NCAA Swimming Throwback: Brittany MacLean Holds Off Unknown Freshman Mallory Comerford in 200 Freestyle

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Brittany MacLean celebrates her 200 free NCAA title in 2016. Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

With the NCAAs being cancelled because of the coronavirus pandemic, Swimming World wanted to take a trip down memory lane and re-live some races from the 2016 NCAAs in Atlanta to fill the void of no live swimming. Today’s race: the women’s 200 freestyle.

The 200 freestyle at any major meet seems to be a can’t-miss race. The distance swimmers step down to test their speed while the sprinters test their endurance in this usual clash-of-the-titans race. The 2016 Women’s Division I NCAA Championships were held in Atlanta, Georgia and it was expected to be a team battle between the defending champs Cal, upstart Stanford, and the deep Georgia Bulldogs.

The Contenders:

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Lia Neal. Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

This was the first NCAAs to have the 800 free relay held on Wednesday night, lifting the load off the 200 freestylers by eliminating the tough double that caused Friday night sessions to go late and often hinder performances on Saturday. Georgia won that relay thanks to a 1:41 anchor leg from senior Brittany MacLean, which was the fastest in the field. MacLean was coming off a particularly tough junior year where an injury deterred her season. She still achieved All-American honors, but it was a bit of a disappointment after a sophomore season where she won NCAA titles in the 500 and 1650. Could she still win the title after an off junior year?

The defending champion from 2015 was Cal’s Missy Franklin, who decided to turn professional in pursuit of her second Olympics in Rio. Behind her was Simone Manuel of Stanford, who did not compete collegiately in 2016 to focus on making the team.

That left the race wide open.

The top seed coming into the meet was Stanford junior Lia Neal, an Olympian in high school in 2012 and third in the event in 2015. Neal had a busy schedule in 2016, taking over as the anchor leg on Stanford’s winning medley relays from Simone Manuel. Neal, although an Olympic medalist in the 4×100 free relay, had yet to win an individual NCAA title. Would this be her chance to capture that elusive title?

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Leah Smith. Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Then there was freshman Mallory Comerford of Louisville. Not a lot of people had known about the Michigan native in her first season with the Cardinals, but a 1:42 at ACCs put her name out there as a contender and the second seed. Comerford had also anchored Louisville’s second place 400 medley relay the night before and split a swift 1:42.72 on opening night in the 800 free relay. Comerford, who was just a 1:47.60 out of high school, showed up to NCAAs ready to go. Could she continue her massive improvement to a national title?

Another pre-race favorite was Virginia junior Leah Smith, who won the 500 the night before and was emerging as a major player in the long course ranks for the United States. Smith was the third seed on the psych sheet and the favorite in our eyes before the meet. She had won the 500 and 1650 the year before, so could she step down and show off her speed in this event?

The wild card was Hali Flickinger of Georgia, who was the fourth seed coming into the meet. For her senior year, she dropped the 400 IM to focus on the 200 free. Flickinger proved she had range, by virtue of her 1:42.80 lead-off on Wednesday night. She was also third in the 500 the night before behind Smith and MacLean, and did she have the speed to win the 200?

The Race

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Brittany MacLean and Hali Flickinger. Photo Courtesy: Annie Grevers

The A-Finalists were separated by less than a second heading into the final. Georgia garnered lanes four and five with MacLean getting the top seed ahead of Flickinger. Georgia was winning the meet at this point and the two seniors, who (spoiler alert) went on to swim in Rio for their respective countries, showed tremendous leadership for the team gunning for its third title in four years.

Lane Assignments:

  1. Siobhan Haughey, Michigan, 1:44.01
  2. Haley Lips, Indiana, 1:43.79
  3. Lia Neal, Stanford, 1:43.56
  4. Brittany MacLean, Georgia, 1:43.31
  5. Hali Flickinger, Georgia, 1:43.45
  6. Mallory Comerford, Louisville, 1:43.63
  7. Leah Smith, Virginia, 1:43.89
  8. Kennedy Goss, Indiana, 1:44.29

Neal grabbed the lead from the outset. If she was going to win ahead of distance swimmers MacLean and Smith, Neal needed to play to her speed and take it out. Neal was out a blazing 23.36 on the first 50 and 49.00 at the halfway point. Flickinger was the only one to go out with her at 49.77 while Comerford was in third at 50.26.

It looked like MacLean was completely out of it, flipping fourth at 50.54. On the third 50, Neal pressed on the gas, flipping at 1:15.40. Flickinger was still in second at 1:16.35 but Comerford (1:16.45) and MacLean (1:16.64) were making moves.

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Brittany MacLean celebrates. Photo Courtesy: Annie Grevers

On the final 50, it was clear Neal was hurting, her stroke rate noticeably slowing. MacLean and Comerford had seemingly timed their races perfectly and had pounced on that third 50. Momentum was swinging their way.

On the last turn, Neal, MacLean and Comerford turned even, and it was anyone’s game to the finish. Neal was clinging on to the lead as best as she could. But MacLean, being the distance swimmer, was surging, pulling Comerford with her.

All three swimmers hit the wall simultaneously. MacLean came out on top with a 1:42.42, thanks to a 25.78 on the final 50. Comerford was second with a 1:42.54, some five seconds quicker than she was the previous year. Neal ended up third at 1:42.58, fading with the slowest last 50 at 27.18.

MacLean, who had been known as a distance freestyler, won her third NCAA individual title but her first in the “short” 200.

Brittany MacLean:

“My 200 free, even when I was swimming really well a couple years ago, I was like fourth or fifth, and that was exciting. The 200 was never on my radar but all I wanted to do was get my hand on the wall for my team. I’m going to probably watch my race and laugh pretty hard at my first 100. That was the mistake I made yesterday – I didn’t swim my own race (in the 500).

“Tonight, I had no idea where I was but I think that helped me out a lot. The first 100, I always stay relaxed so I knew I would have it in me on the last 50. I didn’t know I had touched first until I looked back.”

Mallory Comerford:

“I didn’t know where I was. I could see Leah next to me and Hali on the other side. I swim best when I do my own race and stick with my plan because if I start to panic, it doesn’t go as well. We had a plan and I was trying to go out faster and aggressive this morning and keep the back half going as strong as I could.”

Lia Neal:

“What I’ve been working on this year is taking out my 200 faster. I just went with the same game plan. It hurt but it means I went for it and left no regrets so I’m pretty happy.”

Flickinger came in fourth (1:43.32), just holding off Michigan freshman Siobhan Haughey (1:43.35), who despite being the 2013 World Junior champ in the 100 free, was another virtual unknown in this race. She came home in a 26.1 to nearly crack the top four.

Smith never seemed to get going in the race and was a non-factor, finishing sixth at 1:43.50.

Results:

  1. Brittany MacLean, Georgia, 1:42.42
  2. Mallory Comerford, Louisville, 1:42.54
  3. Lia Neal, Stanford, 1:42.58
  4. Hali Flickinger, Georgia, 1:43.32
  5. Siobhan Haughey, Michigan, 1:43.35
  6. Leah Smith, Virginia, 1:43.50
  7. Haley Lips, Indiana, 1:43.72
  8. Kennedy Goss, Indiana, 1:44.75

Aftermath

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Mallory Comerford went on to win the next three 200 free NCAA titles. Photo Courtesy: Reagan Lunn/Georgia Tech Athletics

Brittany MacLean’s win helped Georgia to its third team title in four years, as the Bulldogs won by 19 points ahead of Stanford. It was also Georgia’s fifth 200 freestyle win in seven years at NCAAs. MacLean went on to represent Canada at her second Olympics in Rio that summer, placing fifth in the 400 freestyle final and picking up a bronze medal in the 4×200 free relay. She was 10th in the 200 freestyle semi finals.

Comerford went on to tie Katie Ledecky the next year in this event to become Louisville’s fourth national champion in swimming. She won the 2018 and 2019 titles outright ahead of Haughey, who was second in 2018 and third in 2019.

Neal went on to swim in her second Olympics by winning a silver on the prelims 4×100 free relay for the United States. Flickinger made her first Olympic team and was seventh in the 200 butterfly. She was ranked number one in the world in the 200 fly in 2019.

Smith placed third at the Olympic Trials in the 200 freestyle and swam on the gold medal winning 4×200 free relay team in Rio. She finished fifth the next year in her senior year in the 200 free.