The 200 breast has been one of the most consistently entertaining races over the last five years or so in the women’s NCAA with the title up for grabs between big names seemingly every year.
2014 looks to be no different with the marquee matchup in Minneapolis pitting American record-holder Emma Reaney of Notre Dame against the woman whose record she broke just a few weeks ago, Texas A&M’s Breeja Larson.
That battle should be outstanding. As phenomenal as Larson has been in the event, she’s surprisingly never won an NCAA title in it, and this will be her final shot at the gold medal. Second as a freshman and a sophomore, Larson took third last year after setting an American record in November; now with her record broken, she’ll be on the warpath to take it back and go out with a win in what will be the final individual swim of her incredible collegiate career.
In the other corner, you’ve got top seeded Reaney, who’s been providing breakout swim after breakout swim over the past 12 months, rising into the elite ranks with a vengeance. Back in early December, she put up an NCAA-leading 2:05.85 in Iowa and held that spot for the next two months, right up until conference meet season. Then, when most eyes were on Larson at the SEC Championships, watching to see if she could better her American record, Reaney grabbed the nation’s collective attention by shattering Larson’s record herself at the ACC meet just a few states away.
It’s also worth noting that Reaney had an excellent NCAA meet a year ago, getting faster with each swim and rising to 5th place, even beating then-defending champ Caitlin Leverenz.
Now the Larson and Reaney meet head to head, and the odds would say the American record will very likely go down again. But the scary part is that this might not just be a two-person shootout.
The three-seed is Larson’s SEC rival Melanie Margalis of Georgia, who was 2:06.23 in finishing second behind Larson at SECs. Margalis has had a brilliant senior year, and is a big reason why the Bulldogs appear the favorites to repeat as NCAA champions despite some big-name graduations.
That time for Margalis was a lifetime-best by over two full seconds, so it might be fair to wonder if she has much more time to drop come NCAAs. To play devil’s advocate, though, here’s two reasons she might be even more dangerous come the national championships:
- Momentum or motivation: Margalis is right in the thick of things for NCAA titles in both IM events on the first two days of the meet. That could set up perfectly for her no matter how they turn out – if she wins one or both titles, she’ll be riding a huge surge of momentum and confidence, and don’t underestimate the impact of a little swagger in a sport where the mental game is so huge. On the other hand, losing both IMs would leave Margalis, a senior, with one more shot in her college career to go after a national championship, and there’s no better motivation than that. For an example, look no further than last year’s champ Laura Sogar.
- The team battle: if Georgia is in the thick of things for the team trophy, don’t be surprised to see their senior leader step up in a big way in one of the meet’s final events. Great swimmers rise to big things in big moments, and Margalis might have a shot to do just that Saturday night.
And those three aren’t the only factors by any means. Minnesota sophomore Kierra Smith put up a 2:06.43 way back in November; that led the NCAA then and still sits 4th in the nation. She won both Big Ten breaststroke events on what didn’t appear to be a full rest and went basically unchallenged in the 200. Swimming in her home pool, look for Smith to cut some serious time when challenged – she’s now spent two years training with former NCAA champ Haley Spencer, and her closing speed looks as dangerous as Spencer’s was when she won the title back in 2011.
Speaking of unchallenged conference winners, how about Milwaukee’s Emily McClellan? The senior won the Horizon League title by an astounding 7 seconds and clearly had the luxury to swim through her conference championship in preparation for the NCAA meet. She got within a half-second of Reaney in that big-time December swim at the Iowa Invitational, and after winning U.S. Open and representing the U.S. at World University Games this summer, she’s certainly experienced in swimming fast on a big stage.
Then there’s Georgia’s Annie Zhu, who in all likelihood might be a bigger threat in this race than her teammate Margalis. Zhu was 4th in this race last year as a freshman even without swimming as fast as she did at SECs. In her sophomore year, she appears to have placed her focus more on NCAAs, and could have enough left in the tank to make a serious run next weekend.
Other high seeds include Tennessee’s Molly Hannis, who had a huge breakout season a year ago, A&M’s Ashley McGregor, a returning A finalist as a sophomore and ACC runner-up Laura Simon, the highest-seeded freshman in the field. One big name with a low seed is USC junior Andrea Kropp, who sits at #22 on the psych sheet. Kropp took seventh last year, so consider her a much more probable candidate for an A-final slot than her seed would suggest.
Top 8 Picks with Seed Times:
1. Breeja Larson, Texas A&M – 2:04.92
2. Emma Reaney, Notre Dame – 2:04.34
3. Kierra Smith, Minnesota – 2:06.43
4. Annie Zhu, Georgia – 2:07.01
5. Emily McClellan, UW-Milwaukee – 2:06.78
6. Melanie Margalis, Georgia – 2:06.23
7. Andrea Kropp, USC – 2:09.82
8. Ashley McGregor, Texas A&M – 2:07.38
Darkhorse(s): The Pac-12 is always a candidate for “dark horse” types, given the conference’s tendency to save full rest for NCAAs with so many athletes. A very deep sleeper pick is the last swimmer invited in the event, Cal’s Marina Garcia. She’s had some well-documented struggles adapting to college swimming’s format this season, but it’s dangerous to write off a talent that made a championship final at Worlds and medaled at European Championships. If Garcia turns out to be a major taper swimmer, the lingering questions about her transition to short-course yards could evaporate in a hurry.