2015 WOMEN’S NCAA CHAMPIONSHIPS
800 freestyle relay
- NCAA record: 6:50.18 — California – 2/25/2015
- American record: 6:50.18 — California – 2/25/2015
- U.S. Open record: 6:50.18 — California – 2/25/2015
- 2014 NCAA Champion: California – 6:54.94
Note: some teams are seeded with “aggregate” times, or seed times made up of four swimmers best times added up, rather than an actual time the team has posted this season.
The 800 free relay was the first NCAA record to go down on the women’s side this year, with the Cal Golden Bears knocking down the mark on the opening night of Pac-12s. That makes Cal, also the defending champs in the event, the heavy favorites to take home the title.
That doesn’t mean, though, that anything is a sure thing. The NCAA meet lineup is notorious for its strain on 200 freestylers – the best individuals will swim the 200 free in prelims, then again at finals, and finally one more time on the 800 free relay to close the Friday session. By the third 200 free of the day, conditioning really starts to come into effect, and “fresh” teams with swimmers who entered other races or simply didn’t make finals of the individual 200 can sneak up and steal spots from their exhausted opponents.
The good news for Cal is that, although 3 of their 4 legs will likely be coming off the individual 200, they actually left quite a bit of room to move up time-wise in their American record-setting Pac-12 performance.
Cal, of course, has the biggest weapon in the field, national 200 free record-holder Missy Franklin. Franklin split 1:40.0 on this relay last year, and swimming on a partial rest at Pac-12s, was 1:40.68. The buzz currently is that Franklin could be looking at the first ever sub-1:40 relay split, and could even break the barrier from a flat start in the open race. Never one to shy from a tough double, Franklin could conceivably cut up to a second from her Pac-12 split, dropping the full relay under 6:50.
The other guaranteed legs are freshman sensation Cierra Runge and backstroke/IM star Liz Pelton. Caroline Piehl swam on the relay at Pac-12s, but was actually outsplit by Camille Cheng from the B relay. That gives Cal’s coaching staff the ability to roll with whoever has the hot hand at NCAAs, and perhaps swim a fresh leg there if one swimmer misses finals in the open 200.
Georgia was the previous record-holder, and they left themselves a lot of room to drop while most of their top swimmers saved rest through SECs. Brittany MacLean was 3rd in the open 200 last year, and is one of the few swimmers who could challenge Franklin’s split. Jordan Mattern was actually on the old record-holding relay, and the Bulldogs also have Amber McDermott and Hali Flickinger, both of whom can drop 1:44s or better if they have to.
Stanford only graduated one leg (Maya DiRado) from last year’s 3rd-place relay, and though they come in with just the 7th-best time in the nation, their seed time, based on aggregate splits, would place them much higher, perhaps a solid third behind Cal and Georgia.
That depends heavily on Simone Manuel swimming this relay, though. A talent like Manuel is in high demand on all 5 Cardinal relays and can only swim 4. The big plus here is that Manuel could legitimately drop a 1:40-point or better after going 1:41.1 individually at Pac-12s. The other big factor is that her likely replacement would be Julia Anderson, who has been 1:45.9 this season but was just 1:47.8 at Pac-12s. Even if Anderson betters her leadoff split from a year ago (a 1:45.4) by a full second, that’s a 4+ second dropoff from having Manuel on the squad.
On the other hand, though, Stanford has some room to fall from its (aggregate) seed time, as the next-closest team to them is Indiana over two seconds back. IU has freshman Kennedy Goss splitting 1:43-low, and should also get more out of Brooklynn Snodgrass, who likely wasn’t tapered for Big Tens. But Goss and Lips will likely be on their third 200 free of the day, which could make it hard to replicate their great splits from the conference meet.
Texas A&M might be in better position. They’ll probably get more out of Sarah Henry, who was already 1:43.8 at SECs and didn’t look fully rested. Meanwhile Sarah Gibson and Meredith Oliver would need big drops to make finals in the individual 200, meaning they’re likely to be more well-rested for the relay.
The Aggies lead a bunch of teams hovering right around the 7-minute barrier. Florida was just .08 behind A&M at SECs, and Virginia went 7:00.93 to win ACCs and have rising star Leah Smith to build around.
Florida’s got a well-rounded group of 200 freestylers and shouldn’t have a particularly weak leg to overcome. Their push will be to find a truly elite split to match the top programs, perhaps if Ashlee Linn (already a pretty quick 1:43.7 at SECs) can find a little more speed.
The bad news for SEC programs is that this seems to be one event where the switch from the SEC’s 5-day meet order to the NCAA’s condensed, 3-day event lineup really takes its toll. Every SEC team in the top 16 last year added time from their seed, and none of them came within even two seconds of their seed time.
One of the wild cards is USC, who finished 4th last year but graduated Stina Gardell and lost Jasmine Tosky to a surprise retirement. Sophomore Chelsea Chenault is one of the best in the business, though, and should be a real cornerstone for the Trojan relay.
The other returning top-8 relay is Minnesota, and the Golden Gophers didn’t graduate a single leg from their school record-breaking 2014 relay. That team nearly broke 7:00 at Big Tens last year but added time at NCAAs. They were almost two seconds slower at conference this year compared to last, but will hope they timed this relay to peak at NCAAs this year instead of in the conference round. They’ve got Canadian standout Jessica Plant as well as former US Open champ Kiera Janzen.
It seems like the the two other teams really in the mix based on seeds are Michigan and North Carolina. Michigan is a fast-rising team that could feature 3 freshmen (Gillian Ryan, Gabby DeLoof and Clara Smiddy). The Wolverines might be a year or two away from a really high finish in this event, but there’s so much talent on that squad that a big swim isn’t out of the question. UNC is on the other end of the spectrum with a more veteran roster that returns 3 of 4 legs from the 10th place relay a year ago.
Top 8 Picks
Note: Times marked “A” are the seed times that we couldn’t actually find the team posting this year. They are likely aggregate times made up of each swimmers best individual 200, an option coaches have when entering this relay.
Dark horse: Arizona Wildcats. Arizona was just 15th last year, but swam without Bonnie Brandon, who was sick for all of NCAAs. With a healthy Brandon back, the Wildcats took third behind Cal and Stanford at Pac-12s, and probably has some room to move up from their seed time. Putting together four consistent legs will be the biggest concern, but if Elizabeth Pepper and the freshman Cameron McHugh come through with hold-their-own type splits, this relay could surprise.