Why the 2021 Women’s NCAA Swimming and Diving Championships Will Be a Can’t Miss Meet

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Kate Douglass was unable to swim at the 2020 NCAAs as one of the swimmers many people were hoping to see what she could do at the national level. Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

The 2021 NCAA Women’s Swimming and Diving Championships in Greensboro, North Carolina will be fascinating for swimming fans to watch.

We are entering the month of June, and there still has been no live sports in the United States since mid-March when basketball, swimming, and many others had to pull the plug on their seasons just as they were getting ready for their championships. Cancelling the NCAA swimming and diving championships was a big blow to everyone involved – athletes, coaches, parents, fans of the sport, and it was disappointing for many to not see the best college swimmers at their best this season.

2020 was supposed to be a big year for the sport of swimming – culminating at the end of the summer with the end-be-all Olympic Games in Tokyo. But those will now be in 2021, and with this year’s World Short Course Championships moved back an extra year as well, it seems there won’t be a major championship meet until March.

Although this year’s senior class was particularly stacked with record breaking talents like Abbey WeitzeilBeata Nelson and Louise Hansson, there will still be plenty of storylines to follow at next year’s championships.

Incoming Talent

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Olympic hopeful Emma Weyant will be joining a stacked Virginia team hungry for a national title. Photo Courtesy: Connor Trimble

Much like the men’s class of 2020, the women’s incoming freshmen class is deeply talented. Ahead of Olympic Trials, there are about nine American women in this high school class with legitimate chances of making the plane to Tokyo.

Regan Smith came off two world records in 2019, and will be joining a stacked Stanford team that has won three national titles in a row. Joining her on campus this fall will be 200 butterflyer Lillie Nordmann and World Juniors medalist Isabel Gormley, who both had fantastic summers in 2019.

Although Stanford came in as the three-time reigning national champs, it looked like the Cardinal was going to have their hands full with the Virginia Cavaliers. The Hoos were seeded to win the meet before it got cancelled, and that missed opportunity could push them for a “repeat” performance in 2021. Virginia will be even stronger this coming year with incoming freshmen Alex Walsh and Emma Weyant being added to the mix, along with the experience of Paige Madden, Kate Douglass and Ella Nelson. Both Walsh and Weyant were ranked highly in the world in their best events in 2019 with Walsh claiming golds at the Pan American Games in the 200 back and 200 IM, and Weyant being ranked sixth in the world in the 400 IM after winning the US Nationals in August.

On the west coast, Stanford’s Pac-12 rival USC has quietly built up a strong recruiting class. Breaststroker Kaitlyn Dobler and backstroker Jade Hannah, who both won individual medals at last summer’s World Juniors, along with distance freestyler Erica Sullivan, who deferred her enrollment until the fall of 2020 (assuming she doesn’t defer another year), will be making their USC debuts. As the Trojans start a new era under Jeremy Kipp, this core could take USC to new heights after losing a big piece in Louise Hansson.

Elsewhere in the Pac-12, Cal will be gaining the talents of backstroker Isabelle Stadden, the 200 back silver medalist at the Pan American Games, out of Minnesota. Rising power Wisconsin in the Big Ten snagged a huge game changing recruit in Phoebe Bacon, who was ranked third in the world in the 100 back in the early days of 2020.

And down in the SEC, Georgia will pick up sprinter Maxine Parker, who will provide a huge boost to all of Georgia’s relays.

This incoming freshman class is stacked, and don’t be surprised if one or two of these aforementioned swimmers wins an individual NCAA title in 2021.

Missed Opportunities

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How fast could Maggie MacNeil have gone this season? Photo Courtesy: Walt Middleton Photography 2019

2020 seemed to be a turning point in women’s swimming. The last few years, Stanford & Cal were the two best teams in the nation. Based on this year’s psych sheet, Virginia and Tennessee were seeded first and second, perhaps signaling the beginning of a power shift in NCAA women’s swimming.

Virginia and Stanford will likely be this year’s favorites to win the 2021 women’s NCAA swimming championships in Greensboro, and the Cavaliers will be wanting this year’s championship badly after not being able to prove themselves in 2020. They return 13 of their 15 individual NCAA qualifiers from this season, and will be gaining Walsh and Weyant, not to mention other potential NCAA qualifiers in Abby Harter and Anna Keating.

There were a plethora of opportunities missed when the NCAAs were cancelled in terms of potential records, breakout swims, and statements to be made. Michigan’s Maggie MacNeil had tied Louise Hansson’s NCAA record in the 100 butterfly at mid-season, and was set to star in one of the most anticipated races of the championships alongside Hansson, Tennessee senior Erika Brown and Virginia freshman Kate Douglass. Multiple swimmers had the chance to break 49 seconds, and it could have been the fastest field ever assembled in the 100 butterfly.

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Zoie Hartman had a chance to win an individual NCAA title in her home pool at Georgia. Photo Courtesy: Connor Trimble

MacNeil was coming off a summer where she won a surprising gold at the World Championships, upsetting one of the greatest 100 butterflyers in history in Sarah Sjostrom, and had been throwing down spectacular times all season. She wasn’t just a favorite in the 100 fly, but also had a chance at some big swims in the 50 and 100 free.

Virginia’s Kate Douglass and Paige Madden missed out on opportunities to show Virginia was for real, as they both were in positions to win multiple individual titles at the meet. Sophie Hansson (NC State), Zoie Hartman (Georgia), Calypso Sheridan (Northwestern) and Rhyan White (Alabama) were just a few names that had missed out on chances for breakout swims at the meet after coming in near the top of the psych sheet in their best events. Assuming they all come back next season with that extra edge to prove themselves, then the 2021 Women’s NCAAs will be intriguing based on the amount of storylines coming into the meet.

The stacked freshmen class with Smith, Walsh, Bacon, etc. will definitely add to the intrigue.

Usually the “year-after Olympics” NCAAs are stacked because of the post-Olympic excitement, giving the meet a sort of encore feel from the Olympics. In 2017, Olympic medalists Katie Ledecky, Simone Manuel, Lilly King, Leah Smith and Kathleen Baker were just a handful of the headliners that year. In 2009, Cal won their first national title in a three-team battle between Georgia and Arizona. In 2005, Georgia became the first team to win all five relays in the same championships, cementing themselves as one of the greatest teams in history.

The “year-after” NCAAs are always a treat to watch, and with the mix of the incoming 2020 class, the returning talent, and the COVID cancellations, the 2021 Women’s NCAAs will be fascinating to see unfold.

And not to mention, the NCAAs could be the first national championships to take place after COVID-19. They were the first swim championships cancelled, and they could also be the first ones back.

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