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Morning Splash by David Rieder.
Ella Eastin was an individual NCAA champion four-times over and an American record-holder in both IM events in short course yards. She had helped Stanford win an NCAA team championship and twice won silver at the Short Course World Championships. All that had eluded her was a long course breakout and a spot on a senior U.S. international team.
At Olympic Trials in 2016, Eastin had missed the final of the 400 IM and faded badly down the stretch in the 200 IM final. Coming into Nationals one year later, Eastin still had some nerves about long course swimming, Stanford head coach Greg Meehan admitted.
But finally, Eastin looked like she was going to get over the hump. In the women’s 400 IM final at U.S. Nationals, she was second with 100 meters to go, and she was pulling away from the woman in third, three-time Olympian and 2011 World Champion Elizabeth Beisel. Her first berth at the World Championships was within her reach.
Eastin touched the wall in 4:36.96. That was two seconds faster than she had ever swum and her first time under 4:40 in four years. And most importantly, she was going to Budapest—or so it seemed.
The winner, Leah Smith, hugged Eastin, and then Beisel swam over to Eastin’s side.
“I’m telling her, ‘Girl, you are the future. I’m handing you over that 400 IM baton. Take it,’” Beisel recalled that night. “You see how elated she is.”
All the sudden, Beisel noticed the scoreboard—she was now listed as the runner-up, with Eastin disqualified. Eastin was stunned and confused. Meehan marched across the deck to speak with officials and figure out what had happened, but it would be several minutes before Eastin got answers.
“I had figured it was something less controversial because the call was made so quickly, so I was like, ‘I must have done something so obvious that there was no question that I was disqualified,’” Eastin said.
She was called for “swimming more than one-quarter of the race in a style of backstroke,” the so-called “Lochte rule,” conceived two years earlier when Ryan Lochte tried dolphin kicking on his back while swimming freestyle. FINA had decided, that was not allowed in medley swimming. Eastin, specifically, had kicked several times on her back coming off the final turn of her race.
Eastin was not the only swimmer to get penalized for the same violation—in prelims, her fellow Stanford swimmer Abrahm DeVine was disqualified, as was Bethany Galat in the same final as Eastin. But both DeVine and Galat ended up making the World Champs team in another event. Eastin would not be so fortunate.
Two days after the 400 IM, Eastin swam in the 200 IM final and could only watch from behind as Melanie Margalis and Madisyn Cox swam away from her on the last 50. Eastin, third, was crushed—and the women who beat her were heartbroken for her.
Margalis held Eastin’s hand and said, ‘I truly think you’re incredible.’ Cox then came over and pulled a teary Eastin into a hug over the lane line.
“My heart goes out to Ella,” Cox said two days later. “I definitely love her as a friend, a competitor, all that. More than anything, I felt for her, I felt that heartbreak for her. I was happy with my race, but it definitely did hurt seeing Ella not make the team.”
Eastin summed it all up: “It was really hard for me knowing that I was in a position that I felt like I deserved to be there, and that wasn’t exactly what happened. It was the first time I had qualified for the big summer meet, so that was so many years of really hard work kind of accumulating into one moment and having that taken away from me so quickly was kind of a roller coaster of emotions.”
The day after the meet, Eastin flew home to Southern California. She had received an invitation to attend the World University Games to swim the 200 fly and 200 IM, but at that point she was unsure if she would accept.
The next day, Eastin and her family attended the memorial for her grandfather, who had recently passed away. Spending quality time with those closest to her, they began making jokes about what had happened at Nationals—not to make fun of what Eastin called her “emotional distress” but as a means of healing.
“I’m very unlucky a lot of the time, so we kind of just laughed about it because of course something like that would happen to me,” Eastin said. “I’m the most Type A, on the verge of perfectionist person in my family, and of course I put all that work in and then something like that were to happen. Everyone thought it was hilarious.”
As for the remainder of Eastin’s summer, she decided to continue to race. She committed to go to the World University Games in late August in Taipei, as well as the Energy for Swim charity meet in Rome earlier that month and a World Cup meet in Eindhoven in between.
“I let a little bit of time go by before talking about it, but when the time was right we mapped out her options for the remainder of the summer,” Meehan said. “It all came together really well, but most importantly Ella embraced the idea and made the most of the experience.”
Eastin had no intention of racing another 400 IM during the summer, but by the time the Rome meet came around, she changed her mind. But the day she was to race the 400 IM, she felt pain in her oft-bothersome left shoulder and decided to pull out.
“I was really actually excited when the moment and opportunity came to do the 400 IM,” Eastin said. “And then I ended up being in so much pain, and I was like, ‘I don’t want Greg thinking this is just a cop-out.’”
Soon after, she won gold in the 200 fly at World University Games and silver in the 400 IM, and she was a team captain on the U.S. team—which Eastin called “an honor.”
“I had always viewed myself as the younger, less experienced swimmer because I feel like a lot of times when I’m racing I’m with some of the vets that have been around longer than I have,” she said. “To be in a situation where I had been to a couple international competitions, I kind of felt like I was at a turning point in terms of where I was in my career. It definitely meant a lot to me.”
Coming Back Stronger
After a two-month stretch that included the most stunning disappointment of her career, injury and a tremendous honor behind her, Eastin returned to her Stanford team, gunning to defend the NCAA championship the team won in 2017 to break a 19-year title drought.
Eastin won titles in the 400 IM and 200 fly at last season’s NCAAs while also finishing second in the 200 IM and helping the Cardinal 4×200 free relay team set an American record. At the end of that meet, Eastin sat next to superstar teammate Katie Ledecky at the interview table, nearly moved to tears by the triumph.
As a freshman, NCAAs had been Eastin’s breakthrough meet, when she very nearly led a team awaiting Ledecky’s arrival and Simone Manuel’s return from redshirt to a title, coming up only 19 points short. The 160.5-point triumph in 2017 was the logical next step but even sweeter because of what had happened before.
“My first experience was doing everything in my power that I possibly could to set my team up for winning a national championship and us coming so close but not exactly reaching that height,” Eastin said. “I felt like everything that that first team that I was on had worked towards, the accumulation of that work, we were seeing the fruition of our work.”
Now, she’s back in team-first mode as the Cardinal are heavily favored to repeat as national champions. Thinking from that perspective has yielded tremendous results for the 20-year-old in the past.
“I just want to contribute to that as much as I possibly can, and that does involve me being at my personal best,” Eastin said. “But I haven’t thought much past that.”
The list of things she has not thought about includes records, both her own American marks in both IMs as well as Katinka Hosszu’s elusive U.S. Open record of 3:56.54 in the 400 IM. That list also includes long course—anything in the pool that happens after March 17.
When she does get back to long course racing, Eastin thinks she will be more confident in her Olympic-sized abilities come summer. The 4:36, after all, did happen, and a few dolphin kicks on her back off a single turn were not the sole explanation for a three-second time drop. Still, Eastin knows her eventual return to the long course 400 IM could be a mental challenge.
“The 400 IM carries a lot of different emotions because of how long and intense and painful it is and the different experiences I’ve had with it,” she said. “I’m hoping that once long course season rolls around now I’ll have a little bit different perspective.”
After two years of collegiate success and the tribulations of the last two years’ worth of international qualifying meets, Eastin explained that “I am starting to understand that the most important thing is for me to be growing personally.”
And what better way to grow than to experience a crushing setback like Eastin did and deal with it so gracefully? No, she did not get to go to Budapest, but she picked herself right back up to grow as an influential figure for both her WUGs teammates and then for her Stanford teammates.
“Ella has always been a leader in the water, but she is now really embracing the other side of leadership,” Meehan said. “It’s fun to see her make that transition because everyone benefits.”
After the biggest disappointment of her career, Ella Eastin walked away stronger.