2021 W. NCAA Picks: 200 Free Will Go to the Best Closer

2021 NCAA WOMEN’S SWIMMING & DIVING CHAMPIONSHIPS

  • When: Wednesday, March 17 – Saturday, March 20, 2021
  • Where: Greensboro Aquatic Center / Greensboro, NC (Eastern Time Zone)
  • Prelims 10 AM / Finals 6 PM (Local Time)
  • Short course yards (SCY) format
  • Defending champion: Stanford (3x) – 2019 results
  • Streaming:
  • Championship Central
  • Psych Sheets
  • Live Results

200 FREESTYLE

  • NCAA Record: Missy Franklin (Cal), 2015 – 1:39.10
  • American Record: Missy Franklin (Cal), 2015 – 1:39.10
  • U.S. Open Record: Missy Franklin (Cal), 2015 – 1:39.10
  • Meet Record: Missy Franklin (Cal), 2015 – 1:39.10
  • 2019 Champion: Mallory Comerford (Louisville), 1:40.26
  • 2020 Top Performer: Erika Brown (Tennessee), 1:41.66

While the most recent NCAA champion (and the NCAA/American/U.S. Open record-holder) were mid-distance freestylers in their college days, last season, pure sprinters Erika Brown, Abbey Weitzeil and Veronica Burchill had the top three times in the country, swimming up to the 200 from their main sprint events.

This season, the field is much more distance-oriented, led by Virginia’s Paige Madden (1:42.39), Texas’s Kelly Pash (1:42.70), Kentucky’s Riley Gaines (1:42.70) and Georgia’s Courtney Harnish (1:42.96). Madden is also the top seed in the 500 free and 1650 free, while the 200 is Pash’s and Gaines’ best freestyle event. Harnish is a contender in the 500 free, too, and has swum the mile at both SECs and NCAAs in previous years.

So, whereas a swimmer like Franklin, Comerford, Brown or Weitzeil might gun it from the race’s start and win by sheer opening speed, this is a field that will largely swim more strategically. Endurance swimmers win the 200 free by making a move on the third 50, perhaps, or building over the final 100.

For example, none of the top four swimmers faded in their season-best performances, despite all going out in 49s. Indubitably, Madden and Harnish can be dangerous over the final 50, but these top contenders are not the fly-and-die types. Madden returns from the 2019 A-final, where she was fifth as a sophomore; at that meet, Harnish didn’t make finals, Gaines was relay-only as a freshman, and Pash was in high school, so it’ll be a new-look final.

The only other returner from 2019 besides Madden, A- or B-final, is Cal senior Robin Neumann. As a sophomore, Neumann was 1:43.0 in prelims, gaining time in finals and finishing eighth. She’s fifth on this year’s psychs, with a 1:43.19, while her sophomore teammate Ayla Spitz sits #9 at 1:44.10. Neumann is a seasoned talent, and her Pac-12 winning performance was just tenths off of her lifetime best of 1:42.94; she’s a safe bet for an A-final showing here, and she could make a run at the title, too.

Behind Neumann are three more women in the 1:43 range, led by Texas A&M freshman Chloe Stepanek at 1:43.36. The highest-seeded rookie at #6, Stepanek has responded well to her training with Steve Bultman and staff at A&M, already two seconds faster than her high school best in the 200 free this year.

Stepanek struggled in both the 50 and 100 free at the SEC Championships, missing her season-bests in both, but still tied for 2nd in the 200 free in 1:43.58 – after a 1:43.36 on a relay leadoff leg. If we take her other results as an indicator that she was mostly training through the meet, and she was still able to pop 1:43 in the 200 free, that bodes very well for her fortunes at NCAAs.

Meanwhile, past her are Florida sophomore Talia Bates (1:43.38) and Alabama junior Morgan Scott (1:43.69).

Bates was more of a 50/100 sprinter in high school, bringing a 1:47.11 to Florida, and she only swam the 200 free once last season (1:47.40). This year, though, she went a lifetime best 1:46.13 at the mid-season invite prelims, before dropping down to 1:45.29 in finals. She then went 1:45.05 at a January dual meet before cracking a new best with a 1:43.38 leading off Florida’s 800 free relay at SECs, following that with two 1:44-lows in the individual event. Her 200 is now her best freestyle event.

Scott is one of two Indiana-to-Alabama transfers, with sophomore Cora Dupre seeded 15th at 1:44.76. Scott and Dupre both finished in the A-final in this race at SECs, with Scott’s lifetime best (1:43.69) coming from her 800 free relay lead-off. Dupre hasn’t yet matched her lifetime best this season, which is a 1:43.76 from 2020 Big Tens, and she didn’t race on the Crimson Tide 800 relay. It’s definitely possible that both Alabama sprinters will make the A-final at NCAAs if they’re both on their bests.

A low seed with a dual meet time is #29 Alex Walsh, the Virginia star freshman, entered with a 1:45.79. Walsh split a 1:43.19 on UVA’s ACC title-winning 800 free relay, though, and she has also split 1:58.2 before in long course on the relay that won gold for Team USA at the 2019 Pan Am Games. She looks capable of at least a 1:43, and possibly more, come NCAAs.

Notably, Nebraska senior Autumn Haebig sits at #10 on the psychs with her Big Ten title-winning time of 1:44.39. Haebig is the best product out of the Husker program in years, and her 200 free title was the school’s first Big Ten conference title ever. This is her second NCAA appearance, and first since her freshman year in spring 2018.

Tennessee’s Tjasa Pintar has the #11 seed at 1:44.40, while Virginia’s Kyla Valls and Stanford’s Morgan Tankersley are tied at 1:44.63. Pintar went lifetime bests in all three of her individual events at 2021 SECs (200 free/200 IM/100 free), and her most impressive swim came in the 800 free relay, where she anchored the Lady Vols with a big 1:42.91. Valls was just off of her best from 2020 at 2021 ACCs, while Tankersley is back in 1:44 range after going her best 1:44.24 in 2019 and then not breaking 1:45 in 2020. Any of these three could push into A-final contention, but they’ll need to drop a bit more time at NCAAs most likely.

TOP 8 PICKS

 

Place Swimmer Team Season Best Lifetime Best
1 Paige Madden Virginia 1:42.39 1:42.39
2 Robin Neumann Cal 1:43.19 1:42.94
3 Riley Gaines Kentucky 1:42.70 1:42.70
4 Alex Walsh Virginia 1:45.79 1:45.05
5 Courtney Harnish Georgia 1:42.96 1:42.96
6 Kelly Pash Texas 1:42.70 1:42.70
7 Chloe Stepanek Texas A&M 1:43.36 1:43.36
8 Morgan Scott Alabama 1:43.69 1:43.69

Darkhorse: Allie Raab, Stanford (1:45.26 – 23rd seed) – Raab is primarily a breaststroker and IMer, but she’s going for the 200 free this year as her day three event. The Stanford junior’s journey to her seed time of 1:45.26 is intriguing; she had never broken 1:47 until a month ago, when she popped a 1:45.69 lifetime best in a dual with Cal. She brought that down a bit more to her current best at 2021 Pac-12s, but she’s only swum this event in yards four times in her almost three seasons with the Cardinal. The only other performances she’s had in college are a 1:47.42 from a January 2020 dual and a 1:49.82 from a January 2019 dual.

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Hswimmer
6 months ago

I agree with these picks except Riley is riding off of momentum from SEC I think she’ll be close to winning or may even win. She has speed if she can hold off madden and Neumann

About Karl Ortegon

Karl Ortegon

Karl Ortegon studied sociology at Wesleyan University in Middletown, CT, graduating in May of 2018. He began swimming on a club team in first grade and swam four years for Wesleyan.

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