2015 W. NCAA Picks: Missy chasing American 200 free history with Simone in tow

2015 WOMEN’S NCAA CHAMPIONSHIPS

200 freestyle

  • NCAA record: 1:40.31 — Missy Franklin (California) – 3/21/2014
  • American record: 1:40.31 — Missy Franklin (California) – 3/21/2014
  • U.S. Open record: 1:40.31 — Missy Franklin (California) – 3/21/2014
  • 2014 NCAA Champion: Missy Franklin (California) – 1:40.31

The 200 free was perhaps the swim of the 2014 NCAA Championships, so it’s saying something to suggest that the 2015 edition of the race could turn out to be even better.

In 2014, Cal’s Missy Franklin, a day after getting run down by Georgia’s Brittany MacLean for the 500 free title, got her sweet revenge with a signature swim for the ages. Franklin blasted down the American, US Open and NCAA records with a 1:40.31 that brought the entire pool area to an immediate standing ovation.

Franklin is back for her second – and likely final – NCAA season, and perhaps the headline swim of the entire meet will be her quest for the first-ever sub-1:40 swim in the 200 freestyle.

What you might not have expected heading into this season is that Franklin might not be alone in the 1:39s. She was pushed right down to the finish at last week’s Pac-12s by Stanford freshman Simone Manuel, who is mostly known for her 50/100 free prowess but found a way to extend her immense freestyle talent over 200 yards to put up the 3rd-fastest swim in history.

Neither Franklin or Manuel were tapered for those swims (both went 1:41-low), begging the question of just how fast they can go at NCAAs.

And Manuel isn’t the only freshman making waves in this event. Franklin’s Cal teammate Cierra Runge put up the nation’s third-fastest time leading off the American record-breaking 800 free relay. Though Runge probably doesn’t have the speed to challenge Franklin or Manuel, the current NCAA record-holder in the 500 free might have the best endurance of this field.

The big unknown at this point is what we’ll see from MacLean, who was third in this event a year ago. MacLean didn’t show too much of her hand at the SEC Championships, and comes in seeded just 24th. But don’t expect that number to hold – MacLean will almost-certainly be far faster with a full taper at nationals, and based on her closing split from 2014 (an insane 25.86 over the final 50 yards), you won’t be safe counting her out of the race until the clock officially stops ticking.

The Pac-12 is set up to do very well in this event, with the top 5 incoming seeds in the 200 free all coming from the western-based conference. That includes a pair of sophomores we haven’t mentioned yet: USC’s Chelsea Chenault and Stanford’s Lia Neal. Those two dueled for the B final win last season, with Neal topping Chenault and both women putting up times that would have beaten swimmers in the A final. Expect both to find their prelims speed this year and jump into a hugely-talented championship heat.

That influx of talent is going to make things tough on several of last year’s A finalists if they want to maintain their slots in the featured heat. Texas A&M’s Lili Ibanez is one name who will need a huge season drop to retain her spot in the championship final. Ibanez was 6th last year, but really hasn’t looked like herself yet this year in the short course pool. The Aggie comes in seeded 38th, just two spots away from missing the cut line.

Penn State’s Alyson Ackman was one spot ahead of Ibanez in fifth last year, but finds herself seeded just 16th this season. Ackman lost the Big Ten 200 free title for the first time in her career last month, but it’s safe to say the Canadian will find that well worth it if saving a rest for NCAAs puts her up into the top tier of swimmers. The same could be said for Jordan Mattern of Georgia, who was 8th last year but sits 14th incoming this season, or Cal’s Caroline Piehl, who was 7th in 2014 but sits 15th currently.

Piehl has the added pressure of trying to swim her way back onto Cal’s 800 free relay. The junior was a part of the American record-breaking relay at Pac-12s, but was outsplit by Camille Cheng from the B final. With Franklin, Runge and Liz Pelton all but locked in, the final relay spot may be decided by the prelim 200 free times from Piehl and Cheng.

We’ve gone too far in this story without mentioning Virginia’s Leah Smith, who is one of the brightest distance free talents in the nation right now. Smith is a contender for the 500 free title, and has top-4 potential in this shorter race as well after dominating the ACC Championships.

Keep an eye on Big Ten champ Kennedy Goss, a freshman from Indiana, though it’s harder to figure out if she was fully rested for her conference meet. Arizona’s Bonnie Brandon was battling an illness that hampered her 2014 NCAA meet, but she’s a big-time talent looking for a bounce-back season. Also keep an eye on North Carolina’s Danielle Siverling, a former ACC champ who could have some more speed left in the tank after a so-so conference meet.

One more wrinkle: perhaps the biggest quirk of the NCAA event lineup is the fact that the individual 200 free happens on the same day as the 800 free relay. With nearly all the top 200 freestylers leading their teams’ 800 free relays, that lineup requires up to 3 fast 200 freestyles on the same day. That major workload can cause performances to really ebb and flow from prelims to finals, which should make this event all the more unpredictable up and down the line.

Top 8 Picks

Pick Name Team Season-best Lifetime-best
1 Missy Franklin California 1:41.09 1:40.31
2 Simone Manuel Stanford 1:41.15 1:41.15
3 Cierra Runge California 1:42.73 1:42.73
4 Brittany MacLean Georgia 1:45.53 1:43.20
5 Alyson Ackman Penn State 1:44.99 1:43.59
6 Lia Neal Stanford 1:43.88 1:43.62
7 Chelsea Chenault Southern Cal 1:43.17 1:43.17
8 Leah Smith Virginia 1:43.88 1:43.88

Dark horse: Jessica Plant, Minnesota – Plant was a B finalist a year ago and has nearly always put up her fastest swims of the year at the NCAA Championships. She’ll need a decent drop from her best to earn a lane in that loaded A final, but the Canadian senior could be a candidate for the kind of breakthrough swim that would put her in elite company at NCAAs.

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About Jared Anderson

Jared Anderson

Jared Anderson just can’t stay away from the pool. A competitive career of almost two decades wasn’t enough for this Minnesotan, who continues to get his daily chlorine fix. A lifelong lover of writing, Jared now combines the two passions as Senior Reporter for SwimSwam.com, covering swimming at every level. He’s an …

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