By Phillip Whitten
AUBURN, Alabama, March 19. THE rain clouds have dissipated, the Tornado Watch has been lifted and the defending champion Auburn Tigers led all qualifiers during the first day's prelims at the Women's NCAA Swimming & Diving Championships. All is right in the world.
Coach David Marsh's and Kim Brackin's Tigers sent a message to the rest of the nation's top college teams: If you want our title you're going to have to take it by force. That won't be easy.
Auburn qualified first in four of this morning's five swimming events. Only Florida's Sara McLarty could crack the Tigers' near-impregnable wall.
The defending champs are not the only team swimming extremely well. SMU, in particular, looks to be very sharp — a promising omen for Flavia Rigamonti's anticipated assault on Janet Evans' 1650 yard freestyle mark on Saturday. Virginia also seems to be swimming well.
Here's how it went this morning, event-by-event:
200 yard freestyle relay
Auburn sent a message in the very first event — the 200 yard freestyle relay — qualifying first in a pool record 1:29.28, just 0.54 of a second off the NCAA/ American record set by Georgia last year.
Georgia was second more than a full second behind in 1:30.31 followed by Cal and Florida in a tie for third at 1:30.60. It took 1:31.51 to make the A final, with UCLA taking the coveted eighth spot.
Auburn's Becky Short had the fastest leadoff swim at 22.24. Georgia's Maritza Correia had the fastest split, 21.66, two-hundredths ahead of Cal's Natalie Coughlin.
500 yard freestyle
Florida's Sara McLarty looked strong, touching in 4:39.58 — the only sub-4:40 swim of the morning.
The final shapes up as a battle between McLarty, USC's Kaitlin Sandeno, second in prelims at 4:41.72, and SMU's Flavia Rigamonti, third at 4:42.28.
SMU qualified two swimmers for the Big Final, as Georgina Lee qualified seventh. Virginia's Cara Lane and Rachel Burke took the fifth and sixth spots. Auburn's Heather Kemp, fourth in 4:43.39, was the only Tiger to make either the A or B final.
Arizona's Emily Mason, one of the pre-meet co-favorites, took the race out too hard and paid the price, managing only to finish 17th in prelims. Mason split 51.81 at the 100 and 1:48.79 before the proverbial piano landed squarely on her back.
200 yard individual medley
Auburn senior Maggie Bowen demonstrated why she is two-time defending champion and the NCAA/American record-holder in the 200 IM, as she cruised to the #1 spot in prelims with a 1:56.96. Bowen led a one-two Auburn showing this morning, with sophomore Kirsty Coventry — the 2002 Commonwealth Games champion for 200 meters IM — in second (1:57.38). The Tigers also placed two swimmers in the B final.
Texas and Georgia also qualified two swimmers in the Big Final. The 'Horns will be cheering for Tanica Jamison (fourth, 1:58.52) and Joscelin Yeo (fifth, 1:58.63). The Mustangs placed Alenka Kejzar (third, 1:58.51) and Penn State transfer Corrie Clark (sixth, 1:59.13) in the A final. USC's Michala Kwasny and Georgia's Mary Descenza rounded out the top eight.
50 yard freestyle
The 50 free saw the top performance of the morning. Third-seeded Becky Short of — you guessed it — the Auburn Tigers rode a perfect start to a brilliant 21.88 clocking, making her the fourth-fastest woman in history.
Georgia's Maritza Correia, the American/NCAA record-holder at 21.69 from last year's NCAAs, was second on 21.96, setting up an exciting final.
It took 21.64 to make A finals. Auburn was the only team to qualify two swimmers: Short and #3-qualifier, Eileen Coparropa (22.310. Washington's Kim Harada, the surprise winner of the 50 at Pac-10s, was fourth in 22.46.
Auburn also placed two swimmers in the B final: Erin Gayle in 12th and Jana Kolukanova in 15th.
Tiger coach Dave Marsh said he was "not surprisedz" by Short's performance. "You could see it coming in practice," he said. "She does everything right in and out of the pool."
"What did surprise me," he admitted "was Erin Gayle's 22.7. She was a pure walk-on, a 24+ plus swimmer out of high school. [Former world champion] Bill Pilczuk has taken her under his wing, and she has really responded."
400 yard medley relay
The medley relay should be a barn-burner tonight. Auburn qualified first in 3:35.35, followed by Cal and Georgia 19-hundredths back and Florida another 33-hundredths slower. Texas was the eighth qualifier at 3:38.79.
Auburn's Margaret Hoelzer had the fastest backstroke split at 52.62, while Arizona's Beth Botsford recorded the only other sub-53 swim (52.91).
There were two breaststroke splits under a minute, with Stanford's Tara Kirk (naturally) leading the way at 58.67, followed by Georgia's Sarah Poewe (59.61). Five other women went 1:00+.
Cal's Natalie Coughlin swam an effortless 50.49 to record what was easily the fastest fly split. Florida's Renate DuPlessis had the only other fly split under 52 seconds (51.90), while seven women went 52+.
Texas' Tanica Jamison swam the fastest freestyle split at 48.75 — the only sub-49 second swim. Georgia's Maritza swam 49.40 to anchor the Bulldogs as 13 women swam 49s.