11-Year Streak for Cal Women's Swimming and Diving Ends at the NCAA Championship

Rough performance leads to a forth-place finish—their worst result since 2008

On the starting block with one foot in front of the other, junior Isabel Ivey patiently waited and calculated the timing of when to start her motion. The rule for relays is that a part of your body must be touching the starting block when the swimmer in the pool touches the wall (you get a leeway of .03 seconds), which means you can be essentially over the water as long as your toenail is still touching the block. With junior Elise Garcia rapidly closing the distance to the wall and about a stroke away, Ivey takes a step forward on the block and jumps into the pool, with a near perfect start. From there, the rest is a blur. Ivey dashes her way to a split of 46.10 seconds as the anchor of Cal’s third-place 400-yard freestyle relay. After jumping in with an over two-second deficit, Ivey pushed Cal to within striking distance of Alabama and Virginia. Alas, she fell short by less than two-tenths of a second. 

With that swim, Cal had cemented themselves as fourth-place in the overall standings, breaking a 11-year streak of finishing in the top-three. It’s a disappointing result for the Bears as they had aspirations for a national championship, especially given their affinity for the Greensboro, North Carolina pool as it was the site of their last national championship in 2015. The California Golden Bears ultimately finished with 290 points behind national champion Virginia, runner-up NC State, and perennial swimming rival (at least on the men’s side) Texas. While Cal suffered from a relay disqualification on the second night of competition, the point differential wouldn’t have been enough to surpass Virginia’s 491 points, NC State’s 354 points, or Texas’ 344.5 points. But, it was abundantly clear that the disqualification was a morale-deflater—one that not even Ivey can lift the Bears out of. 

For most programs, fourth-place at the NCAA Championship is a good result. Even with a rough showing, Cal walked away a few swims that are worth keeping in mind as the swimmers look ahead to a long off-season. On the first race of the second night, the 200-yard freestyle relay, sophomore Eloise Riley and freshmen Emily Gantriis paired with Garcia and Ivey to set a new pool record with a time of 1:25.78 behind three nearly-elite 21.2 second splits. The early win nearly convinced the world that maybe Virginia won’t run away with the meet, but this optimism was quickly deflated with a disqualification at the end of the second night in the 400-yard medley relay. 

In addition to the 200-yard freestyle relay, Ivey finished off the meet with a 3rd-place finish in the 100-yard freestyle and a pair of 4th-place finishes in the 100-yard butterfly and backstroke. She was also a big contributor to Cal’s 4th-place 200-yard medley relay and 3rd-place 400-yard freestyle relay. If it weren’t for an illegal relay start by Gantriis in the disqualified relay, Ivey would have had another 3rd-place finish in the meet. 

Freshman Isabelle Stadden, who was a part of both medley relays, added 5th- and 3rd-place finishes in the 100- and 200-yard backstroke. There’s a nationwide youth movement in backstroke and Stadden features prominently in it. Wisconsin freshman Phoebe Bacon, Virginia Tech freshman Emma Atkinson, and Virginia freshman Reilly Tiltmann all featured prominently in the backstroke events—and that doesn’t include do-everything Virginia freshman Alex Walsh (didn’t participate in backstroke at the NCAA Championship but would score major points if she did), NC State sophomore Katharine Berkoff (superb all-around backstroke specialist), and Regan Smith, who, as the best backstroker in the world, deferred competing for Stanford to focus on the Olympics. 

Ivey and Stadden were the only multiple A-finalists for Cal, which is part of why the Bears slipped to fourth-place. Senior Robin Neumann finished in 6th-place in the 200-yard freestyle, her third top-eight finish in this event in three tries. She also showed her freestyle versatility by adding a pair of 13th-place finishes in the 100- and 500-yard freestyle, making her the only woman to score in those three freestyle events. Gantriis was 10th and 14th in the 50- and 100-yard freestyle. Alicia Wilson, as third in the 200-yard individual medley, and Ayla Spitz, as fifth in the 500-yard freestyle, were the only other A-finalists for the Bears. 

It’s easy to look at the potential factors for a down performance. The relay disqualification is certainly one issue. Maybe, it was flying all the way to the East Coast and bodies weren’t fully adjusted. Perhaps it was a missed taper, which has to do with the timing of when to start resting and when to change up the practice philosophy to more race-based. COVID-19 certainly affected California-based teams more so than most of the other top finishers. But, the reality is that Stanford, who was the three-time defending national champion and finished in ninth this year, will bring back a lot of swimmers who are out on an Olympic redshirt including the aforementioned Smith. Virginia, who had a swimmer in the A-final of every race, graduates a couple of key pieces including all-around freestyler Paige Madden but also reloads with a huge recruiting class.

Virginia and Stanford have already set themselves up as a clash of titans for the next 2-3 years. After breaking their 11-year streak, Cal (and Coach Teri McKeever) needs to dig deep to figure out how to get this program back to a legitimate threat for the ultimate hardware. It starts, as it does in most sports, with recruiting. After pulling in the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 5th-ranked recruits in the high school class of 2015, the Bears’ best recruits, according to SwimSwam, were 13th-ranked Keaton Blovad (2016), 5th-ranked Cassidy Bayer (2018) who has transferred out of the program, top-ranked Isabel Ivey (2019), 13th-ranked Chloe Clark (2019) who wasn’t on the roster this last year, 20th-ranked Ayla Spitz (2019) who scored 20 points at this year’s NCAA Championship, 3rd-ranked Isabelle Stadden (2020), and 9th-ranked Mia Kragh (2021). By comparison, in the high school class of 2021, Virginia has the 1st, 11th (early-enrolled), and 18th-ranked swimmers. Stanford has the 2nd, 4th, and 8th-ranked swimmers. Part of this is a result of the turnover in the coaching staff as Cal has had 3 different associate head coaches in the last 6 years. 

But, when the Bears were very evidently a star or two away really factoring in the race for first, you start to wonder why Bayer transferred or why Clark hasn’t developed into a top-performing swimmer. You start to wonder despite Coach McKeever’s proven success of working with talent (Natalie Coughlin, Dana Vollmer, Missy Franklin, Kathleen Baker, Katie McLaughlin, Amy Bilquist, Abbey Weitzeil, just to name a few) why haven’t more of the Cal swimmers outside SwimSwam’s top-20 factored more heavily at the NCAA Championship as it has for other programs.

With Ivey and Stadden together for another year, Cal will still find themselves among the top programs in the country—although clearly in the second tier below Virginia and Stanford. Once Ivey graduates, the Bears will be sorely lacking the star-power they’ve been accustomed to over the last decade. With that, it’s really unclear what lies ahead for Cal. Regardless, a huge congratulations to Virginia on their first national championship (the ACC’s first in history) and the great shoutout by Virginia men’s basketball forward Sam Hauser after losing in the Round of 64 to Ohio. Their well-deserved celebration, as tradition, by jumping into the pool has been two years in the making, and they have the kind of roster that makes you think they might find themselves back in the same position with their national championship paraphernalia soaked in the pool.