NCAA Women’s Championships: Paige McKenna Overcomes Two Torn Labrums for Breakthrough 1650 Free National Title

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Paige McKenna -- Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

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NCAA Women’s Championships: Paige McKenna Overcomes Two Torn Labrums for Breakthrough 1650 Free National Title

In a wide-open field in the women’s 1650 freestyle, the eight swimmers competing at the beginning of finals were pursuing a quick time of 15:45.94 that Texas’ Erica Sullivan set in the last heat of the afternoon. A group of swimmers including Tennessee’s Kristen Stege, Alabama’s Kensey McMahon and Wisconsin’s Paige McKenna swam just off Sullivan’s pace through the first 500 yards, but at that point, McKenna pulled away and maintained 28-low splits for almost the entire race.

McKenna opened up a big lead over the middle 500 yards, and she began splitting ahead of Sullivan’s pace. She ended up finishing in 15:40.84, more than five seconds ahead of Sullivan. McKenna swam a lifetime best by more than seven seconds to became the 16th-fastest performer in history in the women’s mile, and her win was just the sixth all-time at the NCAA Women’s Championships for the Badgers.

Sullivan ended up placing second, adding to her earlier third-place finish in the 500 free, while McMahon took third in 15:47.60. Texas’ Evie Pfeifer, who swam in the final heat of the afternoon alongside Sullivan, placed fourth with her time of 15:48.34, and Georgia freshman Abby McCulloh surged over the final 500 yards to place third in the final heat in 15:49.87, good for fifth place overall.

McKenna’s breakthrough performance and emergence on the national level comes as she tries to overcome two torn labrums suffered as she tried to overcome the closure of pools during the COVID-19 pandemic two years ago. McKenna has been managing the injuries rather than pursuing treatment that might affect the end of her freshman season, and that has meant dealing with some significant pain.

“During quarantine, about two years ago, when all the pools went down, I decided to take up running. After the first time I ran, my hips started to hurt, and I was like, ‘This is weird.’ And I didn’t really go see anyone about it, and then for two years, they started gradually becoming more painful, and I would just push through it,” McKenna said.

“I came to Wisconsin, and I was like, ‘Maybe I should get this checked out.’ I found out I have a torn labrum in my left hip, and last month, my right hip started to hurt a little bit, and I went to the doctors again, and I have a torn labrum in my right hip, too. I have two torn labrums, so it hasn’t really been that fun.”

McKenna said she is still deciding if she will have surgery to repair the tears, and it will be her decision. Surgery would take her out of the pool for two to three weeks before she could return to the water for pulling only, with no flip turns or pushing off the wall. “I plan to be back as soon as I can,” McKenna said.

In the meantime, she is content to celebrate her national title and join an exclusive club of Wisconsin swimming champions. Previously, Maggie Meyer won the 200 backstroke in 2011, Beata Nelson took three titles (200 IM, 100 back and 200 back) in 2019 and Phoebe Bacon was victorious in the 200 back in 2021. All but one of those titles have come in the four seasons since Yuri Suguiyama and his staff took over the Wisconsin program. McKenna trains mostly with the distance group, but she has enjoyed getting to know and occasionally practice with Nelson and Bacon, and she is proud to follow in their footsteps.

“I don’t swim with them a lot because they are in different groups, but they inspire me a lot,” McKenna said. “I look up to both of them so much, and they’re so fun to hang out with. I know that they know what they’re doing, and if I need them for advice or anything, I always know to go to them. I really enjoy swimming with them.”

Event 15  Women 1650 Yard Freestyle
=========================================================================
         NCAA: N 15:03.31  11/18/2017Katie Ledecky, Stanford
         Meet: M 15:07.70  3/17/2017 Katie Ledecky, Stanford
     American: A 15:03.31  11/18/2017Katie Ledecky, Stanford
      US Open: O 15:03.31  11/18/2017Katie Ledecky, Stanford
         Pool: P 15:32.72  3/19/2016 Leah Smith, Virginia
    Name                 Year School                        Finals Points 
=========================================================================
  1 McKenna, Paige         FR Wisconsin                   15:40.84   20  
    r:+0.79  26.03        54.03 (28.00)
        1:22.28 (28.25)     1:50.69 (28.41)
        2:19.12 (28.43)     2:47.65 (28.53)
        3:16.26 (28.61)     3:44.83 (28.57)
        4:13.35 (28.52)     4:41.77 (28.42)
        5:10.26 (28.49)     5:38.70 (28.44)
        6:06.98 (28.28)     6:35.20 (28.22)
        7:03.45 (28.25)     7:31.81 (28.36)
        8:00.17 (28.36)     8:28.53 (28.36)
        8:57.08 (28.55)     9:25.61 (28.53)
        9:53.98 (28.37)    10:22.21 (28.23)
       10:50.58 (28.37)    11:19.02 (28.44)
       11:47.73 (28.71)    12:16.43 (28.70)
       12:45.19 (28.76)    13:14.23 (29.04)
       13:43.40 (29.17)    14:12.54 (29.14)
       14:42.04 (29.50)    15:11.61 (29.57)    15:40.84 (29.23)
  2 Sullivan, Erica        FR Texas                       15:45.94   17  
    r:+0.69  25.70        53.16 (27.46)
        1:21.27 (28.11)     1:49.69 (28.42)
        2:18.12 (28.43)     2:46.59 (28.47)
        3:15.04 (28.45)     3:43.63 (28.59)
        4:12.27 (28.64)     4:41.07 (28.80)
        5:09.66 (28.59)     5:38.30 (28.64)
        6:06.94 (28.64)     6:35.46 (28.52)
        7:04.08 (28.62)     7:32.71 (28.63)
        8:01.52 (28.81)     8:30.31 (28.79)
        8:59.21 (28.90)     9:27.99 (28.78)
        9:56.87 (28.88)    10:26.00 (29.13)
       10:55.11 (29.11)    11:24.11 (29.00)
       11:53.14 (29.03)    12:22.40 (29.26)
       12:51.83 (29.43)    13:20.98 (29.15)
       13:50.22 (29.24)    14:19.40 (29.18)
       14:48.60 (29.20)    15:17.69 (29.09)    15:45.94 (28.25)
  3 McMahon, Kensey        SR Alabama                     15:47.60   16  
    r:+0.74  26.01        54.05 (28.04)
        1:22.67 (28.62)     1:51.22 (28.55)
        2:19.56 (28.34)     2:48.06 (28.50)
        3:16.49 (28.43)     3:44.83 (28.34)
        4:13.07 (28.24)     4:41.56 (28.49)
        5:09.95 (28.39)     5:38.37 (28.42)
        6:07.09 (28.72)     6:36.05 (28.96)
        7:05.16 (29.11)     7:34.08 (28.92)
        8:02.95 (28.87)     8:31.92 (28.97)
        9:01.09 (29.17)     9:30.24 (29.15)
        9:59.41 (29.17)    10:28.64 (29.23)
       10:58.03 (29.39)    11:27.04 (29.01)
       11:56.35 (29.31)    12:25.60 (29.25)
       12:54.74 (29.14)    13:23.76 (29.02)
       13:52.82 (29.06)    14:21.78 (28.96)
       14:50.86 (29.08)    15:19.85 (28.99)    15:47.60 (27.75)
  4 Pfeifer, Evie          5Y Texas                       15:48.34   15  
    r:+0.78  26.49        54.80 (28.31)
        1:23.38 (28.58)     1:52.10 (28.72)
        2:20.88 (28.78)     2:49.60 (28.72)
        3:18.51 (28.91)     3:47.41 (28.90)
        4:16.26 (28.85)     4:45.23 (28.97)
        5:13.92 (28.69)     5:42.79 (28.87)
        6:11.59 (28.80)     6:40.33 (28.74)
        7:09.32 (28.99)     7:38.21 (28.89)
        8:07.17 (28.96)     8:36.20 (29.03)
        9:05.11 (28.91)     9:34.26 (29.15)
       10:03.21 (28.95)    10:32.10 (28.89)
       11:01.12 (29.02)    11:30.07 (28.95)
       11:59.15 (29.08)    12:28.18 (29.03)
       12:57.08 (28.90)    13:26.05 (28.97)
       13:55.03 (28.98)    14:23.89 (28.86)
       14:52.68 (28.79)    15:21.05 (28.37)    15:48.34 (27.29)
  5 McCulloh, Abigail      FR Georgia                     15:49.87   14  
    r:+0.68  26.91        55.82 (28.91)
        1:25.00 (29.18)     1:54.10 (29.10)
        2:23.14 (29.04)     2:52.13 (28.99)
        3:21.27 (29.14)     3:50.31 (29.04)
        4:19.42 (29.11)     4:48.54 (29.12)
        5:17.65 (29.11)     5:46.41 (28.76)
        6:15.24 (28.83)     6:44.14 (28.90)
        7:12.87 (28.73)     7:41.59 (28.72)
        8:10.20 (28.61)     8:39.20 (29.00)
        9:08.08 (28.88)     9:37.00 (28.92)
       10:05.91 (28.91)    10:34.82 (28.91)
       11:03.60 (28.78)    11:32.45 (28.85)
       12:01.34 (28.89)    12:30.06 (28.72)
       12:58.94 (28.88)    13:27.66 (28.72)
       13:56.62 (28.96)    14:25.46 (28.84)
       14:53.95 (28.49)    15:22.50 (28.55)    15:49.87 (27.37)
  6 Donohoe, Madelyn       JR Virginia                    15:55.14   13  
    r:+0.64  26.69        55.78 (29.09)
        1:25.32 (29.54)     1:55.00 (29.68)
        2:24.56 (29.56)     2:54.03 (29.47)
        3:23.67 (29.64)     3:52.99 (29.32)
        4:22.33 (29.34)     4:51.35 (29.02)
        5:20.02 (28.67)     5:49.04 (29.02)
        6:17.99 (28.95)     6:46.79 (28.80)
        7:15.78 (28.99)     7:44.54 (28.76)
        8:13.21 (28.67)     8:42.20 (28.99)
        9:11.41 (29.21)     9:40.55 (29.14)
       10:08.99 (28.44)    10:38.25 (29.26)
       11:07.19 (28.94)    11:36.24 (29.05)
       12:05.10 (28.86)    12:34.02 (28.92)
       13:02.96 (28.94)    13:32.02 (29.06)
       14:01.17 (29.15)    14:29.89 (28.72)
       14:58.85 (28.96)    15:27.72 (28.87)    15:55.14 (27.42)
  7 Mull, Lola             SO Northwestern                15:55.96   12  
    r:+0.72  26.51        55.15 (28.64)
        1:24.15 (29.00)     1:53.48 (29.33)
        2:22.65 (29.17)     2:52.03 (29.38)
        3:21.41 (29.38)     3:50.83 (29.42)
        4:20.08 (29.25)     4:49.24 (29.16)
        5:18.33 (29.09)     5:47.54 (29.21)
        6:16.86 (29.32)     6:46.05 (29.19)
        7:15.00 (28.95)     7:44.42 (29.42)
        8:13.73 (29.31)     8:42.97 (29.24)
        9:11.83 (28.86)     9:40.79 (28.96)
       10:09.85 (29.06)    10:38.73 (28.88)
       11:07.56 (28.83)    11:36.31 (28.75)
       12:05.27 (28.96)    12:34.17 (28.90)
       13:03.13 (28.96)    13:32.07 (28.94)
       14:01.18 (29.11)    14:30.02 (28.84)
       14:59.22 (29.20)    15:28.24 (29.02)    15:55.96 (27.72)
  8 Stege, Kristen         JR Tennessee                   15:59.49   11  
    r:+0.74  25.62        53.36 (27.74)
        1:21.59 (28.23)     1:49.80 (28.21)
        2:18.33 (28.53)     2:46.88 (28.55)
        3:15.51 (28.63)     3:44.41 (28.90)
        4:13.38 (28.97)     4:42.39 (29.01)
        5:11.41 (29.02)     5:40.55 (29.14)
        6:09.69 (29.14)     6:38.80 (29.11)
        7:08.02 (29.22)     7:37.34 (29.32)
        8:06.94 (29.60)     8:36.40 (29.46)
        9:05.77 (29.37)     9:35.26 (29.49)
       10:04.62 (29.36)    10:34.21 (29.59)
       11:03.83 (29.62)    11:33.52 (29.69)
       12:03.14 (29.62)    12:32.93 (29.79)
       13:02.42 (29.49)    13:32.14 (29.72)
       14:01.88 (29.74)    14:31.65 (29.77)
       15:01.37 (29.72)    15:31.05 (29.68)    15:59.49 (28.44)