2023 NCAA WOMEN’S SWIMMING AND DIVING CHAMPIONSHIPS
How do you define dominance in the NCAA?
Katie Ledecky in the 1650 free might come to mind. You might also think of Caeleb Dressel in the 50 free, Lilly King in the 100 breast, or Natalie Coughlin back then in the 100 fly and 100 back. But this year, another swimmer has established themselves as the ruler of their event, and that’s Kate Douglass in the 200 breast.
In less than a year, Douglass has broken the US Open and American record three different times in the 200 breast. She first took down Lilly King’s old record time of 2:02.90 to go 2:02.19 at 2022 NCAAs, proceeded to swim a 2:01.87 at the 2022 Tennessee midseason invite, and then went 2:01.43 in a time trial at the 2023 Cavalier Invite. Now, she’s over a second faster than any other woman in history, has swam four out of the seven fastest performances ever in the event, and her entry time at NCAAs is nearly three seconds faster than the season-best of Lydia Jacoby, the second seed in the event.
So in other words, it’s not a matter of whether Douglass will win the 200 breast at NCAAs, because we all know she’s going to. It’s a matter of how she’ll do it.
So how much faster can Douglass get at NCAAs? Given that she hasn’t swum the 200 breast at a championship meet this year, it’s reasonable to assume that she’ll be much faster than her swims from earlier on in the season. There are talks of a sub-2:00 200 breast, which is probably a stretch, but it’s certainly possible. For Douglass to break the two-minute barrier, she’ll have to drop at least 1.44 seconds off her current time, which is less than the 2.05 seconds Kevin Cordes dropped at 2013 NCAAs to become the first swimmer sub-1:50 in the men’s 200 breast. But that being said, even if she doesn’t lower her record or only breaks it by a small amount, her performances this year already are nothing short of historic.
More Virginia And Texas
In addition to Douglass, the other top contenders in this race primarily come from the top two teams in the NCAA—Virginia and Texas. And that brings us to who we think will finish second in this race: Texas freshman Lydia Jacoby.
Despite coming into college as an Olympic gold medalist, Jacoby’s abilities in the short course pool were doubted, as her yards times were nowhere near the level of her meters times. However, she has really come into her own in yards during her first college season, dropping from a best time of 2:08.61 to 2:04.32 and upsetting her teammate Anna Elendt to win at Big 12s. She comes into NCAAs now as the second seed, and the only swimmer aside from Douglass who has been sub-2:05 this season.
Even though Jacoby’s season-best is faster than Elendt’s, Elendt has the faster lifetime best. Elendt’s NCAA progression is essentially happening a year ahead of Jacoby’s—last year, she had her breakout season, dropping from a 2:06.04 to a best time of 2:03.93 and eventually finishing second at 2022 NCAAs in a time of 2:04.31. And while she’s “only” been 2:05.50 and is seeded down in fifth, there’s no question that she’s an easy contender for top three in this race.
Then there’s Ella Nelson, the 2021 NCAA runner-up and 2022 fourth-place finisher. She’s seeded ninth which is lower than where she should be, as she swam a 2:04.79 at ACCs (which would have been seeded third) but eventually got DQed for a false start. If we’re talking about Virginia we should also bring up Anna Keating, who’s seeded 15th with a time of 2:07.91. Though Keating is a few seconds off from the top contenders, she’s a returning ‘A’ finalist who has been as fast as 2:06.89 before, so if she hits her taper well (which most Virginia swimmers do) she could be in the conversation for top eight again.
We picked Jacoby to finish second over the field largely because of the “clutch” factor. While both Elendt and Nelson either added from prelims to finals or from conferences to NCAAs last year, Jacoby is known for performing the best when it counts, such as when she charged to a surprise 100 breast Olympic gold medal back in 2021 despite the fact that pre-race favorites Lilly King and Tatjana Schoenmaker had gone faster than Jacoby’s time at other points in the season. However, Elendt and Nelson shouldn’t be counted out—Nelson could be fueled by her ACCs DQ and do damage in the last race of her senior year, while Elendt being slower at Big 12s this year compared to last year might mean that she has more in the tank come time for NCAAs.
The Race To ‘A’ Final
In total, there’s 13 different swimmers this season who have been faster than last year’s NCAA ‘A’ finaling time of 2:07.05. So in this crowded field of talent, the swimmers who will end up finishing top 8 will be the ones who don’t manage to add substantial amounts of time from conferences.
One swimmer who we believe will pull off the conferences to NCAA drop is Tennessee’s Mona McSharry. Last season wasn’t her best year in the 200 breast, as her season-best of 2:07.24 was over two seconds slower than her personal best of 2:05.01 and she failed to make it back in the event at NCAAs. However, she’s seen a rebound this year, clocking a time of 2:05.11 to win SECs and earn herself the third seed. McSharry is one of the few Tennessee swimmers who has historically improved from SECs to NCAAs, as she set personal bests in the 100/200 breast at 2021 NCAAs and in the 100 breast at 2022 NCAAs. If she can do the same this year and get into the 2:04-range, she could join Jacoby, Elendt, and Nelson in the conversation for top three.
Zoie Hartman had an off year last season, failing to hit personal bests in all of her events. However, she’s been on an upward trajectory this season, bettering her 2021-22 season-best of 2:06.27 to go 2:05.48 and finish second behind McSharry at SECs. At her last two NCAAs, she added significant time from conferences to NCAAs in both breaststroke events (in 2022, she went 2:06.27 at SECs and 2:07.71 at NCAAs) but she’s been fast enough this year to the point where even if she adds a second she could still ‘A’ final. The same goes for Avery Wiseman, who was third at SECs in a time of 2:05.85 and currently sits as the eighth seed. She was over a second slower than her best time of 2:05.46 at NCAAs last year but still finished sixth overall, and looks to retain her position as an ‘A’ finalist this year.
Let’s also look to the Duke duo of Sarah Foley and Kaelyn Gridley. Foley was a bit slower than her her season-best at ACCs and finished fourth, but how much she’s improved every season shouldn’t be ignored (though she was off her 200 breast best at NCAAs, she set PBs in the 200/400 IM races at the same meet). At NCAAs last year, she missed the ‘A’ final, but swam a best time of 2:05.78 in the ‘B’ final that would have placed fifth in the ‘A’ final. This year, she’s seeded 10th with a time of 2:06.61 from midseasons, but expect her to have a big swim at NCAAs.
12th-seed Gridley came into the 2022-23 season as the fastest 200 breaststroker in the freshman class. Although she’s been dethroned by Jacoby in that regard, she still lived up to her potential this season, improving from a 2:08.30 to a 2:06.74 and earning a runner-up finish at ACCs (with Nelson’s DQ in mind). It’s unclear how she’s going to handle her first-ever ACCs to NCAAs transition—this was something that Foley had struggled with as a freshman but saw massive improvements in as a sophomore. But if Gridley manages NCAAs well, she is most certainly in the ‘A’ final conversation.
Kaitlyn Dobler has always performed well in the 100 breast at NCAAs, finishing second in 2021 and winning the title in 2022. However, her 200 breast has always seemed to lag behind—she swam a 2:06.53 at 2021 Pac-12s just to go 2:12.67 at NCAAs, and she went from 2:06.65 to 2:10.67 in 2022. This season, she’s dropped nearly a second in her 200 breast, clocking a 2:05.66 to win Pac-12s. She’s seeded seventh, but there are major question marks surrounding whether she’s going to finish as high as she’s seeded.
That being said, Dobler had to face extenuating circumstances at her last two NCAAs, as 2021 marked her first championship meet in a COVID-ridden season, and she had been out for two weeks with mono prior to 2022 NCAAs. Without any external factors interfering with her swimming this season, she could see a better performance in the 200 breast.
The last returning finalist who we haven’t mentioned yet is Gillian Davey, who finished fifth at NCAAs last year with a time of 2:06.03 and has a personal best of 2:05.59. She’s only been as fast as 2:08.19 this year, and is seeded all the way down in 17th.
Dark Horse: Christie Chue, Florida International University — As one of the few returning mid-major scorers in the NCAA, Chue’s presence in the 200 breast might be overlooked. However, she saw substantial improvements in her first season swimming yards last year, clocking a 2:08.66 at midseason invites and going 2:07.99 to make the ‘B’ final at NCAAs. She fared very well last season in terms of saving her best swims for the end of the season, and with more yards experience under her belt, she could surprise a few people at NCAAs. Right now, she’s seeded 23rd with her 2:08.73 from conferences, which puts her right outside the scoring range.