Undefeated Cal Women's Swimming and Diving Look Ahead to Championship Season

The Bears' quest for first conference championship since 2015

Perhaps for the first time in nearly a decade, the Cal women’s swimming and diving team are without an elite, world-leading swimmer in the middle lane kicking up a storm. Gone are the days where Missy Franklin or Kathleen Baker or Abbey Weitzeil—all of whom have medaled at major international competitions prior to enrolling at Berkeley. But, for a program that has produced a top-three team at every NCAA Championship starting in 2009, you know that Coach Teri McKeever has some tricks up her sleeve for the team to maintain their streak.

I might be underselling the incredibly talented swimmers on the roster just the slightest. Even with limited opportunities to race this year, Cal still found ways to impress and prove to the larger swimming community that you never want to be the one a bear is chasing. Officially, the Bears were 3-0 for the season, only racing against Stanford, USC, and UCLA as other conference meets and the midseason invitational weren’t put on the schedule for public health reasons. But, often as we look ahead to the championship season, the results at the mid-season invitational is often a strong predictor of things to come.

The strategizing that comes throughout the swimming season is quite complicated, when it seems like it doesn’t need to be. How hard of a concept is it to just be the fastest one? In a sport like swimming where all the glory comes out one meet every year, it’s all about making sure you’re the fastest at that one meet and being sure you have the competitive edge for that meet. But, with limited competing opportunities this season, Coach McKeever had Cal racing hard to make sure they had every opportunity to perfect the details that seem to always need fine-tuning. 

With the impressive performances this season that include a school record, 11 dual-meets (championship meets not included) records, and 11 pool records, the Bears look ahead to the four-day Pac-12 Championship being hosted in Houston this year due to public health concerns. While there, Cal—as sturdy as ever—will have the opportunity to put all their pieces together for their first conference crown after taking second-place to Stanford in each of the last four years. 

First up for the Bears is junior do-everything Isabel Ivey, who looks to cement herself as the latest in the long line of versatile, swiss-army knives for Coach McKeever. She currently holds the top seed in the 100-yard freestyle, 100-yard butterfly, and the 100-yard backstroke. While Ivey is the defending Pac-12 champion in the 100-yard backstroke, she’ll be challenged by Cal’s latest backstroke prodigy, freshman Isabelle Stadden. Stadden will likely be in the longer backstroke distance, where she’s already 7th all-time in school history, and the 200-yard individual medley to round out her individual lineup. Together, Ivey and Stadden will provide an enormous boost to Cal’s relays—four of which are leading the conference. 

Ivey and Stadden won’t be enough for this squad to win its first conference championship since 2015; it’ll be because of this freestyle group that is among the nation’s best. Dutch Olympian Robin Neumann is the stalwart senior leading this group. While sophomore Eloise Riley is the leading returning sprint freestyler, the eyes will be on freshmen Emily Gantriis, who has some international experience representing Denmark. With limited opportunities racing in yards (rather than meters), which emphasizes the importance of underwater swimming in the first 15 yards off every wall, Gantriis probably has the most potential to burst through and provide the sprint freestyle excellence that will certainly propel the Bears to a conference title, if not a national championship as well.

Here’s the fun thing about top-ranked (according to CSCAA poll) Cal swimming—we’ve gotten this far and we haven’t even talked about junior Ema Rajic, who is the best 100-yard breaststroker in school history. Nor have we talked about Brianna Thai, who is probably the best all-around diver in program history. Nevertheless, the Pac-12 Championship, which starts on Wednesday, February 24, is the perfect opportunity for phenomenally talented swimmers such as Rachel Klinker or Sarah Dimeco to take it up a notch and prove they’re invaluable pieces to a legitimate quest for the first national championship since Missy Franklin was on the team. 

As Pac-12 is usually the last conference to hold its conference championship meet, Cal certainly knows what they’ll have to display given how Virginia performed at the ACC Championship last weekend. There’s certainly a ton of talent looking for their first opportunity to shine. While Coach McKeever may choose to keep some of her tricks hidden, you just know she’s holding pocket aces waiting for the right opportunity to go all-in in championship season.