Dual Meet Speed Puts Gretchen Walsh in Range of Special Sophomore Results

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Gretchen Walsh -- Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Dual Meet Speed Puts Gretchen Walsh in Range of Special Sophomore Results

Last season, Gretchen Walsh took the step from highly-regarded high school sprinter to NCAA champion. Her first year at the University of Virginia concluded with an individual national title in the 100-yard freestyle plus a pair of runnerup finishes, four relay titles for the Cavaliers (including American records in all four relays at some point in the spring) and a team championship. One month later, Walsh struggled to convert those performances to long course as she faltered at the U.S. International Team Trials, but she rebounded in July by firing off quick times in four events at U.S. Nationals, including a title-winning swim in the 100-meter butterfly.

Already, Walsh ranks among the top four performers ever in three different events in short course yards. So it’s no secret by now that Walsh is one of the country’s best sprinters, and even after the breakthrough meet at U.S. Nationals, she’s still better in short course than long thanks to a devastating underwater dolphin kickout. At last year’s NCAAs, for instance, Walsh kept pace with Katharine Berkoff in the 100 back final until the final yards by utilizing the full 15 meters off each turn, and that paid off as she went under the existing American record.

But in just one dual meet so far this season, we are seeing indicators that Walsh could blow her own best marks out of the water come March. In Virginia’s win over Florida this weekend, Walsh swam marks of 21.40 in the 50 free, 50.53 in the 100 fly and 21.91 on the butterfly leg of Virginia’s 200 medley relay, the fastest split ever recorded. The 50 free mark would rank Walsh 14th in history (except she is already the third-best ever), and it would have been good enough to win the NCAA title every year but one through 2014. Her 100 fly mark leaves Walsh just outside the all-time top-25.

Oh, and all those swims came while wearing a practice suit.

Sure, it’s not uncommon to see a smattering of elite times in dual meets, but practice suit times that would be top-five times at NCAAs? Multiple swims of that quality in the same day? Basically unheard of.

Of course, racing in a practice suit is nothing new for Walsh. The 19-year-old from Nashville actually eschewed a tech suit for a pair of prelims swims in the 100 free and 100 back at Nationals this summer as part of a plan “to try something new, to approach this race differently and be open to the idea of honestly re-learning how to swim the race,” Walsh said. While there is no specific record for practice-suit swims, it’s unclear if and when anyone has ever surpassed the 59.80 100 back that Walsh swam without the tech suit in Irvine, Calif., in late July.

The 50 free is one of Walsh’s specialty events, so no huge surprise to see her among the country’s best in that event. But the butterfly speed was far less expected. Walsh was a semifinalist in the 100 fly at the 2021 U.S. Olympic Trials, but in her freshman year of college swimming saw full attention placed on sprint freestyle and backstroke (to exquisite results). Yes, her long course national crown came in the 100 fly, but that race did not include the top four finishers in the event from International Team Trials, including eventual world champion Torri Huske and Walsh’s Virginia teammate Kate Douglass.

And here we are in late October, with Walsh having topped Maggie Mac Neil, the Olympic gold medalist in the 100-meter fly and the only swimmer ever under 49 in yards, for the top time in the country.

In the long-run, the smart odds suggest Walsh will stick with backstroke instead of butterfly for the Cavaliers’ championship three-peat quest. The team already has Douglass as the returning NCAA champion and American-record holder in the 100 fly, and the record-setting medley relays from last year included Walsh on back, her older sister Alex Walsh on fly and Douglass anchoring.

But would we really be surprised if Gretchen showed up in the 100 fly at NCAAs and won, even against a loaded field with Mac Neil, Douglass, Huske and potentially Claire Curzan? No, not at all, not after her stunning trajectory in backstroke last year plus her early-season success in fly.

In the long run, it’s Walsh’s sprint freestyle abilities that could make her a force in international long course racing, so those merit plenty of attention this college season as well. Could we be discussing Walsh and potential records, maybe even Simone Manuel’s lauded 45.56 100 free? Again, not a stretch. Not anymore.