Decade In The Mirror: Dan D’Addona – My Top 10 NCAA Highlights Led By Dressel’s Dominance

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Caeleb Dressel reacts to a record at the 2019 NCAA championships. Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

As the decade draws to a close, there have been several signature moments in each aspect of the sport and the Top 10 NCAA Highlights will take a look at a spectacular decade in college swimming.

The college scene has witnesses some of the fastest performances in history — some of mind-blowing proportion. It has also seen team dominance, team comebacks, elite performances and stunning upsets.

Athletes like Caeleb Dressel have stunned with their performances. Lilly King and Ryan Murphy dominated by sweeping NCAA titles in their two signature events, and the passing of the title torch found several superpowers at the top.

But what were the Top 10 NCAA Highlights of the decade?

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Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

1. Caeleb Dressel’s sheer dominance

How fast is Caeleb Dressel? Dressel is so fast he crashed the Swimming World website — seriously. In 2018, Dressel put together a string of barrier-breaking performances to become the elite NCAA swimmer of all time. Everyone wanted to see how fast he would really go each night, and on the night he had two of those unreal performances, Swimming World’s site crashed because of too many visitors clicking on Dressel at the same time. That is legendary.

Dressel crushed 18 seconds in the 50 free. He led off the 200 free relay with a 17.81 split, then 17.63 before claiming the 100 butterfly title in 42.80. The year before he set the record with a 44, a barrier that took nearly a decade to break, then skipped 43 altogether to reach 42.

There weren’t enough swims allowed to show his full dominance at NCAAs. He crushed the NCAA and American records in the 50 free, 100 free and 100 fly, plus set nearly illogical relay splits. But a couple of weeks before, he swam the 100 breaststroke and went 50.03 to beat the NCAA and American record in that event as well, though that only lasted till NCAAs in 2018.

There has never been a college swimmer that caused so much bewilderment and interest on a nightly basis like Caeleb Dressel. His performances still have people scratching their heads.

Top 10 NCAA Highlights coverage of No. 1

1/8/2011; Gainesville, Fla.; University of Florida Gators Swimming & Diving vs. Georgia Tech. Women's Swimming.

Photo Courtesy: Troy Zalewski

2. Florida women’s final-day comeback in 2010

Going into the final day of the 2010 NCAA Women’s Championships, the Florida Gators were not in first place. They weren’t in second place or even third. In one of the closest team meets of all time, the Gators used an epic final day to move up from fifth to claim the NCAA title by 2.5 points.

The Gators won the meet with 382 points, ahead of Stanford (379.5), Cal (363), Arizona (359.5) and Georgia (342.5).

Florida started strong by winning the 200 free relay national title behind Gemma Spofforth, Stephanie Napier, Shara Stafford and Sarah Bateman. Spofforth won the 100 back to win her third title in a row in the event. Those were the only titles for the Gators, yet somehow, they jumped several teams on the final day.

On that final day, the Gators had seven swimmers and divers make finals and the divers carried a ton of points to propel Florida to victory with two in the platform final. Every point counted and it was the biggest final-point comeback in the decade.

Top 10 NCAA Highlights coverage of No. 2

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Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

3. Best mile of all time

Katie Ledecky has put together several stunning mile swims, but even she has nothing on the 2017 men’s 1650 free.

In an event that storied announcer Sam Kendricks still calls the greatest race he has ever seen, four milers broke the NCAA record and finished nearly a second apart, as if it was a sprint.

Texas’ Clark Smith touched first in 14:22.41, breaking the NCAA and American record. If that wasn’t enough, he did it while barely kicking the final 500 after straining a groin earlier in the meet. The mile is always painful, but that took on new meanings for Smith.

That time crushed the American and U.S. Open records of 14:23.52 set by Michigan’s Connor Jaeger back in 2014. It also broke Martin Grodski’s NCAA and meet record of 14:24.08.

Michigan’s Felix Auböck finished a half-second behind in second in 14:22.88, and South Carolina’s Akram Mahmoud took third in 14:22.99. Northwestern’s Jordan Wilmovsky settled for fourth in 14:23.45, but the four times ranked as the four fastest times in history in the event.

What made it even more exciting is that the crowd figured at least one of them was going to break the record the way the event was going, and the anticipation made the mile the must-see event of the year.

Top 10 NCAA Highlights coverage of No. 3

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Joe Schooling with Texas mates collecting more NCAA honours in 2018 – Photo Courtesy: Dan D’Addona

4. Texas four step

The Texas men put together one of the most dominating runs in NCAA history from 2015-18, claiming four consecutive NCAA titles. The run catapulted the Longhorns past Michigan for the most team titles in NCAA history with 14. The Longhorns had record performances during that stretch from the likes of Joseph Schooling, Will Licon, Clark Smith and Jack Conger.

But the fourth title was the craziest. The Longhorns had won the first three big, but the last of the four was a different story. Texas, Cal and Indiana all had a shot at the team title on the final day, the first time that had happened in quite a while on the men’s side.

Coming from behind to do it on a final night that had three teams still in contention until the final race, that was different, after three straight national title blowouts — and thrilling.

The Longhorns scored 449 points, holding off several contending teams. Cal finished second with 437.5 points and was in the meet until the final relay. Indiana finished third with 422 and was in it until nearly the end.

Townley Haas set the NCAA and American record in the 200 free, John Shebat (44.59) and Austin Katz (44.99) went 2-4 in the 100 back, then Jordan Windle and Grayson Campbell both competed in the A-final in 3-meter diving to give the Longhorns enough for a Texas four-step.

Top 10 NCAA Highlights coverage of No. 4

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Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

5. Stanford’s ultimate women’s team of 2018

The Stanford women ended their NCAA title drought in 2017, but the Cardinal were just getting started. The 2018 team was perhaps the most complete team in history. Stanford became the third team to ever sweep all five relay national titles.

The team was stacked with three Olympians and a slew of national champions and All-Americans.

Ella Eastin won the 400 IM, 200 IM and 200 fly to earn Swimmer of the Meet honors. Her 400 IM was the NCAA record in 3:54.60 as she went 1-2-4 with Katie Ledecky and Brooke Forde. Ledecky won the mile and the 500, going 1-2 with Katie Drabot. Megan Byrnes and Leah Stevens also finaled in the mile.

Simone Manuel won the 50 and 100 free. She and Drabot finaled in the 200 free. Ally Howe won the 100 back, Janet Hu was third in the 100 fly and diving Olympian Kassidy Cook was fourth in 3-meter diving.

There was no weak spot. Howe set the American record in the 100 back at Pac-12s that year and she was arguably the fourth best swimmer on the team. That is how loaded the 2018 Stanford team really was — perhaps the greatest collection of talent assembled on a women’s team in history.

Top 10 NCAA Highlights coverage of No. 5

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Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

6. Missy Franklin’s signature race

Missy Franklin‘s accomplishments at the 2012 London Olympics are well documented. She burst onto the global scene with gold medals to match her gold-medal smile. Those performances, winning both backstrokes and setting an Olympic record in the 200 back, made her a household name.

She wasn’t done with epic swims.

In 2015, swimming for Cal, Franklin put together perhaps the most stunning race in women’s NCAA history, shattering her own NCAA and American record in the 200 free and breaking the 1:40 barrier for the first time in history, touching the wall in 1:39.10. She broke her own record by 1.21 seconds. It was a race Rowdy Gaines called at the time the most impressive yards swim of all time. Five years later, she is no longer the only 1:39 but Mallory Comerford‘s 1:39.9 is still nearly an entire second behind Franklin. “I can’t even believe that. I do, I want to finish with a bang,” Franklin said after the race. “I’ve been thinking about that [1:] 39 literally all season so to finally get it – words can’t describe.”

Top 10 NCAA Highlights coverage of No. 6

Photo Courtesy: Indiana Athletics

7. Brooklyn Snodgrass pulls upset of the decade

A year after Cal’s Elizabeth Pelton set the NCAA and American record in the 200 back, she looked poised to earn a repeat title in 2014. She was the heavy favorite to win the event again, and if anyone was going to catch her it was Virginia upstart Courtney Bartholomew, who had emerged as a national contender in both backstroke events, or Olympian Elizabeth Beisel.

Pelton and Bartholomew were even the entire race and touched nearly together. They looked at the board then looked at each other with stunned expressions. While they touched together in the middle of the pool, they saw a No. 1 next to Indiana’s Brooklyn Snodgrass from lane two. Snodgrass had pulled off the upset of the decade. No one saw it coming, least of all Pelton and Bartholomew, who were so worried about each other, they didn’t have time to think about anyone else.

Snodgrass finished in 1:50.52, three hundredths ahead of Pelton (1:50.55) and 32 hundredths ahead of Bartholomew (1:50.84).

It was the second-closest race in history in the event, but by far the most stunning.

Top 10 NCAA Highlights coverage of No. 7

Kevin Cordes sets a new American record in the prelims of the 200 breaststroke.

Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

8. Kevin Cordes, Ian Finnerty break breaststroke barriers

Many barriers were broken in many events this decade, but two breaststroke barriers were instrumental in the development of speed in the stroke. One came early in the decade and the other was late.

In 2013, Kevin Cordes was at the peak of his career, and the breaststroke would never quite be the same. In the 200 breast, Cordes shattered the NCAA and American record with a 1:49.79 in prelims, only to shatter even further with a 1:48.68 in the finals. It was, at the time, the race of the decade, and as the decade comes to a close, it is still in the conversation seven years later.

In 2014, Cordes came close to becoming the first swimmer to break 50 seconds in the 100 breast as well, but that didn’t come until 2018 with Indiana’s Ian Finnerty. Even Caeleb Dressel couldn’t break that barrier, though a 50.03 was insanely fast in an off event. Finnerty only led Dressel have that American record for a few weeks. Dressel set his at the SEC Championships, but the NCAA championship was Finnerty’s time to shine.

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Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Finnerty crushed the final of the 100 breast in 2018, winning in 49.69, the first swimmer to break 50 seconds in the final stroke to see the 50-second barrier erased. Just for good measure, Finnerty broke 50 again in 2019, putting another stamp on his NCAA breaststroke legacy.

Top 10 NCAA Highlights coverage of No. 8 Cordes and Finnerty

katie ledecky, mallory comerford, 2017 ncaa championships

Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

9. Comerford ties Ledecky in 200 free

When Katie Ledecky arrived at Stanford, she seemed unbeatable. Her national and international dominance in the distance freestyle events had been well known and her performance in Rio in 2016 made her the face of women’s swimming.

She didn’t exactly get beat, but was part of one of the most stunning races in NCAA history. In the 200 free, Ledecky touched the wall in 1:40.36 with a No. 1 by her name on the scoreboard. But Louisville’s Mallory Comerford also had No. 1 by her name. She also finished in exactly 1:40.36 as the duo tied for the NCAA title, a rarity in any event, but especially in one not considered one of the true sprints.

But this wasn’t a typical race. Ledecky was the dominant force in the sport, there also was one of the most stacked fields ever assembled in the event, making Comerford’s first signature race even more impressive. The more impressive feat might have been Comerford came back from more than a half second deficit to win. Ledecky went on to become the first swimmer to ever sweep the 200, 500 and 1650 in the same year, though because of Comerford, it wasn’t a clean sweep.

The finals also consisted of three other Olympians and two more national team members as Stanford’s Simone Manuel was third (1:40.36) and Michigan’s Siobhan Haughey was fourth (1:41.21). The top four all broke the pool record set by Allison Schmitt when she won the NCAA title earlier in the decade. Virginia’s Leah Smith — the fourth Olympian of the group — was fifth, followed by Michigan’s Gabby DeLoof.

But in a stacked field, usually one stands above all others. This time, it was two.

Top 10 NCAA Highlights coverage of No. 9

Connor Jaeger wins the 500 freestyle

Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

10. Michigan claims 12th national title

In a decade dominated by Texas and Cal, Michigan put an important stamp on its historical legacy in men’s swimming. In 2013, the Wolverines won the NCAA title, at the time setting the all-time record with 12 team championships. Texas has since passed Michigan with 14, but at the time, it was a significant milestone for the Wolverines.

The Wolverines held off Cal, Arizona, USC and Texas in 2013, winning by 73.5 points. Michigan won the 200 medley relay behind Miguel Ortiz, Bruno Ortiz, Sean Fletcher and Zack Turk. Connor Jaeger won the 500 and 1650 free as a deep team continued the legacy of the Wolverines — a program that has produced Tom Dolan, Eric Namesnik, Peter Vanderkaay, Davis Tarwater, Mike Barrowman, Tyler Clary, Tom Malchow and a slew of other Olympians.

Winning a title while only winning three events shows the depth the Wolverines had under coach Mike Bottom, leading Michigan to an unprecedented 12th title.

Top 10 NCAA Highlights coverage of No. 10

Those are my Top 10 NCAA Highlights, though the decade saw many more. We are just months away from starting to pile up highlights for the next decade.