NCAA Championships Prove Nobody Can Beata Nelson (VIDEO)

beata nelson
Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

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A look of incredulity spanned Beata Nelson’s face. She could not believe she had thoroughly overpowered Ella Eastin, the country’s top short course IM swimmer of the past four years, over the second half of the 200 IM. She couldn’t believe she was national champion.

Not that it’s a surprise Nelson won an individual title this week at the women’s NCAA swimming championships in Austin, Texas. In 2018, she had finished second nationally in the 100 back and third in the 200 back, and at the mid-season Texas Invite in late November, she took down the American record in the 100 back. After that, she felt understandably enthusiastic about returning to Austin for the national championships.

But this went beyond what Nelson had imagined. The Wisconsin junior knew her breaststroke was feeling strong after breaking down her pull and kick in a film session with her coaches and then some strong pace work in practice with the idea of getting through her weakest stroke. Now, breaststroke had turned into the decisive leg.

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Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Nelson split 32.33 on that breaststroke leg, eight tenths faster than her effort in the 2018 NCAA final. After entering the meet with a lifetime best of 1:52.27, she swam a time of 1:50.79, the second-fastest mark in history.

The next day, when Nelson again touched the wall first in the 100 back final, she saw her time and threw her left hand in the air. After a few seconds, the shocked disbelief of the previous evening returned to her face, and she broke into a huge smile as she went to hug Cal’s Amy Bilquist, who had been screaming, “Beata!” from one lane over.

Perhaps Nelson was struggling to comprehend that she had just swum 49.18 in the 100 back, almost a half-second quicker than anyone else ever had. Teenager Regan Smith had clipped Nelson’s previous American record two weeks earlier, and now Nelson was reclaiming the record in resounding fashion.

Finally, Nelson arrived at the 200 back, an event that she acknowledged could “burn.” Over the first 150 yards of the race, Stanford freshman Taylor Ruck outswam Nelson every lap, but Nelson made up the deficit on every turn. With 50 yards to go, she still trailed by two tenths, but she stayed underwater much longer than Ruck, and this time, she came up ahead.

“Planning my race out when I was warming up, I knew I needed to work those last two walls,” Nelson said. “That was my strength, and I needed to use that to my advantage. I pushed them as far as I could and gave it my best.”

Ruck flipped even with Nelson going into the final wall, but Nelson was the only swimmer in the heat to stay underwater for more than half of the 25-yard lap. Ruck was on her sixth stroke when Nelson finally broke out at the surface, this time ahead for good.

Nelson got her hand on the wall three tenths ahead of the 18-year-old Canadian, and this time, the emotion was relief: The grueling 200 back was over, and she was a three-time national champion. Hitting the wall at 1:47.24, she had barely missed Smith’s American record (1:47.16), but she did surpass the 1:47.30 that Kathleen Baker swam to win last year’s NCAA title.

It wasn’t until two hours later, when asked for her perspective on the week’s events, that Nelson finally faltered.

“It’s been pretty surreal. I’ve had an awesome support system around me,” Nelson said. Then she paused. “Yeah. I struggle with words sometimes when I get shocked about things. It’s been a really great week. I’m really happy I get to represent the Badgers, and I’m glad I got to stand up there and make them all proud.”

A moment later, Nelson considered which of her NCAA title wins stood out the most, and to that, she still had no definitive answer.

“Honestly, the 200 IM. I like will never—” She stopped abruptly. “Or this (200 back) was fun. This is what swimming’s all about, racing to the finish, competing. Obviously there was a lot of pressure, a lot of nerves running through my body, but that’s why we swim, because we love to compete, and I was competing down to the very last yard in that race.”

When Nelson won the 200 IM to open the meet, she joined an exclusive club of Wisconsin Badgers who have won individual NCAA titles in swimming. The only other member is Maggie Meyer, who won the 200 back title in 2011.

She admitted that night that she had thought for years about the prospect of winning NCAA titles, even before her college career got off to a rocky start as a freshman, when she didn’t score at NCAAs. Nelson attributed those disappointing early returns to extreme muscle loss that resulted from an ill-fitting diet and the struggle of watching her mother battle breast cancer.

Sophomore year, Nelson said, “I think I was trying to prove to the swimming world that I deserved to be here. This year was just to have fun.”

beata-nelson-

Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

So before the meet, she set no time or placement goals. Nelson’s promising mid-season results indicated that she was on the right track, so she chose to not burden herself with any limits or expectations and instead keep a blank slate and let loose. She gobbled up all the energy from the record-breaking performances in other events, and she stayed relaxed with help from her roommate in Austin, Wisconsin freshman Lillie Hosack.

“This is her first NCAAs, kind of putting her toe in the water,” Nelson said. “She’s been keeping it light-hearted. If I start to have a moment where I get really nervous, she tells me a joke or we laugh about something not related to swimming.”

What resulted was an inspired swimming performance, the finest by any swimmer in the country. Undoubtedly, Nelson should be considered the greatest swimmer in Badgers history, and even if her underwater dolphin kicking is central to her NCAA success, she has reached a level where she can’t be counted out as a threat in long course meters swimming as well.

“If this is any indication of where I’m going, it’s a good indication,” Nelson said.

For now, though, Nelson leaves behind in Austin the memory of that incredulous smile, the one she flashed night after night when she pulled off swims she never could have expected.

1 comment

  1. Amy Le

    I don’t know if I love or hate this pun