At SEC Championships, Hugo Gonzalez and Erika Brown Become National Favorites

Photos Courtesy: Thomas Campbell/Texas A&M Athletics

By David Rieder.

Neither Erika Brown nor Hugo Gonzalez has ever scored a single individual point at the NCAA championships. During her freshman campaign at Tennessee, Brown was a relay-only swimmer at the national meet. Gonzalez, meanwhile, won three World Junior titles over the summer, but before this week at the SEC championships, he had never even put on a racing suit for a short course yards race.

The conference titles each of them won Friday evening are just that—regional victories that won’t matter at the next meet up. But the numbers on the scoreboard say that each one achieved something special, and as the saying goes, the scoreboard never lies.

Gonzalez came up first, and he never trailed in the men’s 400 IM final. He worried that the field might run him down on the freestyle leg, but no one could get any closer than two seconds. His final time: 3:35.76, a new Texas A&M pool record.

Pool records, of course, oftentimes mean nothing, depending on who has swum what events in a particular pool. But in this case, the pool record belonged to Tyler Clary, the future U.S. Olympian, and his mark of 3:35.98 was an American record when he swam the time back at the 2009 NCAA championships.

In the nine years since, only Chase Kalisz had gone any faster, taking the American record down to 3:33.42. But Gonzalez, the teenager from Spain, now ranked No. 2, faster than Clary or Ryan Lochte or Michael Phelps ever swam.

There were signs that Gonzalez could excel during his first college championship season, particularly his 4:14.65 in the 400-meter IM at the World Junior Championships in August and then a strong regular season with the Tigers, but 3:35? That would have been far-fetched.

“I was nervous before the race,” Gonzalez admitted, “but I think the moment I touched the water, all the things that I was thinking went away, and I could just focus on my race.”

Simple enough, if you can pull it off—which he did.

Yes, the SEC championships are the first taper meet in yards Gonzalez has ever swum, so the times don’t mean all that much for him, but he knows the names of Clary, Lochte and Phelps—and he’s faster than any of them.

“The thought of that gives me motivation to go now to the NCAAs and not be afraid of the people I’m swimming against,” he said.

One event later, Brown became only the second woman in history to break 50 seconds in the women’s 100 fly. After her breakthrough at the mid-season Tennessee Invitational, where Brown posted a nation-leading time of 50.33, she joined some pretty exclusive company in the sub-50 club.

Natalie Coughlin never swam that fast, her improvement plateauing at 50.01 in 2002. Kelsi Worrell first got under the vaunted barrier 13 years later, eventually lowering the American record to 49.43, and now, right behind her on the all-time list is Brown, at 49.85.

Remember, this is a swimmer who began the season having never even broken 55 in the 100 fly.

“It was really exciting,” Brown said. “I had the number 49 in my head. I knew I wanted to be there, and just to touch the wall and see that and validate that. It’s really exciting, and it’s good to know that the hard work pays off.”

The race put Brown in a position she’s not used to: Squarely in the spotlight. After winning her first individual SEC title in the 50 free Thursday, she remarked, “I don’t really want to steal the attention for myself, but it’s more exciting for the team.”

Yes, her team is benefitting—the Volunteers sit third, just a point-and-a-half behind Georgia with two days of competition to go—but this moment belonged to Brown. Minutes after the race, Worrell tweeted at Brown a “welcome to the club.”

Brown’s challenge now: To stay focused, in the moment and humble.

“It means something, but I don’t let it get to my head,” she said. “Obviously I want to be the best, but it’s more fun when you’re focusing on doing it with your teammates.”

Gonzalez and Brown, the two breakthrough performers of the SEC championships, could not have reacted to their successes any differently. Gonzalez seemed a bit oblivious to the ramifications of his swim—understandable, given his unfamiliarity to yards—but emboldened nonetheless.

Brown, on the other hand, grasped immediately how special a 49 was but wanted to hear nothing about any historical trivia—not now, anyway, not with so much still left to do at the SEC meet and at the NCAA championships.

Big picture, what does it all mean? Come NCAAs, both Gonzalez and Brown will be watched—and barring some surprising developments over the next two weeks’ worth of conference meets, they will be favorites.

Video Interview with Hugo Gonzalez:

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