NCAA Throwback: The Day Freshman Townley Haas Changed the SCY 200 Free

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Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Townley Haas Crushes 200 Free NCAA, American Record With 1:30.46

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 men’s 200 freestyle.

The men’s 200 freestyle NCAA & US Open record had stood at 1:31.20 for 10 years when Simon Burnett swam a blistering time at the 2006 NCAAs in Atlanta. Ten years later, the record had stood the test of time. It survived the super-suit era in 2009. It survived Conor Dwyer in 2010 and ’11. It survived Ricky Berens in 2015. But in 2016, when NCAAs returned to Atlanta and the 800 free relay was moved to Wednesday night, the record was under a serious threat.

Texas won the 800 free relay on Wednesday night and opened up what was possible in the 200 free. With all the excitement of the first night, the 200 free has transformed tremendously since 2016. The top three teams all finished under the old record with Texas (6:08.03) coming out on top ahead of NC State (6:09.58) and Florida (6:09.84).

That first night in Atlanta, freshman Townley Haas had the fastest split with a 1:30.52. At the time, only a handful of swimmers had split sub-1:31 in relays, so it was a big deal when the lanky freshman did it with ease. The next night he swam a 4:09.00 in winning the 500 free. After two nights of incredible swims, many who were following the meet thought Burnett’s record run would end in the same pool where it started ten years prior.

The Contenders:

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(Left to right) Ryan Held, Justin Ress, Simonas Bilis, Soeren Dahl. Photo Courtesy: Reagan Lunn/Georgia Tech Athletics

NC State had a slew of contenders with senior Simonas Bilis, junior Soeren Dahl and sophomore Ryan Held, as they finished runner-up on Wednesday night in the 800 free relay. Could one of the Wolfpack members emerge victorious?

Texas’ only representative in the race was the freshman Townley Haas, who came in seeded ninth with a modest 1:33.1. The 1:30 he swam on the first night took a lot of people by surprise, and his 4:09 in the 500 proved that he was for real and he would be tough to beat in the 200. Could the freshman take two titles?

On the psych sheet, the top nine were separated by less than a second. The 2015 champ Cristian Quintero had graduated, leaving the race wide open. Last year’s runner up, Anders Nielsen of Michigan, was seeded second behind Indiana sophomore Blake Pieroni, who was fourth as a freshman. He was a budding star in the United States under freestyle guru Dennis Dale. Would the race winner come out of the Big Ten?

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Matias Koski. Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Georgia senior Matias Koski was seeded sixth and could also play spoiler. The year before, he was the B-Final champ and had been notorious for underperforming in the prelims. In the 500 the day before, he didn’t make it back to finals despite being a pre-race favorite. Could he shake those disappointments and not only get in the A-Final, but come out as the champ?

Not to be counted out was the Florida duo of Jan Switkowski and Mitch D’Arrigo. This was Switkowski’s first year with the Gators after spending one season at Virginia Tech in 2013-14. Switkowski had been a huge addition to the Gators and had been fourth in the 200 IM the day before. D’Arrigo was the runner-up in the 500, breaking 4:10, and both guys swam on Florida’s third-place 800 free relay that was under the old NCAA record in breaking 6:10. The only thing was, Switkowski was not in a seeded heat, so he had the challenge of trying to swim into the final from a slower heat.

USC junior Reed Malone was coming off a summer where he swam on the World Championships team for the United States, winning a silver in the 4×200 freestyle relay. Malone was third in the 500 and was known as a great racer. If anyone could come out of a tight 200 free final, it could be Malone.

The Race:

Koski had a big swim in the morning, posting a 1:32.21 to lead the qualifiers into the A-Final. Haas, D’Arrigo and Bilis cruised through as well, and it looked like those four would be the favorites in finals. Switkowski successfully qualified into the A-Final from a non-seeded heat with the sixth seed. Pieroni and Malone, who were both Olympic contenders, also squeaked into the final, leaving pre-race favorites Held, Dahl and Nielsen in the B-Final.

Lane Assignments:

  1. Blake Pieroni, Indiana, 1:33.08
  2. Trent Williams, California, 1:32.98
  3. Mitch D’Arrigo, Florida, 1:32.62
  4. Matias Koski, Georgia, 1:32.21
  5. Townley Haas, Texas, 1:32.45
  6. Simonas Bilis, NC State, 1:32.77
  7. Jan Switkowski, Florida, 1:32.99
  8. Reed Malone, Southern Cal, 1:33.18

Bilis darted to the front on the first 25, showing his sprint prowess. Bilis was one of the rare swimmers to show freestyle speed from the 50 up to the 200, and if he had any chance of beating this field, he would have to take it out (much like Lia Neal the previous week). Haas also took it out with Bilis and flipped in front at the 50 at 20.90, Bilis at 21.07.

Koski, who also had range from 100 up to 1650, flipped in third at 21.41. It was very clear Haas and Bilis were going to try to win it from the front, a “catch me if you can” attitude. Haas lengthened his lead on the second 50 while Bilis and Koski were neck and neck for second. Haas turned in the lead at 43.61 followed by Koski (44.46) and Bilis (44.73). Switkowski and Malone were both within striking distance of the top three, both with a solid distance background and coming from coaches with notable distance-based programs.

At this point, Haas was a second under Burnett’s record pace and was showing no signs of slowing. He pressed on the gas on the third 50, lengthening his lead at 1:06.92, with Bilis in second at 1:08.01. Koski was still holding on to third but Switkowski was making a move.

Burnett, who had been at NCAAs a week prior as a coach at the University of Pacific, had just about 20 or so seconds to say goodbye to his record. Haas kept his stroke intact on the last 50 with a 23.54 split and obliterated the record with a 1:30.46. Koski finished in second at 1:31.54 with Bilis in third at 1:32.10, just holding off Switkowski at 1:32.14.

Notably, NC State’s Held won the B-Final at 1:32.41 which would have put him at fifth in the A-Final. It was truly a historic day for the 200 freestyle as the 1:31 barrier had finally been broken and the ceiling had finally been lifted of what was once thought possible.

Townley Haas:

“I try not to think about much. I had the relay split in mind but I just tried to be as close to that as possible. I’m still processing it.”

Matias Koski:

“I knew (Townley) was going to be faster than this morning. Honestly I was not expecting him to go that fast. Especially to go out that fast at the 100. I tried to adapt to it but there is only so much you can do when he goes out 43 mid. I tried to focus on my own race but I just tried to reel him in if it was possible.

Texas coach Eddie Reese:

“There are a lot of people around the country just decided to train harder tomorrow morning because of what he did tonight.”

Results:

  1. Townley Haas, Texas, 1:30.46
  2. Matias Koski, Georgia, 1:31.54
  3. Simonas Bilis, NC State, 1:32.10
  4. Jan Switkowski, Florida, 1:32.14
  5. Reed Malone, Southern Cal, 1:32.54
  6. Mitch D’Arrigo, Florida, 1:32.67
  7. Trent Williams, California, 1:32.80
  8. Blake Pieroni, Indiana, 1:33.24

Aftermath:

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Blake Pieroni was the first to break 1:30 in the 200 freestyle. Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Haas was joined in the sub 1:31 club the next year by Pieroni and Dylan Carter of USC, who returned from an Olympic redshirt. Haas went on to win the next two NCAA titles in the 200 free in 2017 and 2018, before being upset in his home pool by Cal’s Andrew Seliskar in 2019. He also won the Olympic Trials in the 200 freestyle and finished fifth in Rio, before swimming the fastest relay split in the gold medal winning 4×200 freestyle team.

Pieroni broke the 1:30 barrier for the first time in 2018 when he led off Indiana’s 800 free relay with a 1:29.63. Two days later, Haas lowered the record to a 1:29.50. The record now stands at the 1:29.15 that Dean Farris swam in leading off Harvard’s 800 free relay at NCAAs in 2019. Farris credited Haas with opening the door in this event when he broke his record in 2019:

“I remember 2016 I was a senior in high school and Townley went a 1:30,” Farris said. “I was a 1:36 at the time but I was like ‘I need to start taking it out’ but he definitely inspired me to take it out harder.”

Koski placed 21st in the event at the Olympics later that summer while representing Finland, and D’Arrigo was 23rd for Italy.

Since 2016, seven more men have broken 1:31 in the 200 freestyle, and three have broken 1:30. Many more could have added to that list had NCAAs gone on as scheduled. Alas, we have Townley Haas to thank for opening the door on what we think is possible in the 200 freestyle.

4 comments

  1. Rick Stanfield

    Saw Seliskar win last year. His underwaters were stunning. Didn’t get to see 800 FrR tho.

  2. Tom Mott

    Great read great race thanks ?