Cal to battle Virginia and NC State for NCAA Women's Swimming and Diving supremacy

Can the Pac-12 champs Cal Bears drop enough time to win the program's 5th NCAA title this week?

The 2021 NCAA Women’s Swimming and Diving Championships will be a little bit different. Not only will COVID protocols alter the format and preparations for teams at Greensboro Aquatic Center, but Stanford’s three-year dominance at the NCAA should also be coming to an end (but probably more like a temporary halt, unfortunately). The anticipated Cal vs. Virginia showdown, which was set for the 2020 NCAA Championships before that event was canceled, will finally get to play out a year later (with some changes in the personnel, of course).

The NCAA Swimming and Diving Championships in 2021 may not have the once-in-a-generation superstar power of a few years ago when Katie Ledecky (Stanford) dominated the distance swims and Lily King (Indiana) dominated the breaststrokes on the women’s side while Caeleb Dressel (Florida) dominated the sprints and butterfly and Ryan Murphy (Cal) dominated the backstrokes on the men’s side. However, with fewer sure-things heading into the National Championships this year, there is instead the great excitement of the unknown (not to mention how it is typically more fun to see swimmers race one another rather than a record/clock).

Cal Bears are seeking the program’s first team national championship since 2015, coincidentally the last time that the NCAA championship was held at Greensboro, NC and the Bears had an ace in Missy Franklin. Instead of Stanford nor Georgia, the main competitors for the team title against the Golden Bears will be the Virginia Cavaliers and possibly NC State Wolfpack. Virginia has never finished above 5th nationally (achieved in 2015 and 2016). NC State has placed 4th at the last 4 NCAA championships. The Golden Bears, meanwhile, will look to continue their streak of 11 consecutive top-3 finishes.

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The NCAA meet with its 21 events (5 relays, 3 diving, 13 individual swimming) will start this Wednesday through Saturday. ESPN3/WatchESPN will stream all of the preliminary and final sessions live, before showing an edited version on ESPNU at some later date. You can find the Live Results here.

Schedule of Events (Time in PT)

March 17 — 3 p.m. finals

  • 800-yard Freestyle Relay

March 18 — 7 a.m. trials | 3 p.m. finals

  • 200-yard Freestyle Relay

  • 500-yard Freestyle

  • 200-yard Individual Medley

  • 50-yard Freestyle

  • 400-yard Medley Relay

  • One-meter Diving

March 19— 7 a.m. trials | 3 p.m. finals

  • 400-yard Individual Medley

  • 100-yard Butterfly

  • 200-yard Freestyle

  • 100-yard Breaststroke

  • 100-yard Backstroke

  • Three-meter Diving

  • 200-yard Medley Relay

March 20 — 7 a.m. trials | 3 p.m. finals

  • 1,650-yard Freestyle

  • 200-yard Backstroke

  • 100-yard Freestyle

  • 200-yard Breaststroke

  • 200-yard Butterfly

  • Platform Diving

  • 400-yard Freestyle Relay

Cal Bears at the NCAA

The Golden Bears are coming off a fantastic Pac-12 Championships where they won 12 of 18 swimming events en route to the program’s 5th conference team title.

Junior Isabel Ivey won three individuals (100 Fly, 100 Free, 100 Back) and contributed to four relays Pac-12 titles to be named the Pac-12 Swimmer of the Meet. Due to the cancelation last year, Ivey is one of only 4 Cal Bears who have actually competed at an NCAA championship. Robin Neumann, who represented the Netherlands at the 2016 Rio Olympics, is one of the few Olympians at the NCAA this year (swim fans have been spoiled by an abundance of Olympians in NCAA Championships over the past decade, including quite a few “Calympians”). Alicia Wilson and Ema Rajic are the other two Bears who went to the NCAA in 2019. None of the four has won a relay nor individual national championship…yet.

A total of 12 swimmers and one diver will represent the Blue and Gold at this meet. The Cal swimmers and their current top-25 time nationally are listed below. Keep in mind that most swimmers will not post their season-best times until this week, so expect some big variations between the final standings and these rankings.

  • 50 free – 22. Eloise Riley 22.09; 23. Elise Garcia 22.11

  • 100 free – 2. Isabel Ivey 47.24; 13. Robin Neumann 47.94; 18. Eloise Riley 48.40; 20. Emily Gantriis 48.44

  • 200 free – 5. Robin Neumann 1:43.19; 9. Ayla Spitz 1:44.10

  • 500 free – 7. Ayla Spitz 4:38.05; 13. Robin Neumann 4:39.82; 20. Sarah DiMeco 4:41.91

  • 1650 free – 13. Sarah DiMeco 16:06.45

  • 100 back – 3. Isabelle Stadden 50.86; 5. Isabel Ivey 51.12; 23. Téa Laughlin 52.51

  • 200 back – 2. Isabelle Stadden 1:49.77; 13. Alicia Wilson 1:52.67; 17. Ayla Spitz 1:53.21

  • 100 breast – 9. Ema Rajic 58.45

  • 200 breast – 12. Ema Rajic 2:07.16

  • 100 fly – 6. Isabel Ivey 50.87; 16. Rachel Klinker 51.79

  • 200 fly – 5. Rachel Klinker 1:52.82

  • 200 IM – 2. Alicia Wilson 1:53.58; 14. Isabelle Stadden 1:55.80

  • 400 IM – 4. Alicia Wilson 4:04.10

  • 200 free relay – 3. Eloise Riley, Emily Gantriis, Elise Garcia, Isabel Ivey 1:26.84

  • 400 free relay – 3. Eloise Riley, Robin Neumann, Elise Garcia, Isabel Ivey 3:11.27

  • 800 free relay – 2. Robin Neumann, Ayla Spitz, Rachel Klinker, Alicia Wilson 6:55.99

  • 200 medley relay – 6. Isabelle Stadden, Ema Rajic, Isabel Ivey, Emily Gantriis 1:35.81

  • 400 medley relay – 2. Isabelle Stadden, Ema Rajic, Isabel Ivey, Emily Gantriis 3:26.70

Team points will only be scored by those who finish in the top-16 in the country. The goal of the morning preliminaries is to qualify as many swimmers into the A-Finals (top-8) as possible.

Each swimmer can compete in up-to-three individual events. There is also an additional limit of only seven overall events, including the relays, per swimmer. For many (if not all) of the Cal swimmers, they will race in 3 individual events even if their name only shows up once or twice in the list above.

In fact, the full list of Cal swimmers and their competitions are listed below:

Freshmen

Sophomores

Juniors

Seniors

Cal head coach Teri McKeever did an interview last week that covered a variety of topics from the NCAA (47-minute mark) where she talked more about the challenges this year rather than anything specific, being one of the few female head coach in a women’s sport (20-minute mark), and what made Natalie Coughlin and Dana Vollmer great (41.50-minute mark).


Cal vs. Virginia vs. NC State

Both last year and this year, the Stanford women’s swimming dynasty is on hold due to their Olympic opt-outs. Canadian Olympian Taylor Ruck is sitting out again (she also opt-out in 2020) after a fantastic 2019 season for the Cardinal. Stanford also has the top recruit in the country in Regan Smith who is taking classes but not racing for the team this year. Smith will battle Cal alum Kathleen Baker for those precious two backstroke berth on the US Olympic team in June at the US Olympic Trials. IF they both do not turn pro, Stanford will again be the favorites for both the Pac-12 and NCAA team titles next year with two swimmers capable of earning 50+ points each (not counting their relay contributions).

With Stanford merely good but not great in 2021, we will finally have the Cal vs. Virginia matchup that we did not get last year. Cal graduated an important weapon in “Calympian” sprinter Abbey Weitzeil but got improvements across the board and some freshman talents including Isabelle Stadden, who was ranked 2nd behind only Smith on most college swimming prospect list.

Cal should get points from almost all 12 of their swimmers this week. Virginia will have 14 swimmers in Greensboro, the same pool where they won the ACC title just a few weeks ago. NC State will have 12 swimmers. Florida actually leads the nation with 16 swimmers who qualified.

Scoring the psych sheet (based on the top times from all the qualified swimmers, most came from the most recent meets), the top four teams are expected to be Virginia 472.5, NC State 375, California 350, and Texas 335. These points are just from scoring the 18 swimming events. Texas should score 45-50 points more from diving than the other contenders.

Of course, teams, particularly the more experienced ones like Cal, will post their personal bests this week. The Golden Bears will most surely outscore the point projection above, but the bigger question is if that will be enough to close the gap to Virginia.

Let’s take a closer look at the head-to-head for the various events:

Freestyle distance

Virginia senior Paige Madden is the top seed in the 200-yard, 500-yard, and 1650-yard freestyle. Cal will hope to counter with Robin Neumann in the 200-yard and Ayla Spitz in the 500-yard where both Bears should make the A-Final. Sarah DiMeco, who has the 13th best seed time, will be the lone Cal swimmer in the swimming mile.

Senior Kate Moore is NC State’s threat in the 500-yard. For the 200-yard, Virginia will also have a star freshman Alex Walsh, who will get her points from this and the IM events.

Sprints

Virginia sophomore Kate Douglass has the top seed time in both 50-yard and 100-yard freestyle as well as the second seed in the 100-yard butterfly. She is also the main reason why Virginia has the top seed time in the relays. With Weitzeil graduated, Cal’s go-to anchor is now Isabel Ivey. While Ivey is much more than just a sprinter, she will need to shave 0.50 second off her 100-yard freestyle time and more than a full second to beat the top seed time in the 100-yard butterfly.

For the Bears in the 50-yard freestyle, Eloise Riley and Elise Garcia are both capable of making the A-finals but also may not score any points at all. This is such a short race that a slight hesitation out of the block will doom a swim.

The best case for the Cal Bears may be for Michigan junior Maggie MacNeil to top Kate Douglass in these events.

IM

Alicia Wilson is the Cal top individual medley swimmers. Wilson will battle Virginia’s Alex Walsh in the 200y IM and their sophomore Ella Nelson in the 400y IM for top three spots in these races.

NC State’s Julia Poole in 200y IM, as well as Kate Moore and Emma Muzzy in 400y IM, are top-8 on the psych sheet.

Breaststroke

Ema Rajic is Cal’s top breaststroker. The best hope for the Bears here is for Rajic to improve enough for her to make the small jump into the top 8 in these two events.

NC State juniors Sophie Hansson and Andrea Podmanikova have some of the top seed times in the country. In fact, Hansson is considered the favorite for both events.

For Virginia, junior Alexis Wenger in the 100-yard and sophomore Ella Nelson in the 200-yard are expected to be A-finalists.

Butterfly

Texas swimmers Olivia Bray and Kelly Pash are the bigger competitions against Cal’s Rachel Klinker in the 200-yard butterfly. Klinker’s improvement this year has been a very pleasant surprise.

The 100-yard butterfly would be more of a race between Cal’s Ivey and UVA’s Douglass. Klinker needs to make a jump to break into the top 8. Virginia is also quite dangerous in this event with 3 swimmers in that 17-20 range who all could get into scoring positions.

Backstroke

Cal will again be well represented in the backstroke. Freshman Isabelle Stadden has the 2nd best 200-yard and 3rd best 100-yard times in the country. The Bears hope to have at least two A-finalists in both of these events with Ivey in 100-yard and Wilson in 200-yard. Ayla Spitz, seeded 17th, will hopefully also earn some points in the 200-yard backstroke. By the way, Stadden’s best 200-yard time came in a dual meet against Stanford rather than at the Pac-12 Championships.

Given Cal’s pedigree in the backstroke, I would not be shocked if freshman Téa Laughlin ended up scoring points in both backstroke events.

Alabama junior Rhya White and NC State sophomore Katharine Berkoff are Stadden’s top competitors.

Reilly Tiltmann is Virginia’s lone backstroker. The freshman is seeded 11th in 100-yard and 12th in 200-yard.

Obligatory comments about Diving

Yes, this championship includes Swimming AND Diving.

Making her first appearance at the NCAA Championship will be Cal senior Briana Thai. Thai also qualified for the NCAA last year but that meet was canceled. Thai will compete in all three diving events this week.

Cal has got one diver qualified for the NCAA fairly consistently for the past decade. Before Thai, Phoebe LaMay made three NCAA championships. However, one would have to go back to 2012 before you find a Cal diver who made an A-Final (top 8); Kahley Rowell accomplished that feat in platform diving (and Cal did not even have a home platform diving facility then) when placed 5th in the country.

Diving is not expected to impact the team title at this year’s meet. While Virginia does have 3 divers who will compete in 7 events total, none of them are expected to score big (if any) diving points. NC State does not have any diver at this meet.

If Briana Thai can make the consolation final (9th-16th place) for any event, that would provide a huge emotional lift to the team, but I would expect neither Cal nor Virginia to score double-digit from the three diving events combined.


“Keys” to success:

1) Win the relays

Virginia is the top-seed in all 5 relays. If the Cal Bears can win some of these double-pointed events (40 points to 1st place, 34 points to 2nd), then these are the quickest ways to make up the psych sheet deficit.

Due to COVID and the desire to limit the number of swimmers on deck, the relays are all switched to time trials this year (in the past, only the 800-yard freestyle relay was done as a time trial).

Will this structure means that someone not in the top heat may surprise and win the championship? Cal is 2nd or 3rd in 4 of the relays and 6th in the 200-yard medley relay. Chances are that the Golden Bears will be in the fastest heat (with only 4 teams) along with Virginia and have the benefit of knowing how fast they have got to go.

While we do not wish ill to any team, not even Stanford, there is always the chance of a disastrous relay for any team if they get DQ’ed and earn 0 points. Virginia and their lack of experience for being in the NCAA title contention may just cause some kind of major mistake. The elimination of the prelims for the relays does mean one less opportunity for teams to catastrophically DQ.

Another wrinkle to consider for the relays is the lineup. The limit that a swimmer can only race in 7 total events (and 3 individuals) means that Isabel Ivey will have to miss a relay. Will she miss the 800-yard freestyle (like at the Pac-12 Championships) even though the Cal time is closer to that of Virginia if you add in Ivey’s 200-yard freestyle split and that is the lone Wednesday event?

2) Win some races

The NCAA scoring does reward bonus points to the winner of events. 20 points go to 1st place while only 17 go to 2nd.

While the Cal Bears do not have any top seeds, they do have swimmers capable of winning events. The best bets for Cal individual national titles are Isabel Ivey in the 100-yard freestyle, Isabelle Stadden in both backstrokes, Alicia Wilson in 200-yard IM, and Robin Neumann in the 200-yard freestyle.

3) More taper for the Bears due to the shortened season?

Virginia, NC State, and the rest of the ACC conference had far fewer training restrictions last fall. Cal only got to start sometime in November when they hosted Stanford in a non-scored meet. Could the Bears have more gas left in the tank as the result? Given the shorter season, the Bears might have a steeper rate of improving times than their ACC counterparts. The three weeks since the conference championship may mean more to the Cal Bears than Virginia/NC State.

Traditionally, the Cal men drop significantly more time than the women between the Pac-12 and the NCAA. Part of this is obvious as the men do not shave until the national championships. The top swimmers also often do not go “all-out” until the national championship is on the line, although some other swimmers will go all-in during the preliminary sessions in the hope of getting into a scoring final. The more surprising finalists often post worse times in the finals than their morning swims.

Ultimately, the lack of proven NCAA track records by most swimmers at this meet is a major X-factor and a reason for both optimism/pessimism. Did some teams not hold back as much because they are not sure about getting to this part of the season? How will a lot of the student-athlete handle the pressure of being in their first collegiate national championship?

4) It takes an entire team

Even if it is just a few points in the B-Final, the Golden Bears need to score points on most of the 31 individual events entered. Bears do have top-25 time (but only top-16 score points) in 26 of those 31 events, so an 80% hit rate on these would not be improbable.

There is also the intangible effect when an unexpected source delivers a career-best for points. Their teammates know just how hard they have worked all year to get to that point (even with COVID restrictions keeping people more separated than usual). A winning team often needs that kind of emotional lift in this long week.

5) Go Fast!

Sometimes, it is just that simple. I’m no swimming expert, I just pretend to be one on the Internet.


Stay tuned to Write for California this and next week (for the Cal men) as we (Christopher Zheng and yours truly) update you on any and all additions to Cal’s national championship total.

For the Cal women before this week: they currently have 4 team (all under Teri McKeever), 51 individual (39 under Teri), and 23 relay (21 under Teri) NCAA national championships. Let’s add to all three of these numbers this week!

GO BEARS!