By Duncan Scott
WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind., March 18. WE have a rather unusual nomination for swim of the meet, so far. It may not be the most empirically outstanding performance, but in terms of coloring the team race, we put forth the opening swim of the second night by team leader Georgia. And an Olympian shall lead them.
Georgia had a fine morning, but if it dropped off its high level of performance, Auburn was in a position to close the 74-point gap the Bulldogs had produced with a lights out day one. Auburn had a scoring diver and one more championship finalist than Georgia. Georgia could not drop off.
In Sydney – yes, Sydney not Athens – the US led off its 4 x 200 freestyle relay both in prelims and in its not entirely expected gold-medal finals performance (no swims under 2:00.00 at the U.S. Trials) with a little known athlete from Peabody, Massachusetts who had never broken 2:00.00 before Sydney but did so twice within the cauldron of Olympic pressure. Her swims in both the prelims (1:59.38) and finals (1:59.92) played an important role in an important victory for the confidence of the U.S. team.
This athlete started her college swimming at Michigan, where she was part of Big Ten title team in 2001, before transferring to Georgia. But during her college career she seemed to fade a bit and was never the team star. Friday night she wasn’t even on Georgia’s American record setting 4 x 200 freestyle relay, her Olympic event! And the night before, even after making the championship heat in the 50 freestyle, coach Jack Bauerle chose not to put her on the Bulldogs 4 x 50 free relay that also was a record breaker. Instead, throughout her career she was, along with Julia Stowers at Tennessee, the most inconspicuous Olympic gold medalist in college swimming. That is, not unlike the Olympics, until her team really needs her.
The Bulldogs were a bit short on backstrokers. Bauerle might be able to look past her and still put up great freestyle relays, but he needed someone to step up on backstroke.
And senior Samantha Arsenault responded.
She was only a consolation finalist in the 100 backstroke, but at the point when Auburn had qualified enough swimmers and divers to mount a team challenge if the Bulldogs dropped off at all, Olympian Samantha burst out first with a 24.73 50 backstroke lead-off to put Georgia into the smooth water, so important at the beginning of the short medley, which her teammates took advantage of to go on to a victory after trailing Arizona in the qualifying. It was the kind of swim that not only inspires relay mates but whole teams.
She improved .48 from her own morning swim and was at least .44 ahead of every other leadoff besides the 24.80 from 100 back champion Marshi Smith of Arizona. And the Bulldogs were on their way. The Georgia drop off never happened, and the lead went from 74 to 93.5 points.
The interplay of the 200 free and 4 x 200 free relay is always interesting, also. Backstroker Margaret Hoelzer defended her 200 free title with a “not to be denied” effort at 1:44.60. But when the relay came around, two of the evening’s other champions each surpassed Hoelzer’s winning time. Georgia got a great kick start to their American record relay with a 1:44.14 leadoff from 100 fly champion Mary DeScenza, and Hoelzer wasn’t even able to hold on to her Auburn team record as double IM winner Kirsty Coventry led out for the Tigers at 1:44.48.
Another Bulldog deserving special note was Lindsay Ertter, a long-time consistent finalist but not often a medalist in domestic breaststroke races, who broke through in the prelims to qualify first at 59.80.
Though she fell to a great swim from Stanford’s Olympian Caroline Bruce (:59.55), Ertter held together with another sub-minute swim at 59.85 for second. Watch for Ertter to be in the mix for a breaststroke slot on the USA world championship team, along with Bruce, Amanda Beard, Megan Jendrick-Quann (59.68 in sectionals last week), Tara Kirk and Jessica Hardy.