Seeing Cardinal Red: Stanford Overwhelms NCAA Championships Once Again

Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

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By David Rieder.

The time was shortly after 6 p.m. Thursday night — when Stanford was still two days away from becoming back-to-back national champions. Stanford senior Simone Manuel had given her team the lead in the 4×50 free relay. Freshman Lauren Pitzer had extended the margin, but Abbey Weitzeil loomed as the anchor for Cal. Weitzeil was and still is the American record-holder in the 50 free.

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Ally Howe — Photo Courtesy: Dan D’Addona

The job of holding her off belonged to Ally Howe, another Stanford senior. She dove in with a lead of 33 hundredths, and after 25 yards, the margin was down to five hundredths. But Howe gritted her teeth and powered through her underwater dolphin kicks to come up in front.

“It is hard not to be nervous for that relay, knowing Cal is right next us and the American record-holder in the 50 is running me down,” Howe said. “But I knew if I just put my head down, kicked hard and had a good turn then we would have a chance.”

Howe touched in 1:25.43, seven hundredths ahead of Cal. Her final split had been 21.27—just good enough for Stanford consecutive win No. 2.

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One event later, Katie Ledecky cruised to a win in the 500 free. The time, by Ledecky standards, was not spectacular, a 4:26.57 that ranks as the fifth-fastest performance of all-time. (Ledecky now owns the top 15.) Ledecky touched the wall and looked satisfied but nonplused—until she saw who had finished second.

Katie Drabot, another Stanford sophomore, had edged just ahead of Arizona’s Kirsten Jacobsen and touched in 4:34.86. As soon as Ledecky saw the “2” pop up next to Drabot’s name, she pounded the water in ecstasy and pointed in the direction of her teammate. Drabot, three lanes over, pointed right back. The two shared a big hug as soon as they popped out of the water.

“It was really special,” Ledecky said. “Drabot texted me randomly one day in October telling me she had just had her goal meeting with the coaches, and the coaches told her they thought she should share her 500 goal with me, and that was for us to go 1-2. She asked me to support her through it and see what we could do in 500 group every Monday afternoon. I tried to be there for her, and she certainly was for me, too.”

A memorable moment between two close friends, and Stanford consecutive win No. 3.

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Next came the 200 IM, where Ella Eastin patiently sat behind Kathleen Baker for the first 150 yards, powered home and beat her own American record by a full second, prompting a lengthy fist pump. Manuel followed with a win in the 50 free, controlling the field as much as one can for a two-lap sprint.

The Cardinal didn’t score any points in one-meter diving but came back in the 4×100 medley relay to put up another comfortable win and another American and NCAA record to conclude one of the most successful evenings in NCAA swimming history.

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Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

That was six consecutive swimming wins to begin the meet, and No. 7 would come to begin the Friday night finals session, when Eastin destroyed the American and NCAA records in the 400 IM, bypassing 3:55 altogether and swimming a time of 3:54.60.

That swim was the signature performance in a signature meet for the superstar who has long been overshadowed by her Olympic gold medal-winning teammates, Ledecky and Manuel.

Stanford’s winning streak could not continue any longer, as Janet Hu topped out at third in the 100 fly. But for the remainder of the meet, the Cardinal would win six more events. The team scored points in every single swimming event, top eight in 16 out of 18 of those events.

But even in the breaststrokes, by far Stanford’s weakest events, the Cardinal got points. Kim Williams and Grace Zhao snuck into the consolation heat of the 100 breast with 15th and 16th-place finishes, respectively, and Zhao again finished 16th the next day in the 200 breast.

Yes, Stanford’s championship was a repeat from last year, and few doubted that the Cardinal would repeat. But the Cardinal had not been satisfied with the 2017 title-winning effort, knowing that the team left some points on the board. Stanford head coach Greg Meehan explained that he thinks last year’s team invested too much emotional energy in the Pac-12 championships, leaving them a bit drained by the national meet.

This time, Meehan put some of his top swimmers in off-events at the conference meet and actively encouraged less of an emotional investment. That paid off three weeks later in Columbus, as Stanford won the meet by 220 points. That’s the third-largest victory in meet history, behind the 1985 Texas team (243 points over Florida) and the 1993 Stanford team (228.5 points over Florida).

The 13 events Stanford swimmers won matched the most all-time. They became just the second team in history to win all five relays, joining the 2005 Georgia Bulldogs and the 2008 Arizona Wildcats.

The Stanford women have dominated and had a blast doing it. In her on-deck post-race interview after a victory in the 1650 free, Ledecky called the meet the most fun she has ever had in swimming. Meehan corroborated her assessment.

“Fast swimming is fun,” he said. “This sport is hard enough and there are moments when you can enjoy it. Watching your best friends do something they have never done before is incredible. It really inspires them.”

Raw emotional moments dotted the meet’s four days. There was Howe’s victory in the 100 back, the first individual triumph of her career, which Meehan called a true “senior moment.” One day later, the entire crowd at the McCorkle Aquatic Center gave Manuel a standing ovation after she announced that her 100 free, where she swam the second-fastest time in history, would be her last individual race for Stanford.

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Greg Meehan — Photo Courtesy: Dan D’Addona

Finally, to close out the meet, the team of Hu, Eastin, Drabot and Manuel pulled off a come-from-behind victory in the 4×100 free relay, with Hu concluding her final meet going a best time in her 14th swim of the week. As an emotional Manuel climbed out of the water, the entire team mobbed the relay foursome behind the blocks. On the sidelines, Meehan was crying.

“Really meaningful performances. There was so much impact from so many people from so many people in the lineup, and so many people had lifetime,” he said. “I tend to be a crier. You put so much into it. So many people put so much into it.”

And those people, Meehan explained, were individuals who personally mean so much to him.

“We put so much into it, so you want it to come together when it really matters,” he said. “When it does and you see young people do things that they’ve never done before, it kind of takes me to that place because I love them as people. I certainly love what they do for us swimming-wise, but I certainly look at them as family.”

No one ever doubted that Stanford’s status as the best team in the country, and it would have taken a massive breakdown for the Cardinal to not secure a second straight national title. But the team came to Columbus and threw down a weekend for the record books.

And that brought all the individuals involved, even the oft-stoic Manuel, to tears.

2 Comments

2 comments

  1. avatar
    ADSF

    Love the article. Reading it just gave me tears eyes.

  2. avatar
    Robin Moore '59 HOF 61

    Great team performance, both swimmers and coaches. Makes me proud to be part of the Stanford family.

Author: David Rieder

avatar
David Rieder is a staff writer for Swimming World. He has contributed to the magazine and website since 2009, and he has covered the NCAA Championships, U.S. Nationals, Olympic Trials as well as the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio and the 2017 World Championships in Budapest. He is a native of Charleston, S.C., and a 2016 graduate of Duke University.

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