2021 W. NCAA Picks: Ella Nelson the Main Challenger to Brooke Forde’s 4IM Crown


  • 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


  • NCAA Record: Ella Eastin (Stanford), 3:54.60 – 2018
  • American Record: Ella Eastin (Stanford), 3:54.60 – 2018
  • U.S. Open Record: Ella Eastin (Stanford), 3:54.60 – 2018
  • Meet Record: Ella Eastin (Stanford), 3:54.60 – 2018
  • 2019 Champion: Ella Eastin (Stanford), 3:57.03
  • 2020 Top Performer: Brooke Forde (Stanford) – 4:01.53

Returning from the 2019 NCAA A-final in this event is just one woman: Stanford senior Brooke Forde.

Forde has taken over as the top 400 IMer in the NCAA the last two seasons, though she hasn’t been able to prove it at an NCAAs in two years. She was third in 2019, behind record-holder and teammate Ella Eastin and Texas A&M’s Sydney Pickrem. As a freshman in 2018, she had to deal with those two and Katie Ledecky, and she took fourth.

Last season, Forde’s 4:01.53 from Pac-12s led the nation, and her 4:02.57 this year has her again atop the national rankings, though this time by only .05 over Virginia sophomore Ella Nelson (4:02.62).

With a lifetime best of 3:59.26 from 2019 NCAAs, Forde is well ahead of any other competitor in this field, with Nelson’s 4:02.62 from 2021 ACCs making the Cavalier sophomore the second-best swimmer in the NCAA since the beginning of 2019. It would be a long-awaited title for Forde, who has been very fast, but unlucky in terms of who she’s had to race at NCAAs as an underclassman.

For Nelson, her ACC title came with a near-two-second drop, coming down from a 4:04.36 from the 2020 ACC Championships. Nelson’s over a second faster than anyone else in the field behind her, and she seems to have the best shot to challenge Forde as well as the four-minute barrier. To win, though, Nelson will have to swim fearlessly; Forde split a 54.5 on the free leg at 2019 NCAAs, the best closer in the field, so Nelson has to open up a lead after breast and hold on.

While the race for top placements behind Forde and Nelson might be tight, the slew of four-oh-lows this season really put into perspective just how fast Ella Eastin’s NCAA/American/U.S. Open record swim was in 2018, when she went a 3:54.60.

Kentucky has a ton of talent in this event, with five women seeded in the top 30. The biggest threats are sophomores Lauren Poole and Gillian Davey, who are both having phenomenal seasons. At SECs, where the Wildcats won their first conference title ever, Poole especially made significant gains. She went 4:06.84 in the 400 IM prelims, which was her first time under 4:10. She attacked her finals swim like a pro, dropping nearly three more seconds to win the SEC title and post a new best and UK record of 4:03.90. Davey snagged the silver in the event, going a lifetime best 4:05.96. Meanwhile, senior Bailey Bonnett was 4:07.63 at SECs, though her lifetime best is a 4:05.62 from 2020 SECs.

Cal junior Alicia Wilson swam a lifetime best 4:04.10 mid-season, and she went 4:04.22 to touch second behind Forde at Pac-12s, while senior Kathleen Moore of NC State (4:04.73), her junior teammate Emma Muzzy (4:05.60) and Virginia Tech senior Reka Gyorgy (4:04.77) are top ACC talents. Wilson didn’t race this event in 2019, while Gyorgy was the only one in this group to score at 2019 NCAAs, placing 12th.

For Texas, senior Evie Pfeifer holds the other 4:04 this year, with a 4:04.61. Pfeifer was a B-finalist in this event at 2018 NCAAs as a freshman, but in 2019 she didn’t score with a 4:09 in prelims.

This event has plenty of senior talent; seeds #10 through #15 are all in their fourth seasons. Ohio State has two swimmers in that stretch, with Kristen Romano at #10 with her Big Ten-winning time of 4:06.75 and Katie Trace at #13 with a 4:07.90. Romano could really sneak up on the field; she holds a lifetime best of 4:04.56 from 2018 NCAAs, and at 2018 Big Tens, she went about the same time she went at 2021 Big Tens. Trace has been 4:07.84, and she dropping marginally from 2019 Big Tens to 2019 NCAAs to score in the B-final.

Tennessee’s Alexis Yager is at #11 with a 4:07.69, while Indiana’s Josie Grote sits at #14 (4:07.99) ahead of Arkansas’s Peyton Palsha (4:08.02). Between those three, Yager’s been a good deal faster, toting a lifetime best 4:05.75 from 2020 SECs. Grote and Palsha hit lifetime bests at their respective conference meets, while Grote’s IU teammate Mac Looze scored in the B-final as a freshman at 2019 NCAAs (4:07.96).

The top-ranked freshman this year is Michigan’s Kathryn Ackerman. She looked a bit off at Big Tens, perhaps due to Michigan’s training pause due to COVID-19 restriction, but her 4:08.37 from the conference meet still has her at #16 on the psychs. Ackerman actually went a 4:05.58 at a Michigan intrasquad in November, which was two seconds quicker than Courtney Beidler’s program record. On the one hand, Ackerman’s early-season swim suggests she could push for a top-three finish– on the other, she hasn’t quite followed through with another swim of that caliber, and she could miss scoring altogether.


Place Swimmer Team Season Best Lifetime Best
1 Brooke Forde Stanford 4:02.57 3:59.26
2 Ella Nelson Virginia 4:02.62 4:02.62
3 Kristen Romano Ohio State 4:06.75 4:04.56
4 Kathleen Moore NC State 4:04.73 4:04.35
5 Alicia Wilson Cal 4:04.10 4:04.10
6 Reka Gyorgy Virginia Tech 4:04.77 4:04.42
7 Lauren Poole Kentucky 4:03.90 4:03.90
8 Gillian Davey Kentucky 4:05.96 4:05.96

Darkhorse: Anna Metzler, New Hampshire (4:10.57 – 26th seed) – Last season, New Hampshire’s Anna Metzler looked like a breakout mid-major star ready to pounce at NCAAs, going 4:07.20 at ECACs to set a new UNH and ECAC record. Metzler, who is German, went from 4:13 to 4:07 in one season during her sophomore campaign. Her 4:10.57 won’t cut it at NCAAs, but we don’t know what she could’ve done at 2020 NCAAs, and next week we’ll see if she can hang with the best.

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Daniel Jablonski
6 months ago

It’s pick-em season, baby.

Reply to  Daniel Jablonski
6 months ago

Will the picks for the 450 IM be revealed soon? I know who I’m picking for that one.

6 months ago

Fifth seed Evie Pfieffer not getting any swim swam love for a top 8. Understand their skepticism, but betting this is year Texas toughness shines, especially within one.

6 months ago

Go LP!!!

6 months ago

I picked Ella Nelson first, Forde second, and Poole third.

6 months ago

That 3:54 from Ella was a phenomenal swim. Looks untouchable right now.

6 months ago

Does anyone know if Ella is still swimming? I’d love to see her punch a ticket to Tokyo this summer.

6 months ago

Nelson’s breaststroke leg at ACCs was incredible.

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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