Gretchen Walsh Evoking Memories of Greatness With Record-Smashing ACCs

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Gretchen Walsh -- Photo Courtesy: Jaylynn Nash

Gretchen Walsh Evoking Memories of Greatness With Record-Smashing ACCs

Over the past week at the ACC Championships, Gretchen Walsh affirmed her place as the dominant force in women’s college swimming. The signs have been building up toward Walsh unveiling something special this championship season, most recently a dual-meet season in which Walsh repeatedly challenged records and swam relay splits ranked among the fastest ever while wearing a practice suit. Still, watching the performances stack up day after day was surreal.

Consider the performances: in the 50 freestyle, the quickest mark ever when Walsh arrived on the collegiate scene was Abbey Weitzeil’s 20.90. Erika Brown had topped out at 21.03, and Simone Manuel went 21.17. Walsh just went 20.57, a whopping four tenths quicker than any of those star performers.

Butterfly was not considered one of Walsh’s specialty events until last summer, when she won the 50-meter fly and took second in the 100-meter fly at U.S. Nationals, and the 100-yard fly record seemed especially imposing after Kate Douglass and Maggie Mac Neil engaged in an epic showdown at last year’s NCAA Championships that took the record down to 48.46. Well, not anymore, not with Walsh clocking 48.25 at ACCs.

We saw in 2023 what Walsh was capable of in the 100 back, with her 48.26 at the NCAA Championships a jaw-dropping effort as she was approaching the 47-second barrier. Now, Walsh is even closer with her 48.10 effort leading off Virginia’s 400 medley relay at the conference meet. In the 100 free, Walsh knocked off Manuel’s seven-year-old record with a 45.16 that is four tenths quicker than the 2016 Olympic gold medalist and almost seven tenths quicker than anyone else in history.

And we would be remiss to forget about the relay performances, including a 200 free leadoff leg that made her the third-fastest woman ever in the event and a 19.95 split on Virginia’s 200 free relay that brought an audible gasp to the Greensboro Aquatic Center as Walsh broke 20 seconds for the first time ever.

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Gretchen Walsh — Photo Courtesy: Jaylynn Nash

“I didn’t expect this great of a meet. It couldn’t have gone better honestly,” Walsh said in a video posted to the program’s official X account. “The four records, absolutely mind-blowing. I’m really proud of myself, but I know that there’s more in the tank. I’m ready to get back and start training again for NCAAs and hopefully break some more, go faster.”

Running through those performances, perhaps you get a sense of déjà vu. A Virginia swimmer breaking records — shattering them, in fact — among all these different strokes and events? Sounds like Douglass, whose astounding college career concluded last March with the fastest times ever in the 200 IM, 100 fly and 200 breaststroke at the NCAA Championships.

Going year-by-year in her college career, Walsh has followed a similar pattern to Douglass, still one of her primary training partners in Charlottesville. In their first NCAA Championships, both swimmers won individual titles in just one event before getting closer to record times in multiple events year after year. By the time Douglass reached her senior-year campaign, she opted out of swimming certain events at the NCAA Championships where she was capable of winning titles and breaking records. Walsh will be in the same situation this year, likely forced to choose between the 100 fly and 100 back for her Friday event.

Parallels have emerged between Walsh and Natalie Coughlin, a barrier breaking swimmer who dominated the college ranks two decades ago. At one point, Coughlin owned American and U.S. Open records in a whopping seven events, the 50, 100 and 200 free, the 100 and 200 back and the 100 and 200 fly. Walsh does not typically swim 200-yard events, but we just saw what she is capable of in a rare 200 free appearance. The other records? Already checked off.

During all four years of her college career, Coughlin raced the 100 fly, 100 back and 200 back at the NCAA Championships, going 11-for-11 in national titles before faltering in her final individual swim as a collegian, but on three different occasions, she upstaged the field in the 100 free by eclipsing the individual winning time while leading off a relay. Just like Walsh did to Katharine Berkoff in the 100 back at the ACC meet. Like Coughlin and Douglas before her, Walsh holds enormous sway over the NCAA Championships, likely to easily win whichever events she chooses while giving an opening for swimmers in whatever races she skips.

Walsh has already broken notable barriers, including that aforementioned 19-second relay split, and she is poised for more at next month’s NCAA Championships. While Coughlin was the first woman ever to break 50 in the 100 back, with her 49.97 record leaving her in a solo club for 15 years, Walsh could now become the first woman under 48 in the event, an accomplishment that would have been unthinkable 12 months ago. The same barrier in the 100 fly is within reach, and Walsh is definitely set up to achieve the first-ever 44-second 100 freestyle next month.

Of course, we cannot forget about long course, with the looming reality of the upcoming Olympics hovering over all collegiate competitions. Walsh reached a senior-level international competition for the first time last summer, but her results at the Fukuoka World Championships were mixed. She won bronze in the 50-meter fly and helped the U.S. women to gold in the 400 medley relay, but her times at the start of the meet were far short of her best, and she missed the 50 free final.

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Gretchen Walsh hugging Virginia head coach Todd DeSorbo — Photo Courtesy: Jaylynn Nash

Obviously, short course magnificence does not directly translate to long course, but these collegiate performances show year-to-year progression. Even if she remains better in short course than long course thanks to her ridiculous underwater dolphin kicking abilities, that same progression in long course combined with some international experience accumulated last summer in Fukuoka put Walsh in position to take on a larger role with the American women’s team this year as Walsh aims to join older sister Alex Walsh as an Olympian.

Becoming a force propelling the U.S. women to relay medals and maybe even a gold or two, rather than a potential liability? Challenging for individual medals, particularly in the 50 free and 100 fly? Those are lofty goals but certainly within Walsh’s reach this year given the jumps she has made in yards since last year.

Before those international opportunities come around, Walsh will be the central figure of the NCAA Championships, an obvious favorite for swimmer of the meet with wins nearly certain in whichever three individual events she chooses, whichever four of Virginia’s relays she races on and in the team competition with the Cavaliers.

“She has some pretty big goals, and some of them she hasn’t even attained yet,” Virginia head coach Todd DeSorbo said in a video on X. “I think hopefully there’s some more in store for her. She’s had a great year all-around, all the way until this point. She’s practicing at a really high level, doing things she’s never done before. She works hard every minute of every day, so it’s just great to see her be successful and perform at a high level in competitions like this.”

That consistency that DeSorbo and his staff witness daily has provided a steady dose of “wow” moments for the swimming community at each opportunity this season, and that has her set up perfectly for a critical, legacy-building stretch of swimming in the coming months.

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mds
mds
1 month ago

Excellent article, David. Thanks.

Coughlin was as dominant underwater off starts and walls in her era as Gretchen is now. Later in her career Natalie added some other, more “swim” based benchmarks to give a broader flavor to her career. In the summer of 2008 she first broke the American Record in the LCM 200 IM at 2:09.77 – the first American sub 2:10 – and then made the US Olympic team in the event 3 weeks later and finished the summer with Olympic Bronze, all in the LCM version of an event not listed in those “held 7 American records at the same time” events. Those events were all SCY; Natalie not only won the 200 IM Olympic Bronze but broke the World Record in the 100 Back LCM 5 times, picking up 2004 and 2008 Olympic Golds along the way.

It would be a wonderful advance for Gretchen to make similar growth in her overall achievments. Good luck.

With her sister’s accomplishments at the SCY 200 stroke and both IM disciplines, which she has managed to turn into Olympic and World podiums in events well beyond 50s, I believe Gretchen has a great deal more in her to accomplish.

She is now a huge star on the national stage; she will have to do much more to be a star of similar brightness in the international firmament.

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