2019 W. NCAA Previews: Can Cierra Runge Hit Freshman-Era 500 Times?


500 Freestyle

Of last year’s top eight finishers in the 500 free, only three remain in the NCAA, and only one is seeded to score in the event this year. Obviously, Katie Ledecky leaves a huge hole in the shape of a sure-thing winner, but former big finalists Jen Marrkand, Kaersten Meitz, Hannah Moore, and G Ryan graduated, and Katie Drabot didn’t swim the event at conference and is seeded 39th; returning sixth-place finisher Evie Pfeifer is seeded 34th.

What that leaves us with is a crowded field in the 4:35-37 lifetime best range, a number of whom (4 of the 8 top seeds) swum their best times earlier this season.

The only swimmer that doesn’t fit the script? Arizona State junior Cierra Runge, who might be the biggest question mark of these 2019 Championships. The six-foot-four Olympian has switched teams twice and taken a year off of the NCAA since her last NCAA Championships appearance, and hasn’t yet shown this season that she’s quite back to where she was as a freshman at Cal in 2015. Her best time of 4:31.90, fastest in the field by 2.5 seconds, is from Pac-12s four years ago. She broke 4:36 once in 2016 with Wisconsin, but did not come within five seconds of her best time again until Pac-12s this year.

Stanford’s Katie Drabot. (Photo: Tim Binning)

We effectively have no basis on which to speculate if her taper will go well, but Runge’s potential is just too hard to ignore. If she could return to form, it would be one of the more memorable comebacks in NCAA history and likely put an end to the years of speculation regarding her intentions. So for lack of another clear front-runner, we’re going with it.

The No. 2 through 5 spots are incredibly close. Stanford junior Katie Drabot took second in the event last year in a lifetime-best 4:34.86 without swimming it at conference, and again didn’t swim it at Pac-12s this year, so is entered with a 4:41.06. At Pac-12s last month, she dropped time in the 200 fly but gained in the both the 200 free and 200 IM, so it’s unclear if or how much she rested for that meet. Given her big-time performance last year, we’re going with Drabot for silver again.

Her classmate Lauren Pitzer is the only entrant who’s been under 4:35 this season. At Pac-12s in February, she dropped over two seconds off her best time heading into the meet (4:36.18), going 4:34.30. The question is, does she have another drop in her? If so, she’d be getting into elite territory in terms of the all-time record books. But for what it’s worth, Pitzer added a little over one-and-a-half seconds between Pac-12s and NCAAs last season after similarly dropping a significant PR in the conference meet.

Last year’s third-place finisher Kirsten Jacobsen, now an Arizona junior, was 4:36.81 in November, and then 4:38.37 at Pac-12s last month. In the 2017-2018 season, she was 4:42.59 in November, 4:37.47 at Pac-12s, then a lifetime-best 4:35.04 at NCAAs, but we don’t know how much she rested for conference given she was easily qualified for NCAAs already this year. Georgia’s Courtney Harnish (10th last year) broke 4:36 for the first time in late 2017, then didn’t do it again until February’s SEC Championships, when she went a PR of 4:35.52. Last year, she dropped 1.3 seconds from conference to NCAAs, but hadn’t already gone a lifetime best that season.

Texas’ Joanna Evans, who entered last year’s NCAA meet with a season and lifetime PR of 4:35.05 and went 4:42.98 after not swimming the 500 at the 2018 Big 12 Championships, was already 4:35.76 at the Texas Invite and 4:36.97 at Big 12s this year. The added focus on the event could pay off big-time, particularly if she could break 4:35, as a number of swimmers are poised to be in the 4:35-low-to-mid range.

Michigan’s Rose Bi (Photo: Michigan Athletics)

Penn State senior Ally McHugh, who has a strong shot to win the mile, should A-final in the 500 as well if she can get down to her best time. Her PR of 4:36.17 is from NCAAs last year, which she similarly entered with a 4:38.44 compared to her 2018-2019 season-best of 4:38.46 from November of last year. Following her, we have Minnesota senior Chantal Nack, who went a best time by almost four seconds, dropping from 4:40.31 to 4:36.55, at Big Tens last month. Last year, her drop from conference to NCAAs was just .07 seconds, but a 4:36-low this year looks like it would put her in the top eight.


Top 8 Picks
Place Swimmer Team Season Best Lifetime Best
1 Cierra Runge Arizona State 4:35.13 4:31.90
2 Katie Drabot Stanford 4:41.06 4:34.86
3 Kirsten Jacobsen Arizona 4:36.81 4:35.04
4 Lauren Pitzer Stanford 4:34.30 4:34.30
5 Courtney Harnish Georgia 4:35.52 4:35.52
6 Joanna Evans Texas 4:35.76 4:35.05
7 Ally McHugh Penn State 4:38.46 4:36.17
8 Chantal Nack Minnesota 4:36.55 4:36.55

Dark Horse: There are a number of swimmers seeded in the 8-20 range you could easily argue are in contention to round out the A-final picks, Those include Stanford’s miler Leah Stevens and versatile teammate Brooke Forde, or Michigan’s Rose Bi, who much like Runge hasn’t hit her best times since freshman year. But it looks like it’s going to take a 4:36, and though Leah Braswell is the only remaining entrant who has been there this season, we’re going with Stanford freshman Morgan Tankersley, who looks to be in the midst of a breakthrough after a 2.5-year plateau. She swam a 4:37.60 in November 2016, then never broke 4:43.5 in 2017 or 2018, before going 4:37.00 at Pac-12s this year (where she also slashed over 20 seconds off her mile and hit a best in the 200 free after almost 27 months).

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3 years ago

Joanna Evans could surprise.

3 years ago

Katie Drabot has been flying (PUN) below the radar this year. She is likely to be one of the Stanford Captains next year, and I expect that she will be one of their team leaders at NCAA, and put down some fast times. At least I hope so. I think she will win the 500m and possibly upset Hanson in the 200fly, but what do I know? :>)

Reply to  dave
3 years ago

You mean upset Hansson for second? Cause ella Eastin is the big favorite to win 200 fly

Reply to  Klorn8d
3 years ago

I could see Hansson winning this year honestly.. it will be closer than last year for sure for top 3

Reply to  Hswimmer
3 years ago

Only way Eastin loses the 2 Fly is if she gets sick or injured. As great as Hansson is, she just can’t stay with her the 2nd 100, no one can.

Reply to  ArtVanDeLegh10
3 years ago


Reply to  USA
3 years ago

I don’t see McLaughlin dropping over two seconds to break 1:50 which is what it will take to win. She seems to have become more of a sprinter in recent years as well.

samuel huntington
Reply to  USA
3 years ago

McLaughlin’s best time isn’t close to Eastin’s

Crisp Collar
3 years ago

Will be interesting to see how Cierra performs. Hopefully her LARPing career hasn’t consumed too much of her time this season and she can channel some of the goblin fighting magic this NCAAs!

Honest Observer
3 years ago

Comerford’s not swimming this, but she should be.

3 years ago

Brook Forde should be 4:35 or better this year

Rachel Wander
3 years ago

While I would love to see Cierra Runge do great, I haven’t seen her ever perform to her full potential at NCAAs. Even the year she had that 4:31, she went a 4:33 at NCAAs. Because of this, I think that betting on her to beat her 4:35 from Pac-12’s, especially by a lot, is risky. That said, its a wide open field and anything can happen. I would personally go with Drabot.

3 years ago

In two letters – N O

3 years ago

It looks like the NCAA title in the 500 free is up for grabs this year.

Drabot and Jacobsen had a fierce battle for 2nd last year behind Ledecky.

About Torrey Hart

Torrey Hart

Torrey is from Oakland, CA, and majored in media studies and American studies at Claremont McKenna College, where she swam distance freestyle for the Claremont-Mudd-Scripps team. Outside of SwimSwam, she has bylines at Sports Illustrated, Yahoo Sports, SB Nation, and The Student Life newspaper.

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