NCAA Championships: Freestyle Relays See Fastest Swimmers Trending Toward Second Leg

Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

NCAA Championships: Freestyle Relays See Fastest Swimmers Trending Toward Second Leg

When swimmers and swim fans think about freestyle relays, at least at the Olympics or in a historical sense, it the fastest swimmers are generally on the anchor.

Swimmers picture this spot at the Olympics just like young baseball players picture being at bat in the ninth inning of Game 7 of the World Series, or a basketball player having the ball in the final seconds of the Final Four.

That was the case for a long time in the sport.

But once records were being kept on leadoff legs of relays, since it is a flat start, there has been a trend of the fastest leading off the relay, giving the elite swimmers an extra chance at a record, and giving their team a quick lead.

At this year’s NCAA Division I Women’s Championships in Knoxville, the trend has been having the fastest swimmers go second on the freestyle relays.

In the 800 free relay, Virginia’s Alex Walsh and Stanford’s Taylor Ruck went second. Ruck is the defending champion in the 200 freestyle and historically, would be more likely to go first or last in the event.

For Stanford, the team led with Torri Huske. It was the same move the Cardinal made last year when they went Huske-Ruck-Regan Smith-Brooke Forde and won the title.

Walsh also went second last year in the 800 free relay. But Cal and Texas sent their fastest swimmers out first, while Georgia’s anchored. Two years ago, Virginia’s Paige Madden went second, though most teams still started for finished with their fastest.

“I think one and two are always interchangeable for us,” Stanford coach Greg Meehan said. “Torri’s flat start is better than Claire (Curzan) or Taylor, so that is why we might go that way. On the 800, it is more about where you want to put individuals. We wanted to try to get a lead on the front half. Some years, we have the fastest go last when we had Katie Ledecky. That is about your own personnel. It makes the most sense in the sprint relay to get out in the lead in clean water.”

Meanwhile, in the 200 free relay, Virginia’s Gretchen Walsh, the previous NCAA record holder, went second along with LSU’s Maggie Mac Neil, the current NCAA record holder after winning the 50 free, were both second, going head-to-head.

Virginia led with last year’s 50 champ Kate Douglass, giving them some more options in relay order.

One year ago, most of the star sprinters were on either end of the 200 free relay (leadoffs included Douglass, Katharine Berkoff, Gabi Albiero and Huske). Two years ago, again most of the stars were on the ends.

“My thought process going into SECs, it was our first time going in with a really competitive group. We knew we could lead strong, but not outrageous, so we put Maggie second to have an explosive leg on the second. We looked at it as a chess game. That gave us a chance,” LSU coach Rick Bishop said. “Once you get a lead, breaking through a wave is a little more challenging. I think it is about putting yourself in the right opportunity.”

Bishop said he is interested to see how much of a trend this becomes.

“I know there are some smart coaches out there seeing what we are seeing. It is a little validation to see that other see what we are seeing,” he said. “I will be really interested to see what happens at the men’s meet with the teams with strong relays, if they go in that direction as well.”

The 400 freestyle has not followed that trend. The past few years, the stars were still on the front end or the back.

But with the success of the other freestyle relays? Will that become a trend to close the meet? And will the men follow suit?

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