10 Events to Watch at the Men’s & Women’s NCAA Swimming Championships

maggie-macneil

10 Events to Watch at the Men’s & Women’s NCAA Swimming Championships

Looking back at the fall, it seemed far-fetched to believe the NCAA Swimming Championships would take place this season, due to the COVID-19 pandemic

Fast forward to today, and every Power Five conference has navigated – relatively smoothly – through its conference championships, and we’re just under two weeks away from the NCAA Women’s Division I championships. Facing adversity all season, swimmers have dug deep and found ways to perform at a high level, despite the circumstances. 

Although NCAAs will look much different this year, fast swimming and exciting races are still in the cards. Here are five women’s and five men’s events that promise to produce fireworks at the Greensboro Aquatic Center. 

Women’s Events 

50 Freestyle

The 50 freestyle will be the first of three Maggie MacNeil vs. Kate Douglass matchups at the championships. Many were surprised when Douglass picked the 50 free over the 200 individual medley, where the Virginia star is within striking distance of NCAA and American records. The two are only separated by .02 this season, and their duels will be a storyline to watch throughout the meet. 

Sarah Thompson possibly pulling off the upset is something else to look out for in the event. The Missouri senior missed the A-final at SECs after missing her turn in prelims but put up the fastest time of the night from the B-final. 

While MIchigan’s MacNeil and Douglass are favorites, the idea of a Thompson upset gives the event another intriguing twist. 

200 Freestyle Relay

Could Alabama win its first-ever NCAA relay title?

This relay could have historical implications for multiple teams. Alabama is searching for its first NCAA relay title, while Virginia aims to be just the fourth team to sweep all five relays at the NCAA Champs. North Carolina State, Cal, Missouri and Ohio State are all in the mix as well, with all six teams within a second of each other. 

Looking at how close the teams are on paper, the race may come down to which team has the best relay takeovers. 

100 Butterfly 

Another McNeil v Douglass matchup. 

MacNeil tied the NCAA at the Minnesota Invite back in 2019, but the coronavirus pandemic denied her an opportunity to get the record outright. Douglass only trails McNeil by .05 this season and, like McNeil, we probably haven’t seen the best of the Virginia sophomore just yet. 

Don’t count out Texas freshman Olivia Bray to pull off the upset as well. The Virginia native was 50.19 as a junior in high school and went 50.3 back in December. With her NCAA ticket already punched and Texas’ dominance in the Big XII, Bray most likely hasn’t raced rested this season. Judging from her 200 drops so far, she is due a big drop in the 100. 

It may take the first sub-49 swim for the title in Greensboro. 

200 Freestyle 

Can Paige Madden pull off the 200-500-1650 triple? 

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Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

After dominating the ACC in the three events over the past two years, it’s hard to believe that Madden, a senior, has never won an NCAA title. On top of the NCAA in all three events, she has the chance to pull off an Andrew Seliskar-esque finish to cap a successful collegiate career. She will have to fend off  Texas sophomore Kelly Pash and Kentucky junior Riley Gaines, who sit within three-tenths of her best time from the midseason tri-meet at Tennessee. 

Better known for her 500 prowess, Madden will aim to show that she has the speed for the shorter distance. 

100 Breaststroke

The 2021 NCAAs will be the first 100 breast championship final without Lilly King in five years. Without King, there are many women looking to take up the sprint breaststroke mantle.

Georgia sophomore Zoie Hartman leads the way with a 57.40, becoming the sixth-fastest performer all-time in the event en route to the SEC championship this year. N.C. State junior Sophie Hansson and Virginia junior Alexis Wenger traded records at ACCs and are just a hair behind Hartmann this season. Tennessee freshman and Irish star Mona McSharry seems to have adapted well to college swimming and looks to be a threat come NCAAs. 

With King graduated, the race is one of the most wide-open at the championships. 

Men’s Events 

50 Freestyle 

It was a relatively off year last spring for the 50 freestyle, with only four swimmers under 19 and one under 18.9 leading into NCAAs. This year tells a different story as seven men have already dipped under the mark, including a record five freshmen. No matter who comes out on top, the 50 free will be a race to watch for the next few years, as besides Cal senior Ryan Hoffer, the swimmers under 19 this year are all underclassmen. 

500 Freestyle 

Could we possibly see the first sub-4:05 swim?

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Photo Courtesy: Connor Trimble

After Kieran Smith dismantled the NCAA and American record in the event at SECs last year, swimming fans wondered how fast he would go at NCAAs. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic denied us that opportunity. Smith picked up where he left off, though, tying his record at this year’s SEC Championships. While he was the clear favorite going into NCAAs last year, he has some company this time around.

Georgia freshman Jake Magahey used an incredible back half to push Smith all the way to the finish at their conference meet, recording the second-fastest time in history (4:06.71) in the process. Texas junior Drew Kibler threw down a 4:08.26 to open the season back in October and could be in line for a massive swim with a full taper at NCAAs. Smith was the clear favorite heading into last year’s championships, but Magahey and Kibler’s rise has made the race much tougher to call this time around. 

400 Individual Medley 

The event looks to be a two-horse race between Cal junior Hugo Gonzalez and Texas freshman phenom Carson Foster

What makes it one of the most intriguing races for this year’s NCAA Championships is the possibility one (or both) swimmers dip under Chase Kalisz’s collegiate record. In his Longhorn debut, Foster dropped a 3:35.29. Gonzalez was the favorite to win as a freshman at Auburn in 2018 when he swam a 3:35.76 to win the SEC Championships. He had an off meet at NCAAs, not even scoring in the event. With experience on his side this time around, he hopes to hit peak form in Greensboro. 

100 Butterfly 

The 100 butterfly has outstanding depth this year. Already, we’ve seen 14 sub-45 second swims from eight different swimmers. At this rate, we could see a record for most sub-45 swims once NCAAs are over. It may take under 45 to make the championship final. There are eight or nine guys who have a genuine shot at the title, making it hard to pick a clear favorite. 

200 Backstroke

With an NCAA record and possibly a team title on the line, the 200 backstroke is arguably the race of the meet. 

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Photo Courtesy: Connor Trimble

Texas A&M junior Shaine Casas is the overwhelming favorite in the event. He leads the NCAA by over a second and a half. He is expected to challenge triple Olympic Champion Ryan Murphy’s NCAA and American Record (1:35.73), having already been within a second of it back in October. 

 In terms of the team battle, the 200 backstroke may be crucial to Cal and Texas’ title hopes. The event is a strength for both teams. Cal swept the top six spots at Pac-12s, led by freshman Destin Lasco, while Texas boasts 2018 NCAA Champion Austin Katz and the aforementioned Foster. A massive points haul for either team could have a significant impact on the final standings.

In spite of the challenges the year has brought forth, college swimmers have continued to produce eye-popping performances all season. We are in for an exciting two weeks of racing in Greensboro. 

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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