Midseason College Invitationals — Women’s Preview: Can Gretchen Walsh Break Records in November?

Gretchen Walsh -- Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Midseason College Invitationals — Women’s Preview: Can Gretchen Walsh Lower Records in November?

Most of the top teams in college swimming will be active this weekend, racing prelims-finals in tech suits at various invitational meets. Over the last decade, the weekend before Thanksgiving has replaced the weekend after as coaches’ preferred time to test their team’s training and fitness against top-notch competition, with the teams usually crushing the top times recorded thus far this season over the three days. The meets this upcoming weekend will take place mostly in short course yards, with many Olympic hopefuls targeting the U.S. Open the week after Thanksgiving for long course racing action.

On the women’s side, three-time defending national champion Virginia will race in Knoxville, Tenn., site of the Cavaliers’ 2023 title, with a chance to post impressive midseason times as again the heavy title favorite. Texas, last year’s national runnerup, will revive the Longhorns’ own invitational that has been absent from the schedule the last few years while 2023 top-five teams Stanford and NC State will race in Greensboro. Here are the meets that will host the top-ranked women’s programs:

  • Georgia Invitational (Athens): Florida, Georgia, Michigan
  • NC State Invitational (Greensboro): NC State, Stanford
  • Ohio State Invitational (Columbus): Indiana, Louisville, Ohio State
  • Tennessee Invitational (Knoxville): North Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee
  • Texas Invitational (Austin): Southern California, Texas, Wisconsin

Note: The Tennessee Invite will feature long course prelims and short course finals.

The results of these competitions will hold significance in how they affect the national rankings, including which teams are looking strong for the spring championship season in particular events or overall and who has work to do. Here are some of the storylines we will be following:

1. Record Watch in Knoxville

We don’t normally see many American or NCAA records at midseason invites, but we cannot discount the possibility of Gretchen Walsh knocking off a record or two at the Tennessee meet. That’s because the Virginia junior has been on a truly incredible streak during Virginia’s fall dual-meet slate. Most recently, against the University of Texas, Walsh clocked nation-leading times in four events. That included a 100 freestyle time of 46.42, quicker than the swimmer who placed second to Walsh at last year’s NCAA Championships.

Walsh was less than one second off her own 100 backstroke record of 48.26 and just 12-hundredths off her 50 free American mark of 20.83. She even clocked 49.17 in the 100 fly, which would be on the verge of a record if not for the heroics of Kate DouglassMaggie Mac Neil and Torri Huske a season ago.

Can Walsh swim the fastest time in history in one or more of her events this weekend? Heck yes. Remember, all those dual meet times were recorded in a practice suit. She might not race all four events at this meet, but any time Walsh is in the pool, look out.

2. Stacking Up the Distance Drama

There will be new leaders in distance freestyle on the college level this year after Alabama fifth-year swimmer Kensey McMahon captured titles in the 500 and 1650-yard events last season. The 500 was a particularly surprising result as McMahon pulled away from a decorated and tight field that included Olympic medalists Erica Sullivan (Texas) and Emma Weyant (Florida). Now, with McMahon gone, who will be the clubhouse leaders in the 500 free on the way to this year’s NCAAs?

The other nine swimmers who broke 4:40 at last year’s NCAAs are all racing this weekend, with the second through fourth-place finishers from last year’s final all in Austin: Wisconsin’s Abby Carlson along with Sullivan and Longhorn teammate Olivia Bray. Weyant joins Georgia’s Rachel Stege and Dune Coetzee in Athens, and Indiana’s Ching Hwee Gan will race at Ohio State. Tennessee’s Julia Mrozinski and Virginia’s Maddie Donahoe will be in Knoxville.

Of course, perhaps the 500 free becomes a race for second place with Bella Sims now on the scene. At last year’s Junior Nationals, Sims swam a time of 4:28.64, which made her the third-fastest performer in history. She ended up swimming almost eight seconds quicker than the eventual winning time at NCAAs. Only five women ever have broken 4:30, and Sims, now a freshman at Florida, is the only one currently in college.

In the mile, Gan will seriously contend for an NCAA title this year after she placed second at last year’s championships, about two-and-a-half seconds clear of 2022 champion Paige McKenna (Wisconsin). However, the best time of anyone in college swimming belongs to Sullivan, who swam a mark of 15:23.81 back in 2019 to become the second-fastest woman ever behind Katie Ledecky. That time is more than 16 seconds clear of any other swimmer in the college ranks.

3. Bella Sims Meets College Swimming


Bella Sims — Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Many universities list a swimmer’s stroke specialty on their rosters. Florida does not, which means no one has to figure out how to classify Sims. Yes, she is best-known for her freestyle skills, but in short course, she is elite in backstroke, butterfly and individual medley as well. In a big summer performance for the Henderson, Nev., native, Sims helped the American women to silver in the 800-meter free relay at the World Championships after she was an individual finalist in the 200 and 400 free. But in college, she will surely expand her range beyond freestyle.

In addition to the aforementioned 500 free, Sims ranks fourth all-time in the 400 IM (3:56.59), ninth in the 200 free (1:40.78), ninth in the 200 back (1:48.32), 12th in the 200 fly (1:51.06) and 18th in the 1650 free (15:40.68). That means her best times in four events would have been good enough for NCAA titles last season (the 400 IM in addition to the three longer freestyle events). Her 200 back time is quicker than any returning swimmer from last season, with only NCAA champion Claire Curzan (currently redshirting) faster.

So Sims is an X-factor, the likely favorite in whatever events she enters at the end of the season. After she sparkled last winter at Junior Nationals, perhaps we will see some “wow” performances this weekend in Athens. And maybe get a hint on her event lineup for this season: the 500 free is an obvious choice, and the 200 back seems logical for the final day, but how about the middle day on the college schedule? 400 IM or 200 free? And Sims also broke the world junior record in the short course 100-meter back last year, but that event would be a stretch with the presence of Walsh and Katharine Berkoff.

4. Louisville vs. Ohio State

Two programs on the rise in recent years will share the pool deck at the McCorkle Aquatic Pavilion this weekend. Louisville, fourth on the national level last season, will be favored for the program’s first-ever top-three finish this year while the steady Ohio State women’s team ranked sixth nationally in 2023. The Cardinals are a sprint-first program, with the kind of depth that pays off on the college level. Gabi Albiero, the daughter of head coach Arthur Albiero, is the standout, and she recently tied for gold in the 50-meter free at the Pan American Games. Combined with fifth-year Christiana Regenauer and sophomores Ella Welch and Julia Dennis, this is the best sprint group in the country outside of Virginia. Abby Hay and Paige Hetrick each return after qualifying for their first NCAA A-finals last year.

The Buckeyes also play host to a sizzling group of sprinters, with Amy Fulmer back for a fifth year in Columbus while Katherine ZenickTeresa Ivan, Nyah Funderburke and Catherine Russo are all back as well. Fifth-year breaststrokers Hannah Bach and Josie Panitz are A-final-level swimmers and huge contributors to medley relays while distance swimmer Maya Gehringer will look to take the next step this year. Given that these two teams share a key strength, expect a fun matchup coming up this weekend.

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