Moving On Up: The Not-So-Junior Level Swims at Junior Nationals

Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

By David Rieder.

While following the two Junior National meets being held concurrently this weekend in Columbus, Ohio, and College Station, Texas, you might have noticed that some of the times seemed especially quick.

Well, they were. Ten different athletes posted times that would have placed in the championship finals at last year’s NCAA championships.

Remember that these are high schoolers, and only two of the ten are seniors. Three are 15 years old or younger.

Hypothetical Placement of Junior Nationals Swimmers at 2016 NCAA Championships

Morgan TankersleyWomen's 500 Free4:38.137
Gabrielle KopinskyWomen's 500 Free4:37.946
Alex WalshWomen's 200 IM1:54.484
Brooke FordeWomen's 200 IM1:55.555
Kate DouglassWomen's 50 Free22.04tie-8 (prelims)
Ryan HofferMen's 50 Free18.712
Brooke FordeWomen's 400 IM4:02.512
Ryan HofferMen's 100 Fly45.475
Isabel IveyWomen's 200 Free1:43.647
Alex WalshWomen's 100 Breast58.807
Zoe BartelWomen's 100 Breast59.038
Regan SmithWomen's 100 Back51.096
Regan SmithWomen's 200 Back1:51.798 (prelims)
Isabel IveyWomen's 100 Free47.887 (prelims)
Ryan HofferMen's 100 Free41.714
Zoe BartelWomen's 200 Breast2:07.736
Reece WhitleyMen's 200 Breast1:52.374

Special mention as well to Grace Ariola (22.20 in the women’s 50 free), Eva Merrell (22.26 in the women’s 50 free, 51.93 in the 100 fly), Drew Kibler (1:33.36 in the men’s 200 free, 4:15.36 in the 500 free), Grace Zhao (2:09.23 in the women’s 200 breast) and Ruby Martin (1:54.74 in the women’s 200 fly), all of whom almost made the cut as well.

Point made: kids these days are fast.

It’s hardly surprising to see Brooke Forde or Ryan Hoffer on this list. After all, each has had fast-rising stock over the past few years, and each was a huge get for their respective Bay Area universities—Forde has committed to swim at Stanford and Hoffer at Cal.

In Columbus, Forde dropped her 400 IM best time down to 4:02.51—which still ranks her 18th all-time in the event—and cut almost two seconds off her top mark in the 200 IM, finishing second in the event in 1:55.55.

Hoffer, meanwhile, continues to utilize his underwater dolphin kicks better than any sprint specialist ever has. His 100 free time of 41.71 was not his personal best, but it’s still faster than any returning NCAA swimmer aside from Caeleb Dressel posted at last season’s championships. And of course, there was Hoffer’s impressive 18.71-second 50 free, a best time by more than three tenths.

Hoffer is headed to swim for Dave Durden, who’s spent nearly a decade at Cal pumping out sprinters. (Remember Michael Jensen’s breakout performance at the Georgia Invite last week?) Hoffer has yet to show much in the long course pool, but Durden’s track record says that might be only a matter of time. (Tom Shields, anyone?)

He’ll arrive on campus in Berkeley with personal best times just off the school records in his two best events—0.05 in the 50 free and 0.15 in the 100 free. By the way, both of those records are held by a guy named Nathan Adrian.

It seems like Reece Whitley has been around forever, too, but the 6’8” breaststroker does not turn 17 until early next year. But after a rough go this summer—including at Olympic Trials, where he was eliminated in the semifinals of both breaststroke events—Whitley is back in business.

Whitley won the 200 breast at the Junior Nationals East meet in Columbus, posting a time of 1:52.37 that is his best by more than a second and ranks 25th all-time in the event. He also finished first in the 200 IM in (1:43.93), 400 IM (3:47.15) and 100 breast (52.95), none of them shabby times in the slightest.

Anyone else get the impression he was rather pleased with his 200 breast Saturday night?

Reece Whitley

Photo Courtesy: USA Swimming

One of Whitley’s fellow high school juniors got some love last week when joined some older faces a cup of coffee in Atlanta last week. At Winter Nationals, Ivey finished a close second to Olympic gold medalist Melanie Margalis in the 200 free and then won her first National title in the 100 free.

Next up on Ivey’s busy travel schedule was a trip to Columbus for Junior Nationals, and while there she put on a show. Friday night, she won the 100 fly in 52.61 and then minutes later took first in the 200 free in 1:43.61. A day later, she dominated the 100 free final, finishing in 47.88.

For some comparison, her best times entering last week stood at 1:46.88 in the 200 free and 48.44 in the 100 free, both from Junior Nationals last year in Atlanta, when a giddy 15-year-old Ivey won her first Junior National title.

Yes, that was a long time ago.

But perhaps no one left the kind of impression this weekend that Alex Walsh did. A year ago at Juniors, it was her backstroke races (51.62/1:52.07) that got the rest of the country’s attention, but right now, it’s hard to even declare backstroke her best stroke.

In fact, she actually added times in both backstroke events this past weekend (52.32/1:53.70) and still had a remarkable meet. She won the 200 IM in 1:54.48, a two-second drop from last year, and she also took first in the 100 breast in 58.80, dropping almost two-and-a-half seconds from her entry time of 1:01.25.

The 100 breast time was a new 15-16 NAG record, and her 200 IM ranks Walsh fourth all-time for 15-16 girls, trailing the not-too-shabby trio of Dagny Knutson, Meghan Small and Elizabeth Pelton. Walsh, of course, still has another year in that age group.

So, too, does Kate Douglass, who blasted a 22.04 in the 50 free at the same Columbus meet to tie Simone Manuel’s 15-16 NAG record in the event.

And then there’s the one 14-year-old on the list: Regan Smith. In College Station, Smith lowered Walsh’s 13-14 NAG record in the 100 back with an impressive time of 51.09, and she swam a 1:51.79 in the 200 back, a time only one woman her age has bettered: Missy Franklin.

If for some reason you’ve skipped the last 20 or so paragraphs, here’s the gist: the all-time age group lists took a beating this weekend.

Still, while all these NAG records and Junior National titles are great, they are merely precursors. Michael Phelps was not sitting at an interview podium in Brazil in August reminiscing about how many Junior National titles he won (surprisingly, not a lot) or NAG records he set (quite a few).

But to say that results from Junior Nationals mean nothing would be simply foolish. Need proof? Look no further than three years back, to the 2013 Winter Junior Nationals in Greensboro.

That was the meet where Dressel became the first high schooler to swim under 19 in the 50 free, and Ella Eastin, Lilly King, Townley Haas and Abbey Weitzeil all won individual events.

Chances are, you know exactly who those swimmers are now. For Hoffer, Whitley, Walsh, Smith and the others, their time is coming.

All commentaries are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Swimming World Magazine nor its staff.


  1. avatar
    Bill Bell

    Whitley also won the 400 IM same night as that 52.9 100 breast. His time of 3:47-plus is his pr by several seconds, at least. If he’s 6-8 now as an almost
    17-year-old imagine how big he’ll be by Tokyo.

    And let’s not forget Drew Kibler, the fastest 16-year-old middle distance swimmer of all- time. Why by the time he reaches college he’ll have that 200free record down to 1:25. and the 500 under four minutes!

    Nothing to it but to do it, right, Drew?

    Let:’s see Katie Ledecky do that!

    • avatar
      David Rieder

      Whoops, thanks for pointing out Reece’s 400 IM, Bill. Added that in.

  2. avatar
    Paul Windrath

    The times are fast and I don’t want to take anything away from their swims. BUT…those swimmers should not be at Junior Nationals. I don’t care how young they are….

    Seems wrong for swimmers who are Olympic Trials and Senior Nationals swimmers to be allowed to compete at the Junior Nationals. Much like not allowing “A” swimmers to compete in a “B/C” meet.

    Just my old fashion way of thinking about it….

    • avatar

      Agreed. Once youve placed in the top 8 at jrs its time to move on and compete at a higher level. Most of the top jr national swimmers should have been at Sr nationals against the top college/post grad/HS swimmers. As Bill said, competing against jr national swimmers is one thing, but having Tom Shileds, Amanda Weir, and Cordes next to them is a different ball game. Teams like Scottsdale and Bolles should have gone to Sr Nationals and followed suit like Dynamo, NCAP, Canyons…

  3. avatar
    Bill Bell

    A lot of those kids swam @ Senior Nationals a week ago and the chance to race again against their contemporaries can only be beneficial. But I don’t think you can equate swimming @ NJOs to swimming @ NCAAs. Ryan Hoffer’s :18.7 50 may have gotten him second to Dressel on paper but actually getting up on the blocks w/say Dressel in a lane next to him and say Ryan Held on the opposite side is a whokevdifferent kettle of fish.
    But swimmers like Ledeky or Hosszu take on all comers and consistently win with equanimity so who’s to say many of these outstanding juniors won’t follow suit come the Tokyo Trials or The Big O’s themselves in four years?
    Lilly King was just a pretty good prepster before she got to,Hoosierville and became a superstar and Maya DiRado, while an NCAA champ for Stanford before Rio, was considered an afterthought in the 200 back at the Olympics last August. All Katinka Zhosszu had to hop in the pool and the good was hers for the asking.

  4. Michele Dantas

    Well done to Alex! I heard Gretch had an amazing 100fr as well ??!

  5. avatar

    I agree there was quite a few Olympic Trial level swimmers at Junior Nationals! Not sure how many but this was my daughters first and she didn’t stand a chance making it to the top 24! I do believe there needs to be some leveling out to keep it more exciting for the up and comers! It sucks when your daughter makes it to Juniors with a pretty great time but with an average prelim swim it was impossible to make it back for finals. Competition is great but when you make it impossible it becomes discouraging!! USA swimming do something about this!!

    • avatar

      Trophies should be given to everybody at this meet

      • avatar

        I’m sorry that is Not at all what I’m saying! My daughter is swimming Sectionals next weekend but she is not swimming her Jr National event!! There is nothing wrong with leveling out the playing field! There were definitely some amazing swimmers being recognized however the field is so narrow that many amazingly fast kids did not stand a chance of making a final!! All the top 8 finishers are Olympic Trial qualifiers already and good very well compete at National with there own competition! There is no real winning unless you are swimming in your own league!! Having a min time and a max time would seem reasonable!

      • avatar
        David Rieder

        Interesting point, Sue, but how about from the other perspective. Having all these swimmers at Juniors instead of Senior Nationals dilutes that meet. (Only Ivey did both.) Especially in a year like this where Nationals was so weak.

    • avatar

      Trophies should be given to everybody at this meet…

    • avatar

      This is really irritating.

      “It sucks when your daughter makes it to Juniors with a pretty great time but with an average prelim swim it was impossible to make it back for finals.”

      Sue, welcome to life. There is a pecking order in EVERYTHING in life. Everything. It’s not arrogance or cockiness. It’s just reality. Instead of being proud of your daughter for making it to Juniors, you are frustrated that her “average swim” doesn’t get back to finals? When she isn’t able to get into Stanford with “average grades” will you suggest that this is unfair?

      Did you feel this way when she made her first State Cut only to go there and NOT make finals because better swimmers dared to take “her” spot? How about Sectionals? What if your daughter makes a final at the expense of another swimmer with an “average prelim swim”? I assume she’ll scratch the final to make room?

      It’s a sad state of affairs that we now look at successful teenagers who make tremendous sacrifices and, instead of celebrating their accomplishments, we need to shame them for having the audacity to compete at Speedo Junior Nationals. Tell you what, at Trials in 2020, I think we should keep the National Team squad from competing. It’s sure to hurt the feelings of the other swimmers and their parents that will be denied their rightful entitlement to make Team USA. And, how about telling anyone over 25 years of age that they can’t compete either? That’s not fair! They have too much experience and muscle tone to compete against 20 year olds. Where does it end?

      There are WAY too many participation trophy types floating around these days. If you aren’t fast enough to make the final, you aren’t fast enough. If your grades aren’t good enough to get into Stanford, they aren’t good enough. This is called competition. Get used to it. Please.

  6. avatar
    Concerned Swimmer

    How about Alex Liang 400 IM? He crushed the heat and was 2 seconds away from the Junior Record

  7. avatar

    As a wise old swim mom once told me – You get so excited as a parent when you kid makes the cut to the next level meet and then you get there and you are at the bottom of the pack and they have to start all over again. Kids need to go learn from these meets if its their first experience. Watch the kids who make it to the finals at night – what did they do in their morning swims. You quickly learn after attending several Junior Nationals you have to swim a best time in the morning to make it back. You take that experience back with you and start incorporating it into your training so the next time you are there you give yourself a chance. Juniors nationals should stay exactly as it is – the best of the best of 18 and unders. The 18 and under kids at the top deserve just as much of a chance to shine with their peers. The kids that don’t make it back to finals should learn and figure out how they can get there. To say the kids with Trials cuts and Senior cuts should not be there seems short sighted. Its a grind out there – keep grinding!!

  8. avatar

    Jill — by far the best comments on the question set forth.

    A couple of additional points — time inexorably resolves some of these questions. Next year Hoffer will both be 19 and in college. While it would have certainly been a reasonable choice for him to go to Seniors, it should be a coach/athlete decision, not some arbitrary “you’re too good now” matter taken out of the hands of the proper decision makers, who presumably knows the athlete better than we do and has a better understanding of what is best in the long term for the athlete and his team. Again using the Hoffer example, the Scottsdale kids certainly got to have more fun at the meet with him there, winning multiple relays and the team championship in large part due to Hoffer’s input. It is either a national championship for a set (18 & under) of athletes or not. And one of the other factors that commonly comes into play is the swimmer who has one or two senior cuts but 5-6 six other good events; if they go to seniors, aside from the sometimes useful but undeniably limited experience of time trials, fine athletes may go years without getting to swim (and maybe even make more senior cuts) many of their events in a rest/shave/competition experience. And in a way that same consideration affected Hoffer as I heard he had an opportunity to go to Windsor for the SC Worlds, but would have been limited to relays. We need to remember to be “fair” to the experience and development of the top end athletes as well as those striving to get there.

  9. avatar

    Some good points made above by Jill, Dunc and others. If a swimmer is 18 or under and qualified, he/she has the right to go to that meet and perform. There should be no complaining about kids being “too fast” for a national meet where they are qualified to swim. In my kid’s case, she was the only one on her team qualified for Sr. Nationals and chose Jrs because she wanted to enjoy the camaraderie with her team instead of going to Srs alone. That’s not a bad thing, is it? Also: location of the meets and timing factor into the decisions teams and athletes made. Part of growing up in the sport is getting your head handed to you by better and faster swimmers, and learning from that experience.

    • avatar

      I do agree with some of your points but I find your comment about being with faster swimmers hilarious because you chose to send your child to a less faster meet! The only point I was trying to make was there needs to be a bit more distinction between a JR National level meet and a Senior Nationals. In my experience Jr Nationals this year might as well been a Senior National meet. From what I heard St Natiinals was not that fast because all the swimmers that should have been there were are Jr Nationals. Maybe if you have attend JR Nationals in the past and you ranked top 8 maybe there is a move on point to keep those swimmers pushed harder and challenged! I know of a swimmer that won an event without even trying because everyone was clearly a lot slower. How does this make her a better swimmer. I agree our kids need robe challenged but don’t keep the slower swimmers so far down that you make it impossible to reach the top. Just giving another perspective!

      • avatar

        You saw the reason why we chose Jrs: for team camaraderie. Our swimmers have always sought out the highest level of competition, which means spending plenty of humbling morning swims and plenty of nights watching finals from the bleachers. I would be interested in knowing which swimmer won a Jr National event “without even trying.” I certainly saw no one who fit that description.

  10. avatar

    Well it really would not be polite to name the swimmer! It is definitely not in her best interest to share! My only point is if you can possibly make a final at a senior national meet Junior Nationals may be below your level!! Just look at it on the other side!! If 8 of the swimmers could do well at Nationals that would allow 8 additional swimmers to have a Final swim at Junior National! Let just say every time my daughter has had a major break through swim she NEVER does it in Prelims! I understand your age argument but let’s be honest some of the girls today started maturing at age 12 others don’t start until they are 15-16! There were full grown woman at Juniors!! But yes I agree if you are a swimmer that has 1 National cut I see nothing wrong with swimming your other events at Juniors! My daughter swam Jrs with a few cuts but she is swimming Sectional on her other events!! Sorry but it is not an accomplishment to win something you already have. If my daughter won her best event at Sectionals it would not be that rewarding if everyone she swam against didn’t even get there Junior National cut yet. Sorry but in my eyes when you are swimming done a level you are expecting a trophy just for showing up!!