2023 W. NCAA Previews: Berkoff Battles Walsh, Curzan In Pursuit of 100 Back Three-Peat


We’ll be treated to a rematch in the 100 backstroke at the 2023 Women’s NCAA Championships, as NC State’s Katharine Berkoff renews acquaintances with Virginia’s Gretchen Walsh.

Last year, they became the top two performers of all-time in the event; Berkoff exploded to win the title in American, U.S. Open, and NCAA record fashion with a 48.74, becoming the first woman in history to break 49 seconds. Walsh also touched under the previous record, becoming the second fastest performer in history in 49.00–incredibly close to breaking the barrier herself.

Gretchen Walsh (photo: Jack Spitser)

It’s difficult to say which of the two is the ‘favorite’ here. Walsh has been spectacular throughout the season, which culminated in her breaking the American Record in the 50 free at ACCs (20.83). She’s the top seed, with a season-best of 49.25. Berkoff, on the other hand, has played her cards a bit closer to the vest this season. She’s the second seed in 49.45 and is gunning for a third straight national title in the event.

The two also didn’t go head-to-head in the individual 100 back at ACCs (Walsh didn’t swim it), though both led off the 400 medley relay. There, Walsh got the better of Berkoff by about a half-second. Whatever order they finish in at NCAAs, we wouldn’t count on the gap being that wide. Instead, we’ll be keeping an eye on both the American Record and whether or not there will be another swimmer under the 49-second barrier. This matchup isn’t going anywhere either–Berkoff confirmed her plans to use her fifth-year of eligibility at NC State, which means that if their lineups stay the same, it’ll be a best two-out-of-three for the NCAA title.

Though Berkoff and Walsh are the top two, don’t forget Stanford’s freshman phenom Claire Curzan, who is certainly fast enough to break up the ACC party. At PAC-12s, she lowered her own 17-18 National Age Group record in 49.46. That shaved six-hundredths off her previous best of 49.52 and moved her into third in the NCAA this season, which is the spot she holds down on the psych sheet. Curzan is taking on the 100 fly/100 back double at NCAAs this year. The 100 fly is the most anticipated race of the meet and will be an absolute nail-biter. Curzan has proven herself capable of managing both doubles and a busy schedule, but it is something to keep in mind, especially as neither of her two biggest competitors–Berkoff and Walsh–is doing a double.

Familiar Faces

Isabelle Stadden (photo: Jack Spitser)

Unlike some other events at these championships, the 100 back has a lot of familiar faces. Seven swimmers return from the 2022 ‘A’ final, as only Regan Smith (who finished third) has departed the NCAA. And only three swimmers from the 2021 ‘A’ final aren’t racing: Izzy Ivey, Julia Cook, and Caroline Gmelich. There are many of the same names returning, but will any of them be capable of disrupting the trio at the top of the psych sheet?

Back for a fifth-year, Rhyan White just completed a four-peat in the 100 backstroke at SECs. Outside of the top three contenders, she has the fastest personal best in the field at 50.02. This is her last NCAA meet, and she’ll certainly be aiming to become the next swimmer to break the 50-second barrier. With a season-best of 50.84, she’ll need a big drop for that to happen. She’s one of four swimmers seeded in the 50-high range, setting up for a tight race not just for the trophies, but also just to grab a lane for the final.

Like White, Phoebe Bacon has found most of her international success in the long-course 200 back. After finishing third in 2021, Bacon missed the ‘A’ final in 2022 by eight one-hundredths and ended up winning the consolation final in 50.83. She holds a lifetime best of 50.39 and is about a second off that this season at 51.40. To make it back into the ‘A’ final, she can’t wait for finals to swim a season-best time. It’s certainly possible for her though–she’s known for her big-time drops from Big Tens to NCAAs. In 2021, she did drop almost a second from her Big Tens time, going from 51.32 to 50.39.

Isabelle Stadden finished second to Curzan at the 2023 PAC-12 Championships in a lifetime best 50.79. That shaves two-hundredths off the time she swam both at the 2022 NCAAs and this season’s Minnesota Invitational. Stadden will challenge more for the top half of the podium in the 200 backstroke, but this is her first full taper with Dave Durden, and the Cal men have gained a reputation for dropping from seed at NCAAs.

Olivia Bray (photo: Jack Spitser)

Meanwhile, Texas’ Olivia Bray took eighth last year on the back end of a 100 fly/100 back double. She won’t take on that double this year as she’s slated to race the 500 free on Day 2 instead of the 100 fly. The junior has made improvements in a variety of events this year, though her lifetime best of 50.69 from the 2022 NCAA prelims still stands in this event. Without the 100 fly to worry about ahead of this event, she’s got a great shot at hitting another lifetime best this season and improving her placement.

From a team standings perspective, Bray will need to finish as high as possible as there’s a good chance there will be two Virginia swimmers in the ‘A’ final: Walsh and Reilly Tiltmann. They combined for 31 points last year, finishing second and fifth, respectively. Tiltmann finished second to Berkoff at ACCs in 51.20, about three-tenths off her season-best time of 50.90 from the Cavalier Invitational.

Senior Grace Countie has been a driving force in the pool for the Tar Heels at this meet the last few seasons. She finished seventh in 2021, and moved up to sixth in 2022. In both years, she improved on her time from ACCs. She’s seeded 15th heading into the meet, with a season-best of 51.70, which is slower than her seed times the last two years. With the improvements that some underclassmen have made this season (more on them in a moment), Countie might find it more challenging than ever to get back into the ‘A’ final.

Underclassmen Rising

Josephine Fuller (photo: Jack Spitser)

In addition to Curzan and Stadden, there’s a whole slew of swimmers who have already swum personal bests this season. Josephine Fuller, Eboni McCarty, Nyah Funderburke, and Kennedy Noble are four, all underclassmen, and are capable of shaking things up at NCAAs this year.

Tennessee sophomore Josephine Fuller leads the quartet as the eighth seed. She’s cut three-quarters of a second off her best time this season, going from 52.00 at 2022 SECs to 51.26 in 2023. Last season, it took 51.19 to make the NCAA ‘A’ final. That means that all four of these swimmers will need to swim another best to make the championship heat. For all four that’s possible, and Fuller will have the home pool advantage.

Then there’s Eboni McCarty, who has dropped even more time than Fuller, taking a full 1.57 seconds off her lifetime best this season. She’s lowered it all the way from a 52.92 to the 51.35 she swam for third at SECs. That 52.92 earned her 41st at the 2022 NCAAs, and now she comes into the meet as the ninth seed. It’s quite an improvement for the Georgia sophomore, who looks poised to have a second swim at NCAAs for the first time in her career.

After Big Tens, we reported on Nyah Funderburke‘s incredible trajectory from being left off the conference championship scoring roster last year to winning the 100 back title as a sophomore. Last year, she was the first alternate in this event. Now, she comes in as the 11th seed with a personal best of 51.44 and like McCarty, is on the precipice of her first NCAA finals swim. Funderburke told us that one of her goals is to get under 51 in the 100 back, which would certainly secure her a second swim.

Finally, freshman Kennedy Noble looks to make an immediate impact on the score sheet in her first year for the Wolfpack. She’s improved her 100 back time by over a half-second, swimming a 51.46 at ACCs. Based on the 51.19 it took to make the ‘A’ final last year and the retained depth in the event, she and Funderburke have the most work to do  of these four in terms of making it back for the championship heat. However, both are comfortably inside the 51.83 it took to make last year’s ‘B’ final.


Dark Horse: Meredith Rees (Missouri) — Now a senior, Rees has been a staple in the 100 backstroke ‘B’ final for the last two seasons. Is this the moment where she finally breaks through for the ‘A’ final? Like the four underclassmen we mentioned, Rees comes into the meet riding the momentum of a lifetime best; she swam 51.59 for fourth at SECs. She’s finished 14th and 16th before and this could be the year she climbs further up the standings. 

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