7 Final Thoughts on Invite Weekend in NCAA Swimming

Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

By David Rieder.

The end of Sunday’s finals at the Georgia Invitational marked the conclusion of another wild and quick college invite season. Some big names swam fast, others didn’t, and none of that will matter in the slightest once February and March rolls around and conference and NCAA team championships are handed out.

Right now, the nation’s collegiate swimmers are headed into their two favorite times of the year: final exams and Christmas training. Before that all gets out of hand, time to take stock of some of the weekend’s late-arriving results.

1. Clark Smith and True Sweetser battle in the 1650.

Texas senior Clark Smith will finish the fall season with country’s top time in the 1650 free after posting a 14:32.77 in the event Saturday evening at the Texas Invite. Smith entered last year’s NCAA championships as the top seed in the event before finishing 12th at the tail end of a rough weekend. But after strong long course performances over the summer proved his NCAA letdown was merely a fluke, Smith will again head to Indy as the favorite for an NCAA title in the event.

In the race Saturday night, Smith had a challenger in the form of Stanford freshman True Sweetser. Sweetser, who finished sixth in the 400 free in his first Olympic Trials final this summer, actually led Smith through the first 1300 yards of the race before falling off the pace at the end. Sweetser’s final time of 14:35.03 moves him into the all-time top-25 in the event and would have placed fifth at last year’s NCAA championships.

Sweetser, 19, is part of the Cardinal’s stellar distance group, as Sweetser, Liam Egan and Grant Shoults could all score in both the 500 free and the 1650 this season at the NCAA championships. But of the trio, Sweetser has the most potential in the mile, and that might be evident in the long course 1500 in the near future.

2. Abbey Weitzeil is a… breaststroker?

Yes, this is the same Abbey Weitzeil that holds the American records in both the 50 and 100-yard free and swam in the Olympic final in the 100 free this summer in Rio. A sprint freestyler—and a darn good one, at that.

But Saturday night, when Cal head coach Teri McKeever sent up her squads for the 200 medley relay, there was Weitzeil with the “A” squad, and she was not slated to anchor. Weitzeil split 27.07 on the breaststroke leg, the third-best split in the field and much quicker than the 27.95 that Marina Garcia split on Cal’s second place 200 medley relay at last year’s NCAA championships.

Weitzeil was not as impressive in the 100 breast later on in the session, finishing seventh in 1:00.98 (Garcia, for comparison, finished fourth in 1:00.55), but she does not have an obvious alternative as a third event. She swam on Cal’s 800 free relay to finish off the session but faded badly on the last 50, so the 100 breast could end up being her third event by the end of the season.

Regardless, Weitzeil’s 50 breast skills make her a good candidate to continue in the role of 200 medley relay anchor. With Noemie Thomas swimming well in the butterfly events—she posted a nation-leading 50.67 in the 100 fly Saturday evening—that leaves Farida Osman to swim the freestyle leg. Plug in Amy Bilquist or Kathleen Baker on back, and that might be a national championship relay.

3. Will Licon has a successful cameo at Texas Invite.

It has not been the smoothest senior season so far for Texas senior Will Licon, who has hardly competed as he has battled injuries. But Saturday night marked a triumphant return to the category of really fast swimming.

Licon swam just one of his signature events at the Texas Invite, and he dominated. He won the 200 breast in 1:50.76, more than two-and-a-half seconds off his own American record of 1:48.12 but still by far the fastest time in the country this season. No one else with current NCAA eligibility has ever been quicker.

Licon figures to face a tight field in the men’s 200 IM (Ryan MurphyChase Kalisz, etc.) as he tries to defend that NCAA title from last year, and Kalisz could block Licon’s path to a championship in the 400 IM, but he will be the huge favorite in the 200 breast come March. If he’s already under 1:51 coming off the injuries, there’s no reason to worry about Licon.

4. Chase Kalisz throws his hat into the ring in the 200 fly.

Chase Kalisz is getting a ton of attention for his NCAA-leading swims in the 200 and 400 IMs from this weekend, and rightfully so. But also worth watching is his 200 fly, an event he calls his favorite in long course, and Sunday afternoon he won the event at the Georgia Invite in 1:40.38.

Kalisz trailed Cal’s Andrew Seliskar for almost the entire race and was behind 1:13.60 to 1:14.35 at the 150, but he came home strong against a fading Seliskar, who touched in 1:40.74. Those two swims rank second and third in the country, respectively, behind the 1:40.24 from Jack Conger at the Texas Invite.

Conger broke the American record in the event while finishing a close second to teammate Joseph Schooling in the event at last year’s NCAA championships, while Seliskar grabbed third that night in 1:39.95, just ahead of Georgia’s Pace Clark (1:40.17).

Schooling did not compete at all this weekend, and Clark, who will represent the U.S. this week at the Short Course World Championships, did not swim the 200 fly. But these five men will all be in contention come the NCAA championships in March, and all five could crack the 1:40 barrier—which is crazy to think about, considering that at this point, only six men have ever done so.

5. Kathleen Baker figuring out short course backstroke.

After finishing second behind fellow freshman Ella Eastin at last year’s NCAA championships, Kathleen Baker failed to make another championship final. She finished 13th in both backstroke events, events where she might have appeared a slam dunk to final and perhaps even contend for individual championships.

Even though Baker has always been a better long course backstroker than short course, it still seemed odd that the Olympic silver medalist in the 100 back finished 13th at the NCAA championships. Of course, that discrepancy just makes Baker’s summer turnaround and journey to the Olympic podium all the more impressive, but there figured to be more in the tank in the short pool come college season.

Sure enough, this weekend in Athens, Baker found herself posting swift times in a yards backstroke race—just not the 100. After swimming the 100 fly Saturday instead of the 100 back, Baker performed admirably in the 200 back Sunday, topping teammate Amy Bilquist and posting a 1:49.83 that ranks tops in the country this year. Only two swimmers (the now-graduated Courtney Bartholomew and Danielle Galyer) were faster all of last season.

6. What Olivia Smoliga doesn’t know about freestyle and backstroke.

Along with Baker, Olivia Smoliga represented the U.S. in the final of the women’s 100 back in Rio. Along with Baker, Smoliga was not in the final of the 100-yard back at NCAAs—the same meet where she won National championships in the 50 and 100 free.

“I feel like my freestyle is better short course,” Smoliga said. “I don’t know why! I have no idea. I think I need to work on my backstroke underwaters. I think my freestyle underwaters are better. But then again, I don’t know.”

If it wasn’t obvious, Smoliga can’t figure out why her backstroke has been more successful in long course and her freestyle in short course. She swam a fine 100 back this weekend, posting a 51.24, but her efforts in the sprint freestyles were the most impressive. Smoliga posted times of 21.58 in the 100 free and 46.95 in the 100 free, both tops in the country and in both races beating out American record-holder Abbey Weitzeil.

And so for the next three months, until her last collegiate meet as a Georgia Bulldog, Smoliga will have to settle for being a sprint freestyler. After all, she’s pretty good at it.

7. Freshmen spark Cal men in Athens.

Under head coach Dave Durden, the Cal men’s team has finished in the top two at the NCAA championships each of the last seven years. Nathan AdrianTom Shields and now Josh Prenot have come and gone, and Ryan Murphy will soon follow that trio to graduation. But the Bears keep winning, so they must be doing something right.

If this year’s squad want to be in the conversation for an NCAA championship, it need big contributions from freshmen. This weekend at the Georgia Invite, that’s exactly what happened. Freshman Pawel Sendyk won the 50 free in 19.10, the third-ranked time in the nation, and classmate Michael Jensen finished first in the 200 free (1:33.76) and second in the 100 free (42.75). The duo combined with returnees Murphy and Connor Hoppe to post the top time in the country in the 200 medley relay (1:23.76).

Somehow, Cal has managed to fly under the radar this season as NC State and Indiana have both beaten Texas in dual meets, and Texas has been most notable for missing Joseph Schooling and Will Licon for chunks of time. But as usual, the Bears don’t lack in point-scoring potential.

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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6 years ago

Licon swam other events at Texas….200 free?, 100 fly?, 800 free relay, 100 back, 400 free relay….he swam a lot of events…

David Rieder
6 years ago
Reply to  superfan

superfan and Jason, indeed he did. My bad. Thanks for reading carefully! Updated to reflect that he only swam one of his signature events.

Jason Burlington
6 years ago

Licon swam way more than just two events at Texas Invite…

Andrew Majeske
6 years ago

Licon’s 200 breast time not that far out front…only a few tenths ahead of Andrew Wilson.