One Year After Breakout ACCs, Mallory Comerford Still on the Upswing

mallory-comerford-louisville-acc-championships-greensboro
Photo Courtesy: Louisville Athletics

By David Rieder.

Preparing for her debut swim at the biggest meet of her life (to that point, anyway), Mallory Comerford stepped up onto the blocks in a key spot. In the first event of the 2016 ACC championships, Kelsi Worrell had given Comerford a lead of two tenths of a second for the anchor leg of Louisville’s 200 medley relay.

Comerford held on, touching out Virginia’s Caitlin Cooper by 14 one-hundredths of a second.

That meet in Greensboro, N.C., was the start of a breakout spring for the then-freshman at Louisville. Two days later, she touched out Leah Smith for the conference championship in the 200 free, and at the NCAA championships, Comerford finished second in the same event. She got plenty of anchoring experience at the national meet as well, helping the Cardinals finish in the top-three finish in both medley relays.

Less than nine months later, Comerford found herself anchoring a relay yet again, but this time, the stakes were ratcheted up, and her cap had some blue and white mixed in with the typical Cardinal red. She was competing internationally for the first time, at the Short Course World Championships in Windsor, Canada, and this was the final of the women’s 400 free relay.

Leading off that foursome was 30-year-old Amanda Weir, a three-time Olympian with three Olympic medals to her credit—all from relays. Handling the second leg was 22-year-old Worrell, and third was 28-year-old Madison Kennedy.

Arthur Albiero, the head coach of the U.S. women’s team in Windsor and Comerford’s coach at Louisville, had full trust in the 19-year-old to finish the job.

“I think [the coaches] believed in me, and they wanted me to know that they believed in me,” Comerford said.

Swimming from lane one, Weir, Worrell and Kennedy gave Comerford a substantial lead, and she did not relinquish it, even with Canadian Olympic gold medalist Penny Oleksiak coming home strong in lane four.

With the second-place Canadians disqualified for a procedural issue, Comerford ended up with the race’s second-fastest split at 51.99. Only Worrell at 51.04 and the Netherlands’ Ranomi Kromowidjojo—the 2012 Olympic gold medalist in the 100 free—swam faster.

Pretty solid international debut, no? Especially for a swimmer who didn’t exactly make the world take notice during the qualifying process.

If you are forgetting exactly how U.S. qualification for Short Course Worlds went down, you aren’t alone. All Comerford did was compete in the 100 and 200 free at Olympic Trials—she made it to the semi-finals in both events—and then at the U.S. Open, posting top times of 54.46 in the 100 and 1:59.46 in the 200.

Content but not fully satisfied, Comerford went back to work in the format in which she felt most comfortable: short course.

“Before college, I never trained long course. I didn’t have a long course pool at home. And so I’m getting better with it. I’m more comfortable with it,” she explained. “But I love short course.”

Comerford got her sophomore season off to a hot start at the SMU Classic in October, winning the 100-yard free in a lifetime best time of 47.89 and finishing second in the 200 free and 500 free.

When she and her eight teammates at the meet rejoined the team in Louisville the next week, Comerford shared some big news: she’d been invited to join Team USA in Windsor.

“Obviously I said yes,” Comerford said. “The first thing I did was screenshot the email and text it to Arthur [Albiero] and [Louisville assistant coach] Stephanie [Juncker] and then to my parents.”

Before Worlds, Comerford would actually make her Team USA debut on home soil, representing the U.S. team at the College Challenge in Indianapolis, just a few hours away from Louisville.

Comerford ended up comfortably winning the 100 free at the College Challenge. She also finished second in the 200 free, took third in the 50 free and participated on two first-place relay teams. And along the way, she started to realize just how neat of an experience she had earned.

“Beforehand, I was kind of like, ‘Oh, this is just another dual meet.’ Not whatever, but more laid back a little bit,” she said.

“Once I got there, I didn’t really think I was going to get too nervous. Just before, I was like, ‘Oh wow, I’m representing Team USA. I need to go. This is awesome.’ But it kind of made me a little bit nervous.”

And then, three weeks later, Comerford headed to compete in foreign territory for the first time—but not too foreign, as Windsor is just a few hours’ drive east of Comerford’s hometown of Kalamazoo, Mich.

Flying into Detroit felt all too routine, but once Comerford and the U.S. crossed the river into Canadian territory, it quickly became obvious that Worlds would be unlike any swim meet she’d ever experienced.

“I think it was the first time walking into the training pool,” she said. “It wasn’t just other college teams here—it was all of these different countries. Everyone is doing their own things, but they stopped and looked at Team USA. I think that’s kind of when I realized, ‘Wow, I’m representing Team USA. I’m at World Championships. This is one of the biggest honors you can have.’”

On day one, Comerford had her only individual event of the meet, the 200 free. Without any short course meters’ experience to pull a seed time from, she was placed in lane seven in the final heat—and then held off 2008 Olympic gold medalist Federica Pellegrini to touch first in 1:53.71.

That time was good for the No. 2 seed heading into the final behind only Katinka Hosszu. For most of the day, Comerford felt relaxed and thankful for opportunity to swim in the middle of the pool at night in her first World Championships, but when she arrived in the ready room, the rookie nerves hit.

“I’d never done the bib before, and then walking out by myself, the second seed, that kind of got me a little nervous,” she said. “It was just a really good learning experience because you can’t get that preparation from anything else but doing it. Having to walk out with a bib and then take all my clothes off, be ready to go, being on camera, it’s just a lot different than what I was used to.”

Comerford ended up touching in 1:53.79, just a few one-hundredths off her prelims time but only good enough for fifth place. But just 90 minutes later, she was back in the water for the race that would land result in her maiden trip to the top of an international podium, the 400 free relay.

Later in the meet, Comerford would lead the Americans to a silver medal in the 800 free relay, and then in the meet’s final race, she anchored the U.S. women’s 400 medley relay to another gold, swimming with teammates Ali DeLoof, Lilly King and Worrell to win another gold.

Even though it was her 100 free that has earned Comerford her first taste of international acclaim on relays, it’s still the short course eight-lapper where she feels the most comfortable.

“I’ve swum the 200 free at every dual meet. I think that’s what helped me—just racing it all the time, being more comfortable with it, knowing my turns, my breakouts, my exits, knowing my breathing pattern,” she said.

Comerford now heads into the college championship season with a chance to make her mark in some of the most competitive events on the program. Heading into next week’s ACC championships in Atlanta, Comerford ranks in the top four in the country in both the 100 and 200 free and is sixth in the 500 free.

But when she gets to the NCAA championships, she will face off against Olympians in all her events: Olympians Simone Manuel, Abbey Weitzeil and Olivia Smoliga in the sprints and superstar Katie Ledecky in the mid-distance.

Even given how she swam last season and the efforts she put up at the World Championships, Comerford has no illusions that she deserves favorite status given that level of competition.

“They’re fast, and I’m going to have to go really fast to stay with them,” she said. “They deserve that attention. Yeah, I was right there last year, but I’ve got work to do.”

Still, it’s impossible to not be impressed with how far Comerford has come over the last 12 months. When she arrived in Greensboro for the ACC championships last February, few aside from hard-core swimming junkies knew her name. She figured to be relay depth for a Louisville squad that would go as far as Worrell would take them.

But now, the Cardinals rely on Comerford. Sure, senior breaststroker Andrea Cottrell figures to again score some big points at NCAAs, but Comerford has championship final potential in three events and will be the go-to leg on whatever relays she swims on.

It’s a position few could have predicted one year ago, even Comerford herself. But just like she wasn’t satisfied with her swims at Olympic Trials, the status quo in short course won’t be good enough, either.

“I wanted to do well, but I don’t think I would ever have imagined myself in this situation a year ago. Last year I had a really, really good training trip. I came off on it on a high and just excited to race,” she said.

“This year, it’s different. I’m going those [fast] times, and I’m like, ‘It’s okay,’ and last year I would have been freaking out. It sets the bar higher.”

To read more about Comerford and other rookies on the U.S. Short Course World Championships team, check out “An Opportunity of a Lifetime” in the February issue of Swimming World Magazine. All commentaries are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Swimming World Magazine nor its staff.

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bryan shapiro
6 years ago

Aren’t there some PAC-12 swimmers who beat these times?, by a lot?

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bryan shapiro
6 years ago

Aren’t there some PAC-12 swimmers who are faster?