2023 NCAA WOMEN’S SWIMMING AND DIVING CHAMPIONSHIPS
The 800 freestyle relay has typically been a bit of a snoozer in terms of it being an exciting showdown at the Women’s NCAA Championships.
Over the last seven championship meets, the closest the race has been between the winner and runner-up is two seconds, and it’s been as lopsided as five and a half seconds—the gap Stanford won by in 2017 (when they set the all-time record in 6:45.91).
We have to go all the way back to 2014 to find an intriguing race for the title, where Missy Franklin anchored in 1:40.08 to give Cal a narrow win over Georgia by 15 one-hundredths of a second.
In 2021, Virginia cruised to a dominant victory, and then last year, it was all Stanford, as the Cardinal rolled to a five-second win.
Will things be any closer this year? There’s reason to be hopeful, but Stanford remains a big favorite.
THE FRONTRUNNERS: CARDINAL V. CAVS
As the winners of four of the last five titles in the event, it comes as no surprise to see Stanford at the top of the bill once again this season, as the Cardinal lead the NCAA rankings after clocking 6:53.90 at Pac-12s.
That lineup consisted of Morgan Tankersley, Torri Huske, Lillie Nordmann and Kayla Wilson, as they notably left off defending 200 free national champion (and the Pac-12 winner) Taylor Ruck, perhaps using the event as a tryout of sorts with Ruck acting as a reserve for NCAAs.
Ruck (1:43.04), Wilson (1:43.74) and Tankersley (1:44.04) went 1-2-3 in the 200 free at Pac-12s, while Nordmann was sixth (1:45.65), so their projected NCAA lineup will be Ruck, Wilson, Tankersley and Huske.
It’s also possible they use Ruck or Huske on the other four relays (like they did at Pac-12s with Ruck), but that seems unlikely.
Virginia inched past Cal to place second at NCAAs last season, some five seconds back of Stanford.
This season, the Cavaliers opted not to use Alex Walsh on the relay at ACCs, securing the conference title in 6:55.15 with Reilly Tiltmann, Aimee Canny, Claire Tuggle and Ella Nelson.
Stanford v. Virginia, 2023 Conference Championships
Tuggle didn’t earn an NCAA invite, so Virginia will have to make a change to their lineup. Either they’ll use Walsh, who took over the breaststroke duties on the medley relays at ACCs, or Maxine Parker as a replacement.
Parker was ninth in the individual 200 free at ACCs in 1:45.83, while Walsh won the event in 1:41.63. If the Cavs go with Walsh (and put Emma Weber on breaststroke in one of the medley relays), this race could be very close.
Here’s how the two teams stack up using two relay splits and two flat start times from their conference meets:
If Virginia doesn’t use Walsh, this is Stanford’s race to lose, but if they do, it’ll be a showdown.
Ultimately, UVA could likely place second without Walsh, while they may lose more than one position by taking her out of one of the medley relays, so that tips the scales in Stanford’s favor.
Parker also owns a best time of 1:44.24, which may factor into UVA’s lineup decision.
LONGHORNS, GATORS & CARDINALS
Crazy stat: Texas hasn’t won the women’s 800 free relay since 1987. Will it happen this year? More than likely it won’t, but the Longhorns boast a very strong roster and will have a good shot at the podium after taking fourth last season.
Kelly Pash, Kyla Leibel, Olivia Bray and Erica Sullivan combined for a time of 6:56.49 at Big 12s, just shy of the time Pash, Leibel, Bray and the now-graduated Evie Pfeifer swam at NCAAs last year.
Pash gives the team one of the top 200 freestylers in the country, as she comes into the individual event seeded third overall (1:42.73), while Bray (1:42.91) and Sullivan (1:44.69) had strong splits at Big 12s and Leibel split sub-1:44 at NCAAs last year.
The team that may be flying under the radar the most in this event is Florida. The Gators won the SEC title in 6:57.11, ranking them fourth in the country, but that time might be only scratching the surface of their potential.
Ekaterina Nikonova was 1:43.96 on the lead-off leg, and Talia Bates (1:43.59) and Micayla Cronk (1:43.29) were sub-1:44 from a takeover. UVA transfer Emma Weyant, however, was well off that pace in 1:46.27, but we know she has more in the tank, having split 1:44.80 last season at NCAAs for Virginia.
Punching Weyant’s NCAA split in with what the other three day in the SEC relay, Florida’s time comes out at 6:55.64, giving them the edge over Texas and the potential to challenge Virginia for second if the stars align.
The other team to keep an eye on in the fight for the podium is Louisville—they only have one swimmer sub-1:45 from a flat start this season, but clocked 6:57.51 at ACCs behind a big 1:43.10 split from Paige Hetrick.
OTHERS SUB-7 THIS SEASON
Five more teams have broken seven minutes this season and will be battling it out for the remaining spots in the top eight:
2022-23 NCAA Rankings, Women’s 800 Free Relay
- Stanford, 6:53.90
- Virginia, 6:55.15
- Texas, 6:56.49
- Florida, 6:57.11
- Louisville, 6:57.51
- Tennessee, 6:58.26
- Indiana, 6:58.44
- Cal, 6:58.62
- Georgia, 6:58.90
- NC State, 6:59.22
Tennessee boasts the top seed in the individual 200 free at NCAAs in Brooklyn Douthwright, who was 1:42.45 leading off the Vols’ SEC relay, which placed second to Florida in 6:58.26.
Tennessee will likely slot in Elle Caldow on the NCAA relay after she was left off at SECs but swam 1:45.13 to qualify in the individual 200 free at the Tennessee Last Chance Meet. A 1:44-mid split from Caldow could bump the Vols into 6:57-low territory and a likely spot in the top five.
Cal finished third at NCAAs last year but won’t have their fastest split, Izzy Ivey, this season. Mia Motekaitis has had a strong year and was 1:43.9 leading off at Pac-12s, but it’s difficult to see them having much time to drop from their 6:58.6 showing.
Georgia is another team to really watch for, as they went 6:58.90 at SECs, which came with Sloane Reinstein leading off in 1:46.25. She recently went 1:44.26 at the Bulldog Last Chance meet, so the team could drop two seconds from her alone.
Indiana is solid all the way through, led by Anna Peplowski, though may not have the high end to push into the 6:57 range.
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