Townley Haas, Andrew Seliskar Win Big, Set for NCAA Showdown

townley haas, andrew seliskar, 2019 men's ncaa swimming championships
Photos Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

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Texas and Cal duking it out for a men’s NCAA swimming title? The same as it ever was. The Longhorns and Golden Bears have finished as the top two teams nationally in eight of the last nine seasons. Over the years, the faces have changed, from Ricky Berens and Nathan Adrian in 2010 to Jack Conger and Joseph Schooling, Ryan Murphy and Josh Prenot in 2016.

The 2019 editions of Texas and Cal have their own senior studs, Townley Haas and Andrew Seliskar, and Thursday night, both added to their respective legends, putting them on course for a massive collision.

First, Haas conquered pain. Through his first three years at Texas and five individual NCAA titles (three in the 200 free, one in the 500 free), his aggressiveness has never wavered. That’s Haas’ style—go out and deal with the ramifications later. This time, that meant swimming 250 yards of freestyle in two minutes—2:00.49, to be exact—with another 250 yards still to go.

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Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

At that point in the race, Haas was almost three seconds ahead of American-record pace, the splits Zane Grothe swam in 2017 on his way to a 4:07.25. And as it turned out, Haas couldn’t maintain that eyebrow-raising pace. The piano dropped, and Grothe’s pace caught up to Haas before finally swimming away from his reach on the last 50.

The result was a 4:08.19, a new NCAA record and the second-fastest time ever—even if it took Haas a moment for his time to compute as the race burned so hard that his vision was blurry when he first looked up at the scoreboard.

“We talked about going out a little faster than normal. Basically, that’s what I tried to do. I tried to take it out almost as hard as I could, not quite, and then I just tried to hang on,” Haas said. “I knew I was out fast. I didn’t know obviously the exact time, but I knew it was maybe a little too fast, maybe borderline too fast.”

But Haas hung tough, even with Cal’s Sean Grieshop and Arizona’s Brooks Fail closing in on either side of him over the last 150 yards. He never feared the onset of pain, and he never let that pain get in the way of finishing the race. To prepare himself, Haas said he cleared his mind of all thoughts.

“It’s definitely one of those things where I wish I could explain how I did it because it would definitely help a lot of people. I don’t know. I just stop thinking, and everything goes away. It’s pretty nice before races,” he said. “I believe that your body can do more than your mind thinks you can do. If you’re able to just kind of put your mind out of your head, you can do way more than you think you can. You just push through it.”

That win gave Haas his sixth career national title, stretching back to his freshman year in 2016. Before Thursday, Seliskar had none. If that first-place finish had eluded him his senior year, Andrew Seliskar would have had an inside track on the dubious distinction of best swimmer to never win an individual NCAA title. Not anymore, not after his statement win in the 200 IM.

On breaststroke, Seliskar displayed superior power on his pullouts as he took over the lead from NC State’s Andreas Vazaios. That put him under American-record pace—a record that couldn’t be broken, right? Not Caeleb Dressel’s 1:38.13, a time so remarkable that no one had ever swum within a second.

Finishing on freestyle, Seliskar showed a champion’s will as he split 24.05, eight tenths faster than any of his competition. But this record, too, proved elusive. In 1:38.14, by one hundredth, Seliskar came up short. Seliskar admitted he experienced some momentary frustration when he realized he was that close, but even that couldn’t dampen his overall exuberance.

“It means a lot,” Seliskar said. “I kind of thought I could be close to that time or faster than that time. I kind of just try to go off feel on all my swims. I try not to get too caught up in all the splits. I just tried to keep my tempo going. It was a fun swim.”

Amazingly, Seliskar’s effort improved on his lifetime best coming into the day, a 1:40.53 at last year’s NCAA championships, by more than two seconds, yet he still knew that the 1:38 was within his realm of capability.

“Just having the support from my coaches, they’re great about knowing what works and what doesn’t work,” he said. “I think that’s been one where I’ve been seeing little incremental drops every time I swim it, and I knew I was due for a good one.”

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Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Interestingly, in four years of NCAA championship racing, Haas and Seliskar have never competed in the same individual event. While Haas has exclusively swum freestyle at NCAA championships, Seliskar has never entered an individual freestyle race.

While Haas was winning his three consecutive NCAA titles in the 200 free, Seliskar was swimming the 400 IM, where he finished second as a sophomore and third as a junior. The 200 free only became a possibility over the summer, when he moved into the long course version of the event for the first time and became a national champion.

At the Pan Pacific Championships in August, Haas won gold in the 200-meter free and Seliskar took silver. They haven’t raced all season, either, and even when they swam in the same heat for the 800 free relay Wednesday evening, Seliskar led off (with a 1:30.14 that made him the fourth-fastest performer in history) while Haas anchored (in 1:29.66).

In that event, Haas brought Texas from behind for a relay win. In Thursday’s first event, Seliskar dove in to anchor Cal in the 200 free relay and pulled ahead of NC State for a national title. In sum, no two swimmers have done more for their respective teams’ causes so far in Austin.

They will meet in the 200 free, the most-anticipated race of the meet before anyone arrived in Austin with the interest only dialed up after Dean Farris smashed Haas’ American record with a 1:29.15 leading off Harvard’s 800 free relay. With Farris out of the individual event, the only threat to Haas and Seliskar would be Zach Apple, who led off Indiana’s relay in 1:30.34 and anchored the Hoosiers’ 400 medley relay in 40.64.

Eyes will naturally be focused on the record, and with Haas’ fearlessness and Seliskar swimming better than he ever has, it’s impossible to count out the possibility of a 1:28. Even in a year when the NCAA championships undoubtedly lost considerable star power from previous seasons, the titans will battle in the 200 free.

Video Interviews with Townley Haas and Andrew Seliskar: