NCAA Swimming Flashback: Ella Eastin Rebounds from Crushing Setback to Annihilate 400 IM American Record

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Ella Eastin victorious at the 2018 NCAA Championships --

NCAA Swimming Flashback: Ella Eastin Rebounds from Crushing Setback to Annihilate 400 IM American Record

On an evening in late June 2017 in Indianapolis, Ella Eastin thought she had achieved the breakthrough she had been awaiting for so long. Competing at U.S. Nationals with a spot on the World Championships team on the line, the Stanford junior finished second behind Leah Smith, crushing her lifetime best by two seconds in the process. Eastin had already won four individual NCAA titles in her career, but after coming up just short at Olympic Trials the year before, that runnerup finish looked to be enough to get Eastin a spot in Budapest.

Except moments later, the words “DQ” flashed on the board, and Eastin was out for a violation of the “Lochte rule.” She had kicked underwater on her back on the freestyle leg, which was considered a form of backstroke. Two days later, Eastin ended up third in the 200 IM final, leaving her crushed and locked off the Worlds team.

It was a huge, devastating blow for Eastin to come so close and miss out on something so simple.

“It was really hard for me knowing that I was in a position that I felt like I deserved to be there, and that wasn’t exactly what happened,” Eastin said. “It was the first time I had qualified for the big summer meet, so that was so many years of really hard work kind of accumulating into one moment and having that taken away from me so quickly was kind of a roller coaster of emotions.”

But despite the DQ, Eastin knew that the work she put in to achieve that swim in the first place did not suddenly dissipate. “Regardless of whether I was named to the World Champ team or not, I knew that all the training I did the year leading up to that was still with me and also the training that I’ve done over the last six months, and that was something that I could only draw confidence from,” Eastin said.

And in her third college season, the Irvine, Calif., native would bounce back with gusto.

At the 2018 Pac-12 Championships, Eastin lowered a nine-year-old American record in the 200-yard butterfly, swimming a time of 1:49.51. She also swam a 3:57.23 in the 400 IM, under her old American record of 3:57.57, but Eastin finished second behind Stanford teammate Katie Ledecky. Eastin had led Ledecky by three tenths with 100 yards to go, but Ledecky ran her down with the same freestyle greatness that has now produced six Olympic gold medals. Because of Ledecky’s insane closing speed, Eastin called the experience of racing Ledecky in the 400 IM “terrifying.”

The previous season, Ledecky had opted for the 200 free instead of the 400 IM on the middle day of NCAAs, but she picked the medley event for the 2018 national meet to set up a rematch with Eastin. The swimmers entered that race having already teamed up for a dominant victory in the 800 freestyle relay, and they had each won an individual title already. Ledecky was victorious by more than eight seconds in the 500 free, while Eastin had clobbered her own national record by second as she reclaimed the 200 IM national title from Kathleen Baker.

Most in the building that Friday evening at McCorkle Aquatic Pavilion in Columbus, Ohio, expected a similar result from the conference meet: Eastin would be up with Ledecky and likely ahead after the breaststroke leg, but she would have trouble holding off Ledecky on the freestyle leg. Instead, Eastin went out ahead and utterly dominated her celebrated teammate.

Ledecky was slightly ahead after butterfly, and then Eastin took over on backstroke, but it was with a magnificent breaststroke leg that she powered ahead to open up a four-second advantage heading into freestyle. Eastin was pulling away just like Ledecky had in so many national and international competitions in the freestyle events, and no one was going to make up that huge gap.

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Ella Eastin (second from right) celebrates with her Stanford teammates after capturing the 2018 NCAA title in the 400 IM — Photo Courtesy: Dan D’Addona

Eastin barely surrendered any of that advantage on freestyle, and she finished in 3:54.60, crushing Ledecky’s record from Pac-12s by almost two seconds. She broke out into a huge smile as she realized that she had just recorded one of the all-time great performances in college swimming history, and she was emotional as she climbed out of the pool into the waiting arms of her teammates from Stanford.

A day later, Eastin would capture a third individual title in the 200 fly, and she also raced on Stanford’s victorious 400 freestyle relay as the Cardinal captured a second straight team championship. As the only swimmer at the meet with three individual titles and multiple American records, Eastin was the obvious choice for Swimmer of the Meet honors.

In the following months, the bad-luck bug would bite Eastin again as she contracted mononucleosis prior to the U.S. Nationals, and she was forced to withdraw from the 400 IM. But she did race the 200 IM on the meet’s final day, and despite lacking her usual closing burst, she finished third to sneak onto the U.S. team for the Pan Pacific Championships.

“My swimming career is like the farthest thing from as planned,” Eastin said that night. “Something always seems to come up.”

In 2019, Eastin won the 400 IM NCAA title for the fourth consecutive year, becoming the first woman to ever four-peat in that event, and she earned a spot to swim the 200 IM at the 2019 World Championships, where she ended up tied for ninth. In 2021, she was unable to pursue a spot on the Olympic team after a battle with chronic fatigue and dysautonomia left her unable to train and compete as she normally would.

Heading into the 2022 collegiate championship season, all three of Eastin’s 2018 records still stand, and no one is on the verge of challenging those marks. But of the three, the most remarkable is the 400 IM, still the fastest mark in history by two seconds.