What Ella Eastin Learned from the NCAA Titles and the Adversity of Trials

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Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

By David Rieder.

Ella Eastin arrived at Stanford in September 2015 having won titles at just about every Junior-level meet—Junior Nationals, Junior Pan Pacs and even the Junior World Championships.

Six months later, she was a two-time NCAA champion—very nearly a triple-event winner—and an American record-holder.

Not too many blue-chip recruits become one of the premier swimmers in the country after one season, but for Eastin, everything immediately clicked at Stanford. She was comfortable both in the pool, swimming under head coach Greg Meehan and associate head coach Tracy Duchac for a team that had finished third at the NCAA championships the year before, and outside of it.

“When I got there, I bought in quickly to what Tracy and Greg were having me do,” Eastin said. “I felt like I was surrounded by a lot of other hard-working, goal-oriented, Type A people. And I’m not just saying the swim team—at school, the environment is definitely something that only works for some people.”

Within just a couple months—or less than a quarter on Stanford’s academic calendar—Eastin was already swimming times that would have won individual NCAA championships the year before. At the Art Adamson Invitational in late November 2015, Eastin swam a 4:01.04 in the 400 IM, more than a second faster than Sarah Henry’s winning time of 4:02.47 from the previous year’s NCAAs.

At the Pac-12 Championships in February, Eastin out-dueled fellow Bay Area freshman Kathleen Baker to win the 200 IM, 1:52.77 to 1:52.80, and a day later she broke 4:00 for the first time in the 400 IM.

Entering her first NCAA championships in Atlanta as a big favorite, she delivered, winning the 200 IM by more than a second and breaking the American record with her time of 1:51.65. She finished first in the 400 IM by a whopping five seconds and then, in her final race, pushed Kelsi Worrell to the limit in the 200 fly, almost overcoming a huge deficit on the final 50 before settling for second place.

The enormity and emotion of the NCAA championships did not phase the freshman—mostly because she had no idea what to expect.

“I think it was really helpful for me that I didn’t know the extent to which people got nervous for the meet or how big and exciting it was. I think it was helpful for me to walk in and pretend that I was at another Junior National meet, and I knew that I had the potential to put my hand on the wall first,” she

Confidence was no issue, either. Training with professionals like future Olympic gold medalist Maya DiRado helped Eastin begin to think of herself on that same level, and at NCAAs, she knew she had the full support of the entire Stanford team, helping to take the pressure off.

“I felt as though people believed in me,” she explained. “It wasn’t as though they were counting on me—my team is counting on me, always—but I didn’t feel heavy pressure from them or anyone else. I always put the pressure on myself, and I always want to do the best I can for my swimming. But in this type of environment, it’s more fun to do it for the team.”

Following her wildly successful performance in Atlanta, Eastin went straight to Colorado Springs with Meehan and a small group of teammates for an altitude training camp, the focus already turned towards the long course pool and Olympic Trials.

The plan appeared to be working in early May, when Eastin returned to Georgia Tech for some long course racing. She posted career-best times in both the 400 IM (4:40.70) and 200 IM (2:10.54), beating eventual Olympic bronze medalist DiRado head-to-head in the later event.

But when she was on deck in Omaha at Olympic Trials, her confidence had flickered. Expectations were ramped up after the successful spring, but with 1700-plus swimmers and a pool inside a massive arena seating 14,000, she felt intimidated.

“I don’t think I’ve ever had a really good year where I’ve had a really good short course season and a really good long course season,” she said. “When I stepped into the long course season after NCAAs was over, it was a whole new ballgame with a whole new group of people.

“I’m racing people five years older than me—or more—and it was hard for me to put myself in a position where I felt like I was in the race. I looked around and felt that everyone else had been in those positions before and had deserved those spots. I don’t know that I gave myself quite enough credit.”

In her first swim of the meet, Eastin finished ninth in the 400 IM, just four one-hundredths outside of the top eight and a spot in the championship final. Her time of 4:42.08 was more than a second slower than she had swum just six weeks earlier in Atlanta.

Three days later, she swam in the final of the 200 IM and actually was in the lead after the butterfly and in second at the halfway mark, but she faded badly to finish fifth in 2:11.49.

Understandably upset with the results, Eastin left Omaha and went home to Southern California for the remainder of the summer. But as she reflected on her season, she realized that after all the work she put in, she had no reason not to feel confident—even at the hyped-up Olympic Trials

“I realized that the times I swam my best were the times I believed in myself the most, and that was at NCAAs and a couple of random [long course] meets,” she said. “Taking that as a lesson and remembering what I’m doing every single day to be in that position, I have a reason to trust that I’m going to be able to do what I want to do.”

Eastin hardly worked out over the next two months, and for the first time in years she had no routine to follow. She was actually on vacation in Florida during the Olympics but did catch a couple of races on television in her hotel room—including those when DiRado and Stanford teammate Simone Manuel won individual gold medals in upset fashion.

“It was so bizarre to me to turn on the TV and watch among millions and millions of other people watching the same thing and be like, ‘I see those girls on a daily basis,’” Eastin said. “It was special, even more special knowing them personally and knowing that both of them worked so hard to get there.”

She didn’t know it at the time, but just a few months later Eastin would have her own chance to race for international medals as USA Swimming tapped her for a spot on the Short Course World Championships team in Windsor, Canada.

When she first got the invitation Eastin was reluctant to accept the spot on the team—mostly because she would miss a week of classes right before final exams. But Meehan strongly encouraged his sophomore IMer to accept what would be her first opportunity to compete on a senior U.S. national team.

“What he always says when someone is invited to go to one of these meets is, ‘Being able to represent your country is a huge honor, and there are so many people that would love to be in that position, and that’s something that you should take advantage of while you can,’” Eastin recalled.

Eastin would be competing in all three IM races in Windsor—all of which Katinka Hosszu would be favored to dominate, as Eastin knew all too well.

“I know that when [Hosszu] gets up, and she is planning to win from the get-go, nothing’s going to stop her,” Eastin said. “But at the same time, knowing she’s far ahead doesn’t mean that anyone else in the race should stop trying.”

On the first day of the meet, Eastin qualified second for the 400 IM final behind Hosszu. That night, with the Hungarian well out in front, Eastin battled a tightly-bunched field to the finish and ended up touching third in 4:27.74—and was later upgraded to a silver medal when Vietnam’s Anh Vien Nguyen was disqualified for an illegal turn.

Four days later in the 200 IM final, Eastin picked up another silver medal, touching the wall in 2:05.02.

The experience helped Eastin realize what kind of physical effort was required to get through a major international meet—she competed in nine of the meet’s first ten sessions—and more importantly helped instill in her a level of comfort with high-level racing—albeit in the unfamiliar format of short course meters.

“Knowing I could get up and just race against these people was the best thing,” she said. “At this meet, times weren’t really what mattered—it was about trying to get your hand on the wall first. At Olympic Trials or the Olympics, it’s similar. You’re supposed to get up and race for your country and race for your teammates.”

This spring, she’ll be seeing plenty of those U.S. teammates on deck at both the Pac-12 and NCAA championships. But her Stanford team will look quite a bit different than last year’s, particularly with the Manuel returning and Katie Ledecky beginning her college career at Stanford. The Cardinal are now favored to end a 19-year championship drought.

Heading into conference championship season, Eastin ranks fourth in the nation in the 200 IM and first in the 400 IM with a familiar face nipping at her heels: Ledecky. The freshman decided to swim the event at the Ohio State Invite in November, and Eastin managed to hold her off.

“Yeah, barely,” Eastin deadpanned. “There’s no one in the world who can split the last 100 like she did. She went a 52—that’s a lot of people’s 100 freestyle times, which is hysterical.”

Regardless of whether Ledecky chooses to swim the IM at NCAAs, Eastin won’t be worried about any pressure to defend her title or if the points will add up for Stanford to be the national champion. She figured out quickly that the NCAA meet is far too intense to be focused on anything but the process at hand.

“All we do is go about our business because the only thing you can control is what you’re doing on a daily basis to improve for yourself, and improving for yourself is automatically going to help your teammates improve,” she said.

“At the end of the day, it’s about having each person try to do the best that they can to get as many points as they can, and however it ends up is how it’s going to end up. Nothing’s guaranteed, and everyone’s working as hard as they can to do the best they can for each other.”

To read more about Eastin, Michael Chadwick, Mallory 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.