NCAA Throwback: When Chris Swanson ‘Won One For The Little Guys’ in the 1650

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Chris Swanson celebrating his surprise win in the 1650 at NCAAs. Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Chris Swanson Gives Penn Its First NCAA Title With Blazing Final 50 in the 1650

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 1650 freestyle.

When thinking of great 1650 freestyle races at the NCAA championships, the 2017 quadruple duel comes to mind: Clark SmithFelix AubockAkram Mahmoud and Jordan Wilimovsky all finished within a second of each other, all under the fastest time in history.

But a year earlier, an equally insane finish in the 1650 graced the final night of the men’s NCAAs meet.

The Contenders:

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Clark Smith. Photo Courtesy: Andy Ringgold / Aringo Photos

The top seed and overwhelming favorite coming into the 2016 championships was Texas junior Clark Smith, who was the expected to be a favorite in the 500 and 1650. Smith broke the American record in the 1000 free that season, which still stands at 8:33.93. But Smith fell on his face in the 500, placing out of scoring range with a 4:17 in 21st. It was a disappointing swim for someone who had a chance to break an American record that had stood for nearly a decade to that point. Smith scratched out of the 200 freestyle to focus on the 1650 and completely put the 500 in the rearview mirror. Would he be able to rebound from a disastrous 500 to win the mile?

The second seed was South Carolina sophomore Akram Mahmoud, the SEC champ in 14:35. Mahmoud had come to Atlanta ready to go as he was fourth in the 500 on Thursday night and was coming off a summer where he finished fourth in the 2015 World Championships in the 1500 for Egypt. If Smith was not on his game in Atlanta, then Mahmoud was the next favorite entering Saturday night. Could Mahmoud be the first man from South Carolina to win an NCAA swimming title?

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PJ Ransford. Photo Courtesy: Michigan Athletics

The third seed was Michigan sophomore PJ Ransford. The year before, Ransford nearly stole the 1650 title from lane eight with a fantastic swim to finish second. He was winning the race through 1500 yards before ultimately being caught by Georgia’s Matias Koski, who elected to swim the 100 free instead in 2016. Ransford was the Big Ten champion at 14:36 but would not be able to hide as an underdog anymore. The guys knew what Ransford was capable of and where he would make his move.

The dark horse was Texas freshman Townley Haas, who had won the 200 and 500 free earlier in the meet. Haas was a lanky rookie from Virginia but swam like a veteran, setting the fastest split on the 800 free relay on Wednesday, an NCAA title in the 500 on Thursday, and an American record in the 200 on Friday. What did he have in his arsenal in the 1650? Did he have the fortitude to conclude a rare three-title weekend in his freshman season? The night before in his press conference, Texas coach Eddie Reese said, “he is entered in the mile but his heart is in the 100 free.”

Not to be counted out was Penn senior Chris Swanson. The Ivy League champ at 14:40 had qualified for NCAAs all four years of his career, placing ninth as a sophomore in 2014 and 11th as a junior in 2015. Now in his senior year, he scored in the 500 for the first time with an 11th-place finish. With nothing to lose in the 1650, he could let loose in his final Penn swim. But no Ivy League swimmer had won an individual NCAA title since 1990. Could Swanson defy the odds and win one for the little guys?

The Race:

The quickest times out of the timed finals heats came from South Carolina’s Tom Peribonio (14:44.57), Arizona’s Chris Wieser (14:44.91) and Yale’s Kei Hyogo (14:48.03), so the swimmers in the fastest heat had to be aware of what had already been thrown down.

Lane Assignments:

  1. Liam Egan, Stanford, 14:44.85
  2. Chris Swanson, Penn, 14:40.18
  3. PJ Ransford, Michigan, 14:36.61
  4. Clark Smith, Texas, 14:31.29
  5. Akram Mahmoud, South Carolina, 14:35.49
  6. Matthew Hutchins, Wisconsin, 14:38.14
  7. Townley Haas, Texas, 14:41.09
  8. Anton Ipsen, NC State, 14:44.96

Smith dove in and darted to the lead. Haas went with him. Smith was in cruise control and looked like the disappointment of the 500 was well behind him. He flipped in the lead at the 500 with a 4:20 and it looked like he was going to run away with the title. But at the 650, Smith was caught by Ransford, who pounced on the second third of the race. Very quickly Smith got passed by Mahmoud and Swanson and was out of the race just like that.

At the halfway point, Ransford was well in the lead and appeared to be running away with it. In similar fashion to what happened in 2015, Ransford attacked the middle of the race, and it was like watching the same movie over again. How long could he hang on? Would someone be able to catch him? If anyone could, it looked to be Mahmoud, who was solidly in second place.

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Akram Mahmoud. Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

At the 1150, Mahmoud overtook Ransford for the lead. Perhaps Ransford had put too much into his attack too early as he quickly fell back to the pack, passed by Swanson at the 1300.

With just 300 left, it was all Mahmoud, well on his way to becoming the first national champion for South Carolina. Swanson was solidly in second, battling Haas across the pool as well as Wisconsin junior Matthew Hutchins.

With a 50 to go, it would have been safe to pencil in Mahmoud’s name on the back of the winning trophy. He had a two-second lead as he hit the bell lap. Writers were probably ready to hit publish with Mahmoud’s face as the history maker for South Carolina, while Swanson and Hutchins battled for the runner-up spot.

But on the final turn, Mahmoud seemed to lose some momentum, and came up stroking early, while Swanson had kicked in to another gear and was running him down. Surely, Swanson could not catch Mahmoud, down 2.67 seconds with 50 yards to go. But the unthinkable happened, and Swanson shocked everybody in the building, splitting a 24.38 on the final 50 and touching first with a 14:31.54. Mahmoud was second at 14:31.66 and Hutchins finished in third at 14:33.09.

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Akram Mahmoud and Clark Smith process the craziness of the 1650. Photo Courtesy: Andy Ringgold / Aringo Photos

Chris Swanson:

“The strategy going into it was to stay calm. You have some incredibly fast guys in that heat. Townley yesterday going 1:30.4 which is ridiculous, so that’s the speed I was racing against. My strategy was to stay in range with those guys and then try to strike at the end and it seemed to have worked out.”

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Chris Swanson celebrates with his Penn teammates. Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

“I thought (Akram) was really far ahead of me for pretty much the whole race. I was just trying to go for second but then with a 75 left, I thought I saw someone that could have been him and really thought ‘if I buckle down, maybe I can do this.’ And with a 50 left I saw my teammates going crazy and I thought ‘this definitely has to be him otherwise they wouldn’t be going nuts.’ With a 25 left, I looked over and saw him once and didn’t want to look over again. I put my head down and tried to sprint.”

“I don’t think really anyone expected those results. I was just trying to go for a top eight finish. Last year that was my goal and I ended up 11th. Anything in the top eight, I think we would have been very excited. They’ve just been great my whole time at Penn, we’ve had a huge alumni base come back and watch. My whole family is here so there has been a lot of support that I have that I would not be where I am without. It’s wonderful that they are here to witness this. As great as it is for me, it’s great for them. They’re just as excited as I am if not more.”

“I feel like people like the underdog. I feel like a lot of people like cheering for the little guy. People went nuts when Middle Tennessee beat Michigan State. It’s that kind of that vibe.”

Results:

  1. Chris Swanson, Penn, 14:31.54
  2. Akram Mahmoud, South Carolina, 14:31.66
  3. Matthew Hutchins, Wisconsin, 14:33.09
  4. Townley Haas, Texas, 14:34.36
  5. Anton Ipsen, NC State, 14:35.35
  6. Clark Smith, Texas, 14:50.00 (12th)
  7. PJ Ransford, Michigan, 14:51.51 (13th)
  8. Liam Egan, Stanford, 14:52.34 (14th)

The Aftermath:

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Clark Smith emotional over winning a painful 1650 the next year in 2017. Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Chris Swanson placed 12th at the Olympic Trials in the 1500 free in 2016. He retired after that and had a job lined up with Anheuser-Busch for a global management trainee program.

Clark Smith and Akram Mahmoud went on to race in one of the greatest NCAA races of recent memory  the next year in 2017. Smith won with a new American record of 14:22.41 and Mahmoud was third at 14:22.99, also under the old record. Ransford was also in that race and had the lead through 1300, before falling to fifth.

Anton Ipsen went on to win the 2018 NCAA title in the 1650 in his senior year ahead of Mahmoud, who faded to ninth.

Haas went on to swim the 100 free in his next three years, reaching the A-Final as a junior in 2018.

1 comment

  1. Conor Swanson

    I have never seen someone die so bad on the last 50 of a mile.