Texas A&M’s Breeja Larson, with what seemed to be relative ease, crushed the American, NCAA, and U.S. Open Records in both the 100 and 200 breaststrokes mid-season at the Phill Hansel Invitational. She is built unbelievably in a physical sense; if you could play god and design a prototypical women’s breaststroker from scratch, the result would probably be Breeja Larson.
With her name stamped on both of those records already, she should be a lock to sweep the NCAA titles, right? Not so fast.
Of course, we’re going to make the safe choice and pick her, but that doesn’t mean she’s “unbeatable”. Consider where the rest of the country has come to follow her in their breaststroking. Going into last season, only two swimmers at any level had been better than 2:06 in the 200 breast. In the two years since, without even hitting this year’s championship meet, five have done it: Larson, Caitlin Leverenz, Laura Sogar, Haley Spencer, and even a freshman Annie Zhu.
This season eight swimmers have been under 59 seconds in the 100 breast already. That’s a full A-finals-worth of 57’s and 58’s, and we haven’t hit nationals yet. Swimmers from schools not seen as big powers are going 59 lows. Nikki Daniels from Arkansas, Emily Fogle from Purdue. Last year, a 59-low would’ve been a contender for a top three finish. Breeja and Kasey Carlson were the only two last year under 59 seconds.
The whole of the country has been captivated by where these women’s breaststrokes have gone this year, as rightfully they should be. So, needless to say, this race is far from a runaway.
Where Breeja might get in trouble is in the 200. Anybody who’s ever watched Breeja swim knows that the key to her races are the turns. She doesn’t have the quickest hands in the world (whether by design or by her nature), and she’s very long in her strokes. The result is that she has to start lining up her turns three strokes out – which in some cases is just about right after coming up for the pullout. In a 100, she can usually settle in enough to recover from a bad turn or two, in the 200 it seems to give her more issues.
In the 100, Tennessee sophomore Molly Hannis fought admirably to push Larson at the SEC Championships. She even led halfway. Last year, she added quite a bit at NCAA’s, so she’ll have to avoid that trap this year.
Larson isn’t the only international-level swimmer in this field; Texas’ Laura Sogar is having the season-of-her-life after racing at the Short Course World Championships, and Auburn’s Micah Lawrence was a 200 breaststroke Olympian who is looking to end a roller-coaster college career on a high note. Auburn has one of the deepest breaststroke groups in the country, with four swimmers under a minute this season already. USC’s Andrea Kropp was also on the Short Course Worlds team, and was just one spot away from qualifying for the Olympics in the 200.
Columbia’s Katie Meili is the swimmer in the 100 you probably haven’t heard of but will probably final. Yes, she broke 59 seconds for the first time at Ivy’s and was probably tapered. Remember that coming into last year’s meet, though, that she broke a minute for the first time at Ivy’s, and still dropped a little bit more at NCAA’s.
Don’t forget the other mid-major wonder Emily McClellan, either (there’s always a lot of great mid-major breaststrokers). Last season, she added quite a bit from her seed at NCAA’s. This year, she hasn’t rested since a mid-season 59.4.
The 200 is an even tougher pick than the 100. There’s going to be some really good swimmers left in the B-Final, especially with a pair of great Canadian freshmen Kierra Smith at Minnesota and Ashley McGregor from Texas A&M. Smith has said in an interview that her focus this year was Canada’s World Championship Trials
Here’s our picks (with best times this season):
1. Breeja Larson, Texas A&M, 57.43
2. Kasey Carlson, USC, 58.92
3. Laura Sogar, Texas, 58.32
4. Katie Meili, Columbia, 58.44
5. Sarah Haase, Stanford, 59.39
6. Emma Reaney, Notre Dame, 58.84
7. Ellyn Baumgardner, Arizona, 58.86
8. Emily McClellan, Wisconsin-Milwaukee, 59.44
Darkhorse: Gretchen Jaques, Texas, 59.64 – Don’t be surprised if Texas’ Gretchen Jaques can jump up and make a top 5 finish. She’s swum incredibly well this year; the hangup might be that she’s swimming the 100 fly earlier in the same session.
1. Breeja Larson, Texas A&M, 2:04.48
2. Caitlin Leverenz, Cal, 2:06.46
3. Laura Sogar, Texas, 2:05.04
4. Micah Lawrence, Auburn, 2:08.23
5. Annie Zhu, Georgia, 2:05.99
6. Haley Spencer, Minnesota, 2:05.98
7. Kierra Smith, Minnesota, 2:08.11
8. Stina Gardell, USC, 2:08.22
Darkhorse: Katie Olsen, Stanford, 2:09.91 – Stanford sophomore Katie Olsen missed the first two-thirds of her freshman year. This season, she’s been on her game all year, and was clearly untapered for Pac-12’s. There’s a chance that she’ll dip down to a 2:07 or so and make her way into the top 8.