4×50 medley relay, while Stanford leads the way in the 4×100 medley, and Michigan has the top spot in the 4×200 free.
Even with the loss of Farida Osman, the Golden Bears have a healthy stable of sprint depth with Abbey Weitzeil, Amy Bilquist and Maddie Murphy, plus the versatility of Katie McLaughlin and Kathleen Baker. Stanford, on the other hand, is slightly thin in the sprints behind Simone Manuel, and it will be interesting to see which relay coach Greg Meehan decides to hold her out of.
Indiana has a spot at big points in both medley relays, which makes sense given the presence of Lilly King, and both Tennessee and Louisville will depend heavily on relay points. Erika Brown elevates whichever Lady Vol relays she swims on into a realistic top-five possibility, and Louisville has sprinters like Casey Fanz and Lainey Visscher to go along with Mallory Comerford.
According to projections compiled by Price Fishback, Stanford should pull away on the final day to win its second straight national title. The Cardinal’s depth in events like the 1650 free (Katie Ledecky, Megan Byrnes, Leah Stevens) and 200 back (Janet Hu, Ally Howe, Allie Szekely, Erin Voss) will be too much for Cal or anyone else to keep up.
As shown in the graphic above, Cal is seeded to finish second, followed by Texas A&M and then Michigan, but a few swings here or there could change up that mix. But Michigan is seeded 94 points ahead of the No. 5 team, so it’s unlikely that anyone else cracks that top four.
That finish order of Stanford, Cal, Texas A&M and then Michigan is just what Swimming World officially predicted in this month’s magazine. But behind that, things could get a little crazy.
Check back later for the full analysis of the score projections.