Who Makes the Mount Rushmore of NCAA Division I Swimming?

Swimming World March 2021 - The Mount Rushmore of NCAA Division I Swimming

Who Makes the Mount Rushmore of NCAA Division I Swimming?

If there were a sculpture made of the top NCAA Division I swimmers similar to the one depicting the four U.S. Presidents on Mount Rushmore, Tracy Caulkins, Natalie Coughlin, Pablo Morales and John Naber would be worthy honorees. No other U.S. swimmer has won more NCAA Division I individual titles than those four.

Tracy Caulkins, Florida (12)

100 breast 1984; 100 fly 1982; 200 fly 1982; 1984; 100 IM 1982-83; 200 IM 1982-83-84; 400 IM 1982-83-84 (also swam on four winning relays)

Tracy Caulkins

Tracy Caulkins. Photo Courtesy: Swimming World Magazine.

Tracy Caulkins won 12 NCAA titles in her career at the University of Florida from 1982-84. But she was in a unique position compared to other swimmers who competed after her: Back then, swimmers weren’t limited to the number of individual events they could swim. That changed in 1987 when NCAA rules stated that swimmers would be limited to three individual events and four relays or two individuals and all five relays.

Then again, Caulkins only swam three years of college instead of four, forgoing her senior year and retiring after the 1984 Olympics in pursuit of completing her schooling—she earned her bachelor’s degree in broadcasting in 1985.

As a freshman in 1982, she won five titles: 100 breast, 100 fly and all three IMs—100, 200 and 400. She also helped the Gators win the 400 medley relay en route to Florida winning the first championships ever held for NCAA Division I women.

In 1983, she added four more individual titles: the 200 fly plus another 100-200-400 IM sweep. Later that year, the NCAA coaches proposed changes to the championship meet format that would eliminate the 50s of strokes (excluding freestyle) and the 100 IM.

With her college/national/international success, Caulkins is still regarded today as one of the best American swimmers ever.

Her 400 yard IM American record of 4:04.63 set in 1981 lasted for 11 years until it was finally broken by Stanford’s Summer Sanders in 1992. And her 200 IM mark of 1:57.06 from 1984 lasted until Sanders broke it in 1991. Her times from the ’80s would still be competitive today…and she didn’t have the advantage of kneeskin techsuits, polyurethane caps or really much knowledge on underwater kicks.

Natalie Coughlin, Cal (11)

100 back 2001-02-03-04; 200 back 2001-02-03; 100 fly 2001-02-03-04 (also swam on one winning relay)

Jun 20, 2015; Santa Clara, CA, USA; Natalie Coughlin (USA) before the start of her prelim heat of the Women 50M Freestyle during the morning session of Day3 at the George F. Haines International Swim Center in Santa Clara, Calif. Mandatory Credit: Bob Stanton-USA TODAY Sports

Photo Courtesy: Robert Stanton/USA Today Sports Images

Natalie Coughlin was near perfect in her NCAA career, winning 11 of a possible 12 NCAA individual titles in her four years at Cal-Berkeley from 2001-04. She won four titles in the 100 butterfly and 100 backstroke, and three in the 200 back.

In her freshman season, she secured two of her three wins over Olympic gold medalists. In the 100 yard fly, she upset Stanford’s Misty Hyman to set an NCAA record at 51.18. In the 100 back, she bested Hyman again and future Olympian Haley Cope for an American record of 51.23. In the 200 back, Coughlin bested 1996 Olympic gold medalist Beth Botsford of Arizona by four-and-a-half seconds to take nearly two seconds off the American record with a 1:51.02.

Her three NCAA records (she just missed Jenny Thompson’s 100 fly American mark of 51.07 set in 1998) landed her on the cover of Swimming World (May 2001) and launched her as a household name. She had also been an excellent high school swimmer (SW’s Female High School Swimmer of the Year, 1998), but she took that next step in her rookie year of college.

The following year, 2002, was, perhaps, the best of her college career. As a sophomore, she destroyed the American record in the 100 fly, becoming the first woman to break 51 seconds and almost the first to break 50—a 50.01, which stood as the American record for 13 years. In the 100 back, she broke that magical 50-second barrier with a 49.97, which lasted as the American record for 15 years until 2017. On the last day of the meet, she set two more American standards: a 1:49.52 in the 200 back (which stood until 2009) and a 47.47 in the 100 free in leading off the 400 free relay.

Coughlin again won the 100 fly and both backstroke races in 2003, and in her senior year, she had a chance to finish her four-year college career by winning all 12 of her individual events. Despite a relatively disappointing showing on the two relays on Day 1, she bounced back with wins in the 100 fly and 100 back on Day 2. That left the all-important 200 back as her final hurdle.

This was before meets were streamed live online, so when ESPN2 televised its tape-delayed coverage of the 2004 NCAA Women’s Championships, it waited until the very end to show the 200 backstroke—even after the 400 free relay—to give its audience the opportunity to see whether or not Coughlin could make history.

In 2004 (and one other time in 2000), the events were held short course meters instead of yards. The 200 back was an event in which Coughlin held the world record…and Cal’s golden Golden Bear was under world-record pace at the 50, 100 and 150 (by nearly a full second). But on the final 50, Coughlin struggled (“I couldn’t move my legs, I couldn’t kick,” she would say later). Auburn’s duo of Kirsty Coventry and Margaret Hoelzer both passed Coughlin, with Coventry (the eventual Olympic gold medalist in 2004 and 2008) touching in 2:03.86, the second-fastest 200 back in history.

Still, Coughlin finished her career with 11 individual victories, second only to Caulkins.

Pablo Morales, Stanford (11)

100 fly 1984-85-86-87; 200 fly 1984-85-86-87; 200 IM 1985-86-87 (also swam on three winning relays)


Pablo Morales – Photo Courtesy: Tim Morse

Stanford’s Pablo Morales is officially the winningest male swimmer in NCAA Division I history with 11 individual titles from 1984-87. John Naber had held that distinction after the 1977 season with 10 wins, but Morales passed him after taking Titles #9, 10 and 11 at the 1987 NCAAs at Texas.

He swept all four years of the 100 and 200 butterfly, and won three titles in the 200 IM during his sophomore, junior and senior seasons. However, as a freshman, Morales, swimming in his very first college championship finals, finished fourth in the medley (1:48.08), albeit only 13-hundredths off Ricardo Prado’s (SMU) winning time of 1:47.95.

Two days later at that 1984 meet, Morales held off Prado in the 200 butterfly (in which Prado was the defending champ) by 1-tenth of a second, 1:44.33 to 1:44.43. On the meet’s middle day, Morales clocked an American record in the 100 fly (47.02).

In 1985, Morales broke American records in both butterfly events, becoming the first man to break 47 seconds in the 100 (46.52) and the first to break 1:43 in the 200 (1:42.85). He also won the 200 IM in 1:46.08.

1986 was more of the same for Morales, who broke the American record again in the 100 with a 46.26 in prelims, taking the final in 46.37. His 200 IM inched closer to the American record of 1:45.08 with a 1:45.43, and his 200 fly (1:43.05) was just a couple tenths away from his own record (1:42.85, 1985).

As a senior in 1987, Morales needed two victories to tie Naber as the winningest male swimmer in NCAA D-I history…and three wins to surpass him.

The 200 IM on Night 1 was, perhaps, his toughest challenge. He had been leading at each turn, under record pace through 150 yards. But Texas’ Doug Gjertsen was charging hard on freestyle, and Morales was hurting. Feeling the effects of a 21.9 butterfly split on the opening 50, Morales was still able to hold on to win in 1:45.42 to Gjertsen’s 1:45.82. He missed UCLA’s Bill Barrett’s American record (1:45.00, 1982) by less than a half-second…but the hard part for Morales was over.

In the 100 fly, Morales, with a 46.47, also just missed his own American record from a year before, but he solidified a 1-2-3 finish with Stanford teammates Jay Mortenson and Anthony Mosse, being the only swimmer to break 47 seconds.

The final night in the 200 fly, Morales led from the outset and was hardly challenged, winning with an American record of 1:42.60, ahead of Mosse at 1:44.25. It was a perfect ending for Morales, who had become the top male swimmer in college history with 11 NCAA individual titles.

John Naber, USC (10)

500 free 1974-75; 100 back 1974-75-76-77; 200 back 1974-75-76-77 (also swam on five winning relays)


Photo Courtesy: Bob Ingram

USC’s John Naber had held the record for most NCAA D-I individual titles for a decade after he won 10 from 1974-77, sweeping the 100 and 200 back all four years, as well as earning two wins in the 500 free.

As a freshman in 1974, Naber swam his first college championship final in the meet’s first race, the 500 free. All he did was upset Indiana’s John Kinsella, the American record holder (4:24.49), who was vying for his fourth consecutive title. Naber won in 4:26.85; Kinsella finished sixth in 4:33.69.

It was an auspicious start for the Trojans—and a not-so-welcome start for the Hoosiers. By meet’s end, USC beat Indiana by one point to put a halt to IU’s six-year winning streak.

Naber would go on to win the 100 and 200 backstrokes, both in American record time (50.51, 1:48.95), as the Trojans celebrated their first national title in eight years.

As a sophomore in 1975, Naber blasted an American record in the 500 free with a 4:20.45—more than six seconds faster than his winning time a year earlier. And he added two more American records in his specialty, the backstroke.

Naber won the 100 against some stiff competition from Indiana (John Murphy, Mel Nash and Bill Schulte) in 49.94…but a day earlier, Naber became the first swimmer to break 50 seconds for 100 yards of backstroke with his 49.85 leadoff leg for the 400 medley relay.

The 200 was a different story, as he won by three-plus seconds with a 1:46.82—two seconds faster than his American record from the year before. His winning time was faster than the 200 yard butterfly American record for the first time in history.

After starting his college career a perfect six-for-six, Naber tasted defeat for the first time in 1976 when Long Beach State freshman Tim Shaw, the reigning 200-400-1500 meter freestyle World champion, beat him in the 500.

It was tabbed as the race of the meet, and it lived up to the hype. Shaw and Naber became the first two swimmers to go under 4:20, with Shaw coming out on top at 4:19.05 to Naber’s 4:19.71.

That race almost repeated itself the next night when Naber held off Cal freshman Peter Rocca in the 100 back final, 49.93 to 49.95. But in the 200 back, Naber put a bit more distance between himself and his soon-to-be Olympic teammate, winning in 1:46.95 to 1:48.09. A few months later, those two swimmers repeated their 1-2 finish in the 100 and 200 meter back at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal.

In his final NCAA meet in 1977, Naber (4x Olympic gold medalist, 1976) and Shaw (400 free Olympic silver medalist, 1976) met once again in the 500 free. Shaw won again, this time in 4:17.39 (the third fastest time in history) to Naber’s 4:19.07.

In the 100 back, Naber broke his own American record with a 49.36 to win his fourth straight title in the event, then finished with a 1:46.09 in the 200 back for another American record.

Besides all of his individual successes, Naber helped USC win four team titles all four years of his college career.

1 comment

  1. avatar

    Caeleb Dressel? Sure these 4 might have had more titles, but no one has impacted the college swimming world or the realm of SCY as Dressel has. It’d be a mistake to leave him out!