The Strategic Sprint: How Baker, Eastin and Pickrem Will Attack NCAA 200 IM

kathleen baker
Photo Courtesy: Matt Rubel of Rubel Photography

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Morning Splash by David Rieder.

Kathleen Baker is one of the world’s best backstrokers. Ella Eastin is best known for her IM abilities, particularly in the 400 IM, and her 200 fly. Different swimmers from very different backgrounds—Baker from North Carolina, Eastin from Southern California—but there’s one event where they have developed an intense rivalry: The 200 IM.

The last time the duo raced in that event, they actually could not be separated at the touch. At the USA College Challenge in October, Baker and Eastin tied for the win in the 200 IM at 1:53.24. Baker’s Cal Bears and Eastin’s Stanford Cardinal met twice last month, but Baker opted out of the 200 IM at the dual meet, and Eastin passed on the event at the Pac-12 championships.

When the two were freshmen in 2016, Eastin won the 200 IM at the NCAA championships and set a new American record. She trailed Baker after 50 yards of butterfly, made up ground on the backstroke, took the lead on the breaststroke and pulled away on the free. Baker settled for second, a full 1.3 seconds behind.

  1 Eastin, Ella     FR Stanford          1:54.20    1:51.65N        20  
    r:+0.67  24.81        52.19 (27.38)
        1:24.71 (32.52)     1:51.65 (26.94)
  2 Baker, Kathleen  FR California        1:54.62    1:52.95         17  
    r:+0.72  24.27        52.00 (27.73)
        1:25.21 (33.21)     1:52.95 (27.74)

One year later, Baker turned the tables. She took the lead after butterfly, maintained the lead on backstroke and then, in a surprising development, pulled away on the breaststroke. On the free, there was nothing Eastin could to do keep up. Baker finished in 1:51.69, four hundredths off Eastin’s record.


In this year’s 200 IM final, it’s worth expecting just about the same thing: Baker jumping out to be a big lead and Eastin chasing her home. But there’s a third swimmer who could jump into this mix, and that’s Sydney Pickrem, the Canadian Olympian and Texas A&M Aggie who won bronze in the 400 IM at the World Championships.

Pickrem doesn’t have much pure speed and is not much of a butterflier. She will lose more ground on backstroke. But she will the best breaststroker in the final and one of the best at the entire meet.

At the SEC championships last month, Pickrem split 32.09 for her breaststroke split of the 200 IM, faster than Baker or Eastin have ever gone. Her 26.84 free split was also excellent. Her time from that meet was 1:52.69, a lifetime best but still a second behind the career bests of both Eastin and Baker. But for whatever it’s worth, Pickrem does enter the NCAA championships as the top seed in the event.

  1 Sydney Pickrem   JR Texas A&M         1:53.72    1:52.69PA       32  
    r:+0.76  25.44        53.76 (28.32)
        1:25.85 (32.09)     1:52.69 (26.84)

Baker is seeded second and Eastin fifth, but it’s tough to see anyone but this trio finishing in the top three spots in the final.

Unlike most 200s, the 200-yard IM is very much a sprint, with two quick bursts of energy for each stroke. But it’s still long enough for the lead to change multiple times as swimmers switch between strokes where they excel and strokes where they struggle. That’s what makes it such a compelling race for fans.

No two of Baker, Eastin and Pickrem swim the 200 IM the same way. Baker will inevitably out have the lead after both the butterfly and backstroke legs, but that won’t matter. This race will be decided by execution—who pulls off her own race plan and has enough left in the tank for the final 50 yards.

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