By Phillip Whitten
AUBURN, March 22. IT was the Eye of the Tiger. And the arms of the tiger, the legs, the core and, of course, the Will of the Tiger.
The Auburn Tigers roared tonight, fulfilling a dream and season-long goal as they crushed all opposition and strode to their second straight women's NCAA Swimming & Diving titled before a fired-up, hometown crowd.
Auburn wound up with 536 points, well ahead of Georgia with 373. The Dawgs had won three straight before the Tigers beat them last year. USC pulled out third place with 284 points on the strength of their final session performance. A fired up SMU was a close fourth with 281, followed by Florida with 277 and Stanford with 275.5. Texas, which lost 32 points when its 400 free relay team, which finished third, was DQ'ed. Only 8-1/2 points separated the third and sixth place team.
Auburn's point total was the most since 1993, as was its 163-point margin of victory.
The top three teams finished in the precise order predicted by Swimming World.
Interestingly, there were no individual records set on the first two days and the first two events of the final day. Then there were two records — both in the same event.
1650 yard freestyle
Last month, swimming at her conference meet on the first night, SMU's Flavia Rigamonti came within a second of cracking Janet Evans' iconic, 13- year-old NCAA mark in the 1650. Tonight, the third and final night of this physically and emotionally draining meet, she tried to break it.
It was a great attempt, as Rigamonti of Lugano Switzerland, stroked 16 strokes per lap, splitting 57-low for 100 after 100, resembling a finely-crafted SWiss watch.
When she touched home, her 15:43.90 awsn't a record but it was the fourth fastest time in history. Two other women cracked 16 minutes: Virginia's Cara Lane (15:53.49) and USC's Kaitlin Sandeno (15:58.58).
The only question when swimmers jumped in the pool to start the 200 back was whether or not Cal's incredible Natalie Coughlin would break her American/NCAA mark of 1:49.52 set a year ago.
She didn't. But she did turn in the second-fastest 200 backstroke ever swum: 1:50.86 (53.83 – 57.03).
The battle for second place featured Auburn sophomore Kirsty Coventry versus Auburn sophomore Margaret Hoelzer. Coventry took the silver by the smallest of margins — one-hundredth of a second — in 1:53.17. Swimming in lane 8, Arizona's Beth Botsford was fourth in 1:54.17.
100 yard freestyle
Georgia senior Maritza Correia wanted her 100 free record back. Last year she broke Jenny Thompson's mark with a 47.57…only to see Natalie Coughlin lower it to 47.47 leading off the Cal 400 free relay at the close of last year's NCAAs. Advantage Nat.
At the SECs, Ritz threw down a challenge with her unshaved 47.49. Advantage Ritz. But Nat answered with a new record of 47.42 at the Pac 10s. Advantage Nat.
This morning, Auburn's Becky Short had qualified first in 48.64, 11-hundredths ahead of Correia. But it was the Georgia swimmer wsho was favored.
Short — who has the fastest starts of anyone here — got the jump once again on the start, but the two went into the wall even at 10.7 on the feet (hand-timed). Then Ritz made her move and opened up some smooth water.
"If she can get in some smooth water, she has a good shot at the record," Georgia Coach Jack Bauerle told me before the race. "Look for a 22.7 at the 50. If she goes 22.7 on the foot touch, she can do it," he predicted.
She flipped, clearly in the lead, and the scoreboard lit up: 22.67. The Dawgs went wild!!!
Ritz made the final turn at 35.1, then powered home to the cheers of her teammates and cheering section, touching in 47.29. A new American and NCAA record.
Ah so, but the game was not yet over, little butterflies…
Meanwhile Becky Short touched second in a pr 48.53 while teammate Eileen Coparoppa was third in a pr 48.99. Washington's Kim Harada was fourth in 49.18.
On paper, the 200 breast looked to be the most competitive event of the evening, with two-time defending champion Tara Kirk of Stanford, the third qualifier, going against ASU's World and Olympic champion Agnes Kovacs, and Alabama's European champ Anne poleska among others. In prelims, the first seven qualifiers swam 2:09 or 2:10, led by Florida freshman Vipa Bernhardt (2:09.13).
In the finals, Kirk took the race out very hard — even harder than usual — opening up a solid leads by the first turn and more than a full second lead by the halfway mark. Kirk's 1:00.90 at the 100 was nine-tenths ahead of her record pace.
She added a bit to her lead in the third 50, but by then had fallen back to her 150 split from last year. It was clear she was a hurtin' unit.
Sensing blood, the rest of the field made its move, gradually cutting into Kirk's lead. But they don't call her Captain Kirk for nothing. Fighting seven determined competitors and a whole lot of lactic acid, Kirk touched first in 2:08.79 for her third straight title in this event. In the final 50, six of Kirk's seven opponents split faster than her 34.59.
Poleska (2:09.13) was second and Kovacs (2:09.83) third. Bernhardt, the top qualifier was seventh.
The 200 fly shaped up as a two-woman battle between Georgia frosh Mary Descenza and Arizona sophomore Emily Mason. That's how it worked out.
The two split identical 25.48s to share the lead at the 50. Then Descenza began slowly to creep away from her rival, turning at the 100 in 54.11 — 33-hundredths ahead — then increasing her lead another 41-hundredths coming home.
Descenza touched in a swift 1:53.51 to Mason's 1:54.25. SMU's Georgina Lee had by far the fastest final 50, climbing from eigth place at the 150 to third (1:56.50) at the wall.
10-meter platform diving
Now came the daring young women doing outrageous acrobatics from 10 meters (that's 33 feet) in the air. Defending champion Blythe Hartley of USC, a Canadian Olympian, was the odds-on fave, but she struggled in the prelims, qualifying almost 20 points behind Indiana's Sara Hildebrand.
In the finals, she overcame Hildebrand, who wound up fourth, but was soundly beaten by Ohio State senior Natalia Diea, who score 476.65 points to Hartley's 456.90, which was just enough to nip ASU's Trisha Tumlinson's 456.55 for the silver.
400 free relay
As the eight teams prepared for the concluding event of the meet, a measure of intrigue was added to the mix. Cal coach Teri McKeever decided to lead off with Natalie Coughlin, giving her super soph a shot at Maritza Correia's still dripping-wet 100 yard mark. Georgia head coach Jack Bauerle countered by moving Correia from anchor to leadoff. The two fastest 100 yard sprinters in history would go mano-a-mano.
Coughlin immediately grabbed the initiative, turning just ahead of her Georgia rival. Then she broke the race open on the second lap, splitting 22.58 as the crowd went wild.
Sensing victory and trying to regain her record, Nat pulled out all the stops, gradully increasing her lead. At the wall, she touched in 47.00 to the deafening roar of the crowd. A tired Ritz followed in 47.70 — a time only she and Nat have beaten.
Advantage Nat again.
Forgotten in the excitement was Auburn's Becky Short, who quietly led off in 48.79. The remaining three Tiger swimmers all split 48s: Coparoppa followed Short in 48.28, turning thed job over to Kirsty Coventry (48.75) and Maggie Bowen (48.33).
Only three other swimmers split 48s: UCLA's Saea Platzer (48.53 in the B final), Texas' Sarah Wanezek (48.60) and Georgia's Mary Descenza (48.99)
Auburn, which took the lead after the halfway point, touched in 3:14.15, history's second fastest relay. Georgia was third in 3:15.26 with Cal third in 3:16.21.