2015 Women’s NCAA Picks: The Best Women’s 1650 Field in Years

The distance events are quickly gaining depth in the NCAA with no clear favorite heading into the meet in the 1650 freestyle. There are plenty of top competitors. Defending champion Brittany MacLean, Cal freshman Cierra Runge, MacLean’s teammate Amber McDermott, and Virginia’s Leah Smith are just a few names that have the potential to win it all on the biggest stage in collegiate swimming.

The 1650 is also a particularly difficult event to call based on the premise that most of these swimmers have only competed in the 1650 once or twice throughout this season thus far. Some haven’t even swum the event at their conference championship meaning there’s no real way to tell exactly where everyone is at. Many of the top swimmers here trained through their conference championships. All the swimmers from the top eight have put down fairly similar times all together, raising the question of whether or not there is a definite favorite.

Although distance events aren’t usually seen as the most exciting to viewers, this race is set up to be a fantastic battle between some of the worlds best distance freestylers. Three of the swimmers in this race are medallists from the 2014 Pan Pacific Championships with both Cierra Runge and Brittany MacLean receiving individual medals.

The excitement lies in the unpredictability of this race and the fact that there are so many swimmers with international talent.

Leah Smith: Virginia sophomore – 15:42.75

Leah Smith is the somewhat of a wildcard to win this event. She’s fast, she’s talented, but this year has been somewhat of a breakout year for her. That’s not to say that she wasn’t very fast last year. In her freshman year, she took home a bronze in the 1650 just two seconds shy of silver medallist Amber McDermott. With one more year of experience however, she’s truly stepped up to throw down some fantastic swims.

At last year’s NCAA Championships Smith’s time was third overall in the 500 freestyle, although she swam it in the B-final. Now, after an incredible performance, she’s ranked third in the nation and second overall in the NCAA with a time faster than what she swam at last year’s NCAAs. At the UGA Fall Invite Smith put up very impressive times in both the 500 and 1650. She rocked a 4:32.61 in the 500 and clocked in at 15:42.75 in the 1650.

The 500 time is close to the winning time from last year’s 500 freestyle and puts her behind only Cierra Runge and Katie Ledecky. Her 1650 is in a similar boat, coming within a second of her bronze medal winning time from last season and ranking her third behind both Runge and Ledecky.

Smith is one of the only swimmers who has been putting up times like this all season. She was a 15:52.00 at ACCs in the 1650 and a 4:35.19 as well. There’s no denying that she was able to throw down two fast times at two different points of the season, but the real question is whether or not she can go faster.

Last season Smith was under 16-minutes in the 1650 a total of three times. all in similar ranges to what she has done this season. The only difference was that her 15:42 didn’t come until NCAAs.

Smith is swimming faster 500s in season this year, which could point towards a better 1650. There’s no doubt that her in-season swimming is improving. NCAAs will be the real test as to whether or not she’ll be able to transfer that to a championship meet.

She had amazing results this summer, amazing results throughout this season, and has the ability to take it all when the time approaches.

Brittany MacLean: Georgia Junior – 15:51.73 

The Canadian distance star had a breakout collegiate season last year taking wins in both the 500 and 1650 setting NCAA records in both. Then, she was well ahead of her competitors but it seems as though some of them have caught up.

MacLean has the experience to win it again, and as the defending champion, she brings not only talent but pure racing instinct as well. MacLean is a 2012 Olympic finalist, a Commonwealth Games medallist, and a Pan Pacific Games medallist. When she’s on, she’s on. Last season she was on fire both collegiately and internationally, however this season there hasn’t been too much evidence of a fast swim coming up, but that’s not to worry.

It looked as though some of Georgia’s stars were training through the SEC Championships this season, and MacLean’s results weren’t exactly in MacLean territory. She went a 16:09.15 in the 1650 and a 4:41.62 in the 500. She’s been faster in both events this season. A 4:36.42 in the 500 and a 15:51.73 in the 1650 rank her fifth and eighth overall internationally in the events this season.

Last season she was significantly faster in both the 1650 and 500 at SECs. MacLean hasn’t yet put up anything indicating that she’ll defend her title, but her experience speaks for herself in the sense that she doesn’t exactly need to. When MacLean needs to be fast, she’s fast, and she has shown that consistently throughout both her collegiate career and her swimming career as a whole.

To count her out as a possible winner in the 1650 would not be a wise move. She’s fast. She’s got international experience. She’s the defending NCAA Champion. She knows what it takes to get it done.

If MacLean has been training heavily all year and is fully ready to go come NCAAs, the event could very well go to her. She’s a pure racer, and will not give up a win easily in this event.

Cierra Runge: CAL freshman – 15:40.17

Cierra Runge has made her mark on the world in the distance freestyle events, having a major breakthrough last summer qualifying for both the 2014 Pan Pacs team and the 2015 World Championships roster.

She was able to grab a silver medal in the 400m freestyle at Pan Pacs along with a fourth place finish in the 1500. Following her stellar performances over the summer Runge began her freshman season at Cal and has already made waves as one of the best long distance freestylers in the NCAA system.

She is currently the top ranked NCAA swimmer in both the 500 and 1650, and second in the nation in those events behind only Katie Ledecky. She swam a 4:31.90 and a 15:40.17 at the PAC 12 Championships, setting a new NCAA record in the 500 and a PAC 12 meet record in the 1650.

Those times were fast no doubt, and she had two other fast performances this December to precede her records. At the UGA Fall Invite, which was the source of some extremely fast swimming, Runge knocked out a 4:34.81 and a 15:57.70 in the 500 and 1650 respectively. She’s been dropping time all year, and has proven that she has what it takes to be the best in the NCAA.

She’s got a large stature standing well above 6-foot and has the international experience after this summer to know how to compete against top level competitors. She’s raced MacLean, she’s raced Leah Smith, she’s been rock solid and if all goes to plan she could definitely take the win.

Amber McDermott: Georgia senior -15:49.79 

Amber McDermott is the defending silver medallist in this event from Georgia, and brings with her a ton of experience to this field. With her main rival being teammate Brittany MacLean last year, the spots in the distance events have filled up a little bit more as Leah Smith has taken a charge and Cierra Runge began dabbling in the waters of collegiate swimming.

McDermott isn’t the type of swimmer to be counted out of a medal position, and it’s very likely that her name could be up there on the podium. She was fast last year, and her in-season times thus far have been pretty stellar. At SECs, an event where many say it looked as though some of Georgia’s swimmers were training through the meet, McDermott was very fast.

She went a 4:35.19 in the 500 and a 15:49.79 in the 1650. She is known for swimming fast in-season however. She threw down multiple 4:35’s last season at in the 500 and was a 15:50 at the SEC Championships before dropping around 10 seconds at NCAAs.

McDermott is in the exact range she was last season. She’s swimming almost identical times at identical meets and in McDermott fashion they’re all quite fast. She’s ranked fourth in the nation in the 500 and seventh in the 1650. The ranking in the 1650 shouldn’t be worrisome at all as McDermott has proven time and time again that she’s able to compete with the best at anytime.

Jessica Thielmann: Florida junior -15:47.97

Jessica Thielmann is a swimmer who has shown major improvement over the course of this season which puts her in a higher contention than ever before in the 1650 freestyle. Last season Thielmann was 20th overall at NCAAs in the 1650 with a time of 16:11.26. That time was close to her best time of 16:05.10 from the SEC Championships.

She has knocked off plenty of time this season to make her a serious contender in the event heading into NCAAs. She’s one of the few swimmers to be in the 15:50 range twice, and doing so she’s taken over 16 seconds off her personal best. At the Georgia Tech Fall Invite she was a 15:50.74, and at the SEC Championships she swam a 15:47.97.

Coming from a swimmer who was a few seconds over 16-minutes in the 1650 last season, those are some excellent swims. She’s taken off some serious time in her 500 freestyle as well. Last season she was a 4:40, and now she’s ranked sixth in the nation in the 500 with a 4:36.62 from SECs. She was also a 4:37.82 at the Georgia Tech Fall Invite where she swam the great 1650.

Thielmann has made some major drops which put her right up there with some of the best swimmers. Because of the severity of the drops, it will be hard to drop another huge chunk of time which it would take to medal with this group of swimmers. A fourth or fifth spot seems fitting for Thielmann.

Sarah Henry: Texas A&M senior – 15:54.31 

Sarah Henry is no stranger to NCAA competition, going into her senior year as an Aggie. Last year she was fourth at NCAAs in this event, and was right in the pack which was behind winner Brittany MacLean. MacLean separated herself from the rest and the next three, which included Henry, were all bundled up.

Henry is swimming very similar times to what she did last season in both the 500 and 1650 putting her right on track to throw down another 15:42 like she did last season.

So far, her season best is a 15:54.31 from the SEC Championships which is just about two seconds shy of the mark she swam last season. Her 500 was slower as well, with a 4:38.10. She’s been a 4:38 twice this season, throwing down a 4:38.89 at the Art Adamson Invitational. At that meet she also swam the 1650, touching the wall in 16:02.93.

Henry is good, and can never be counted out of a top three finish. There’s so much depth this year, that she’ll really have to push it if she wants a medal. There’s so much international talent, repeat talent, and breakout talent in this event which is the only reason why Henry isn’t higher on this list. All signs point to a fairly similar performance as what she did last year. If she can break through the 15:40 mark and post a time slightly faster, she will have potential for a medal.

Bonnie Brandon: Arizona junior: 15:48.35

Bonnie Brandon is coming into this event as one of the less experienced swimmers in this race. She’s fast, and she has proved that over her time in the NCAA with her success in the 500, which includes a seventh place finish from last year, but hasn’t proven herself on the big stage in the 1650.

Last season, she had no recorded swims in the 1650. She also didn’t swim the event in her freshman year, but this year she put up a fantastic 1650 which already puts her in contention with some of the others.

She swam a 15::48.35 at the Texas Hall of Fame meet this season and is now ranked fifth in the nation in the event. That swim is her only recorded performance in the 1650 during her college career. She only swam one 1650 this season, and that’s really all there is to go on with Brandon.

The best way to assess how she’s swimming however, is based on her 500 times. Her best time so far has been a 4:38.67 from the PAC 12 Championships. She’s around the same time that she swam at PAC 12s from last year so it’s safe to say that she’s in fairly good shape. She dropped time from the PAC 12s to NCAAs last season, so if she’s able to do that again there’s a possibility she’ll take off another chunk in the 1650.

Gillian Ryan: Michigan freshman -15:54.31

Gillian Ryan is in her first year of competition at the collegiate level and has posted some decent times which might suggest a fast finish at NCAAs. In the grand scheme of things, she’s a little bit of a wildcard in this race based on the premise that her lack of experience might effect her when swimming against some of the top distance swimmers in the nation.

The only times she has to prove her speed come from winter nationals. There’s no evidence, but it’s safe to suspect that she was rested for that meet as many were. She went a 4:37.78 in the 500 there and a 15:54.31 in the 1650.

Currently, she’s ranked 11th in nation the 1650. She’s also the tenth seed heading into the NCAA Championships. Her vast improvement from last season which has already shown a four second time drop in her 500, is one of the main reasons that she’s in contention for the top eight.

Her BIG 10 performances weren’t outstanding, she was a 16:09.78 in the 1650. The event is relatively new for her, but she has definite potential and with a proper taper should be around 15:50 which is likely to get her around an eighth place finish.

Tjasa Oder: Arizona sophomore – 15:53.33

There have already been eight swimmers numbered above, but as already discussed there are just so many viable options in this race. With that being said, limiting the top eight to just eight swimmers is not an easy task because there are arguably more than eight swimmers who have potential to get a spot in the top eight.

One of those swimmers is Tjasa Oder. She’s had a great season already and is ranked above some of the other swimmers already listed in the 1650. Going into the NCAA Championships, Oder is ranked seventh. She swam a 15:53.33 at the Texas Hall of Fame meet. Following that meet, she rocked a 16:08.64 at the PAC 12 Championships.

Last season she only swam one 1650 prior to NCAAs. That was at the PAC 12 Championships and she was a 15:59 there. Right now, her season-best is better and her 500s this season have been faster which makes it seem as though she’ll be able to be faster than she was at NCAAs last season. She already has been faster. Last year she finished sixth with a 15:56.

This year, the distance swimmers are putting up much faster times than the year before and it’s going to much harder to grab a top eight spot than in previous years.

Top 8 picks with seed times: 

  1. Leah Smith – 15:42.75
  2. Brittany MacLean – 15:51.73
  3. Cierra Runge – 15:40.17
  4. Amber McDermott – 15:49.79
  5. Jessica Thielmann – 15:47.97
  6. Sarah Henry – 15:54.31
  7. Bonnie Brandon – 15:48.35
  8. Gillian Ryan -15:54.31

DARKHORSE:Rachel Zilinskas 

Zilinskas has NCAA experience and is currently the 20th seed going into the race. The Georgia sophomore made the B-final at NCAAs last yearm and as a freshman was 14th in the 1650. She has already swam a time within two seconds of her time from NCAAs last season. She has a best time of 15:59 and that time could definitely crack the top 16, and start taking strides towards the top eight if she’s able to improve by a few seconds.



In This Story

Leave a Reply

8 Comment threads
1 Thread replies
Most reacted comment
Hottest comment thread
9 Comment authors
newest oldest most voted
Cal Fan

Thielmann’s freshman year she was 15.52 and 4.39, Runge is the clear favorite to win still! Cal Bears for the title. I’m excited to watch the whole meet


No Kaitlin Pawlowicz from Texas?? She’s had a big year! I wouldn’t be surprised to see her crack the top 8!

samuel huntington

I’m a big Leah fan of course, but I only see MacLean winning it.

1. MacLean
2. Smith
3. Runge

and shout out to Katie Ledecky who would probably lap some poor souls if she was in the race.


MacLean might win it for her best time is way better than everyone else’s, but she just seems to be a little off this year. I believe it’s more than just she hasn’t fully rested/shaved yet. We will see, but I won’t be surprised if she doesn’t win the 500/1650 this year.

About Mitch Bowmile

Mitch Bowmile

Mitch Bowmile is a former Canadian age group swimmer who was forced to end his career early due to a labrum tear in his hip and a torn rotator cuff after being recognized as one of the top 50 breaststrokers his age in Canada. He competed successfully at both age …

Read More »

Want to take your swimfandom to the next level?

Subscribe to SwimSwam Magazine!