7 Can’t-Miss Races of USA College Challenge

Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

By David Rieder.

We know who will represent the U.S. team and who will represent the Big Ten at the upcoming USA College Challenge, set for Nov. 12-13 in Indianapolis. Most members of this summer’s Olympic team will not compete—many are currently in the midst of college season, and others have either retired or taken a post-Games hiatus from training—but there’s still plenty of talent on hand for a meet that should be much more competitive than originally expected.

First and foremost, the College Challenge gives a chance for Tom Shields and Kelsi Worrell, two of the most prolific college swimmers in recent memory, to return to the short course yards format. Shields won six individual NCAA titles during his career at Cal, and Worrell won four during her just-completed run as a Louisville Cardinal. Each is among the world’s best at underwater dolphin kicks, so they figure to do rather well in Indy.

Want to know which races you should not miss this weekend? Well, good—you’ve come to the right place.

1. Women’s 400 IM

Only one finalist from Olympic Trials will appear in this event at the College Classic, Ohio State senior Lindsey Clary. Clary finished seventh in Omaha and was the runner-up to Ella Eastin at last year’s NCAA Championships. Representing the Big Ten team, Clary’s biggest challenge from the USA squad should come from a high school senior who just came closer to Katinka Hosszu in a 400 IM than anyone has in a long time.

At the FINA World Cup stop in Hong Kong Sunday, Brooke Forde finished just over a second behind Hosszu in the 400 IM (short course meters), staying close on her tail the entire way. Forde’s final time of 4:29.66 ranks her among the top ten Americans of all-time in the event. Forde, who recently committed to swim at Stanford next fall, also won the silver medal in the event at the Junior Pan Pacific Championships this summer. Both Forde and Clary have excellent back-halves of the 400 IM, so expect a fun one in the meet’s first individual event.

2. Women’s 200 Breast

Lilly King will represent the Big Ten team for this meet, and it’s highly unlikely anyone on Team USA’s roster can hang with her. The best on the roster in the event are Andrea Cottrell, who was an Olympic Trials finalist in the 100 breast and currently holds the top time in the country in the 200 breast, and Kirsten Vose, who took eighth in the event at NCAAs last year.

While King has yet to master the long course version of the 200 breast—she missed out on the Olympic final this summer in Rio—she is excellent in the short course yards version of the event, having crushed the American record on her way to an NCAA title in the event a season ago, clocking a 2:03.59.

But so, too, is a teammate of King’s on the Big Ten squad, Kierra Smith. Smith preceded King as the NCAA champion, winning the event in 2015 with a quick 2:04.56. She took a redshirt year to prepare for the Olympics, where she placed seventh in the 200 breast. Smith, back for her senior season at Minnesota, does not have the same type of speed that King does, but she can make up a deficit over the last 100 yards. This should be a preview of the duels to come at the Big Ten and NCAA championships in the spring.

3. Men’s 1000 Free

The men’s distance races figure to be among the top showdowns of the meet as five men who swam in the 1500 free final at Olympic Trials will be competing. Highlighting the field is Jordan Wilimovsky, the Northwestern senior who swam both the 1500 free and 10k open water race in Rio, finishing just out of the medal picture in both. He will be joined on the Big Ten roster by Michigan’s PJ Ransford, a high risk-high reward miler who is sure to make the field work over the middle third of the race.

The U.S. squad will counter with Arizona junior Chris Wieser, who finished seventh in the 1650 at NCAAs from an early heat and then took fourth in the 1500 at Olympic Trials in a quick 15:09.70, along with former 400 free National Champion Zane Grothe and high school junior Robert Finke, who dropped more than 15 seconds from his best time to qualify for the final in Omaha.

With Connor Jaeger “effectively retired” after spending five years as the top miler in the country, the U.S. will be looking for some young talent to fill the void—and it just might come from somebody in this heat.

4. Women’s 200 Free

Leah Smith swam the second leg of the U.S. 800 free relay that won Olympic gold in Rio, and Cierra Runge also received a gold after swimming on the prelims squad. Both will be in Indy, Smith competing for the U.S. team and Runge for the Big Ten, but neither will be favored in the 200 free. That honor belongs to a college sophomore swimming as well as almost anyone else in the country at this point in the NCAA season: Louisville’s Mallory Comerford.

Comerford currently ranks among the top three swimmers in the country at every freestyle distance 50 through 500, but the 200 looks like her strongest event, at least in short course. After upsetting Smith to win the ACC championship in the event last season, Comerford opened eyes when she finished second at the NCAA championships in 1:42.54, a time that ranks her among the top 15 performers of all-time.

5. Men’s 100 Back

Two men entered in the meet were finalists in the event at the NCAA championships a season ago, Cal’s Jacob Pebley and Ohio State’s Matt McHugh. McHugh was the Big Ten champion in the event as a junior and will represent his conference at the College Challenge, while Pebley will represent Team USA after making his first Olympic team in the 200 back this summer. The 100-yard distance is short for Pebley, but he did produce an outstanding 52.95 in the long course version of the event at Olympic Trials.

Also in the field will be Tennessee grad Sean Lehane, who also made the final in the long course 100 back this summer in Omaha, and a potential dark horse in Tom Shields. Of the six NCAA titles he won while at Cal, two came in the 100 back, and he was also runner-up to David Nolan his senior year. Sure, Shields has not swum much backstroke since college, but with his dangerous underwater skills, he’s a threat in this… if he swims it.

6. Women’s 100 Back

Like Shields, Worrell could choose to swim the 100 back and probably excel because of her dolphin kicks. If she does swim it, she would just be adding to what is already a loaded heat containing three finalists in the event from Olympic Trials, plus a 15-year-old who was in the semifinals.

Ali Deloof finished fourth at Trials in 59.69, and Hannah Stevens was fifth in 59.97. Both will be competing for the USA, and right behind them in 1:00.12 was Deloof’s former Michigan teammate Clara Smiddy, who will represent the Big Ten. And then there’s Alex Walsh, who blasted a sizzling 51.62 in the event at Winter Junior Nationals last year and went on to finish 12th in Omaha. Indianapolis will be Walsh’s first crack at a senior-level international competition.

7. Men’s 100 Breast

Rounding out our countdown of top races at the College Challenge is the men’s 100 breast, where Olympic bronze medalist Cody Miller figures to be crowd favorite in his first meet since Rio. Before he was the American record-holder in the event long course, Miller was a seven-time Big Ten champion at Indiana, and he currently ranks second all-time in the 100-yard breast at 50.82.

Nic Fink, a Georgia grad who made the semifinals of the event at the World Championships in both 2013 and 2015, will be in the field, as will Ian Finnerty, a sophomore at Indiana who will have a shot at his training partner’s school record in the 100 breast this season. Finnerty was the Big Ten champion in the event a season ago at 51.75, just off Miller’s college best of 51.50.