2015 WOMEN’S NCAA CHAMPIONSHIPS
- NCAA Record: 4:31.90 — Cierra Runge (Cal) — 2/26/15
- American record: 4:26.58 — Kathleen Ledecky (PV-Unattached) — 2/06/15
- U.S. Open record: 4:26.58 — Kathleen Ledecky (PV-Unattached) — 2/06/15
- 2014 NCAA Champion: Brittany Maclean, Georgia (4:32.53)
Last year, Georgia’s Brittany Maclean pulled out a monster final 50 yards to touch out Missy Franklin for the 500 free title along with the NCAA record in the event. Both were actually under the old record of 4:32.71 set by Allison Schmitt, but it was the Bulldog who came through with the win and the record, the first individual title (but certainly not last) for Georgia on their 2013-14 NCAA title run.
This year, however, Maclean’s record went down in Federal Way, as Cal freshman Cierra Runge charged to a 4:31.90 finish at the Pac-12 Championships for the conference title. The highly touted recruit, one who has already had international success (second place behind a certain Katie Ledecky at the 2014 Pan Pacs in the 400 free), had a fantastic swim for the Golden Bears, who are definitely happy that they can take Missy out of the 500 to focus on other events.
Not to be forgotten is sophomore Leah Smith of Virginia, who threw down a 4:33.75 in the B final in this event at NCAAs last year to win it by almost five seconds, a time that would’ve been third in the A final. She’s been 4:32.61 this season (right where Maclean was last year), while Maclean hasn’t yet broken 4:36. The Bulldog junior looked off at SECs, as she could only muster a 4:41.62 for fourth place after winning the event in 4:34.63 last year.
Even assuming she shows up big at NCAAs, Smith and Runge are going to be the ones to chase. The two have had international experience, and while this will be Runge’s first NCAA rodeo, the freshman and NCAA record holder has been under the spotlight before. Smith, who couldn’t make the A final last year, should be in this year, and the sophomore might be able to put on a show with swimmers like Runge to pace her.
It’s surely not the first rodeo for Bulldog senior Amber McDermott, who has placed top three in this event since freshman year. She progressed from 4:36.10 her freshman year (3rd place), to 4:34.86 her sophomore year (2nd place), down to 4:33.97 her junior year (3rd place). If anybody’s going to take down Runge, Smith, or Maclean (or all of them), it’ll probably be McDermott. She won SECs with a time of 4:35.19, which is just .19 off of her 2014 NCAA seed time, and this puts her as the 3rd seed ahead of Maclean.
Of the four remaining top-eight seeds, two come into the NCAA Championships with recent best times. #5 seed Jessica Thielmann (Florida) swam a 4:36.62 for a lifetime best at SECS, earning her a 2nd place finish. Indiana freshman Kennedy Goss, a Canada native, blasted a 4:37.83 for the Big Ten title, which slots her as the 8th seed. The other two top-eight seeds who we haven’t yet talked about are 6th ranked USC sophomore Chelsea Chenault (4:37.55) along with 7th ranked Michigan freshman Gillian Ryan (4:37.78). Both have best times in the 4:36 range, but were just off their marks this year. Chenault just missed the A final in the 200 free and was in the middle of the 500 free B final last year, but she’s looked very good this year having posted the fastest 1000 free time in the country by almost four seconds (9:33.87). Ryan was a very highly touted recruit, but hasn’t hit a best time in yards since the 2012-13 season.
While the top four seem pretty safe for the A final (presuming Maclean shows up), there are plenty of sub-4:40 entries right behind the bottom four that could easily knock one or more out of the top. This should be a great race with the NCAA record being possibly threatened by more than one swimmer.
TOP 8 PREDICTIONS
Dark horse: Bonnie Brandon (Arizona). The junior comes in as the 12 seed (4:38.87), and while she struggled with illness at last year’s champs, note that she has a best time of 4:35.43 from last year’s Texas Invite, a mid season taper meet. She isn’t swimming the 200 back this year, which leads us to believe she’s focusing on rocking some distance swims. Look out for this Wildcat to possibly shake things up in the top 8.