2021 W. NCAA Picks: Madden Leads A Competitive Sub-15:50 Mile Field


  • 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

WOMEN’S 1650 Freestyle

The last finals session of this year’s NCAA Championships will feature the 1650-yard free, a grueling 16-minute race where milers only get one shot to swim during its timed finals format. In 2017 and 2018, the great Katie Ledecky hit sub-15:10 performances to win back-to-back mile titles. In 2019, it was Penn State’s Ally McHugh who topped the mile podium at 15:39.22. The next year, Ohio State’s Molly Kowal (15:43.17 season best) was on track to becoming the succeeding NCAA mile champion until the championships’ unexpected cancellation. Now in 2021, Virginia’s Paige Madden has the best shot at joining the NCAA mile champions club. Madden will also be aiming for titles in the 200 free and 500 free; both events were previewed in the last week.

Madden, a senior, was an unstoppable force at the 2021 ACC Championships, collecting titles in the 200/500/1650 free for the second year in a row. Madden’s winning mile time and lifetime best of 15:45.45 won the ACC title by over 20 seconds, with Louisville freshman Liberty Williams taking second with an NCAA top 16-worthy time of 16:06.56. What’s noteworthy about Madden’s mile performance was that her two slowest 50 splits (29.19, 29.23) were during the first 150 of the race, gradually accelerating down to 28-mids during the final 400 yards of the race. Madden has proved to the swimming community she has both the racing and endurance skills to be successful from the 200 to the 1650 free, yet she is not the only prospective swimmer to impress at NCAAs. Behind Madden is a trio of three women who have also been under 15:50 this season.

Most milers swim their own race against the clock, yet having a fellow competitor nearby can motivate a swimmer to change the race against the clock to against the other lane. At the 2021 SEC Championships, Tennessee sophomore Kristen Stege held a moderate lead over Alabama junior Kensey McMahon throughout the top-seeded mile heat. Towards the final 50s of the race, McMahon made up a few seconds on Stege to flip nearly a second and a half behind her heading into the final 50. Stege won the SEC title with a monster lifetime best of 15:47.72 while McMahon settled for a valiant second place finish at 15:49.22.

While Stege took a good 20 seconds off her lifetime best, McMahon has the fastest lifetime best of the entire field at 15:43.74, which won the 2020 SEC title. While it’s unclear if McMahon could near her 15:43 best or if Stege can repeat her 15:47 swim, it is clear both women will be in a tight battle throughout the race. Another swimmer who could join in on the mile battle is 2021 Big 12 mile champion Evie Pfeifer (15:48.65), who closed her race in a 26.73 in contrast to Stege and McMahon’s 27-mid closing efforts.

Michigan teammates senior Sierra Schmidt and sophomore Kaitlynn Sims are the top two fastest milers in the Big Ten this season. Schmidt’s season best of 15:53.52 came from a double dual meet at the beginning of 2021 while Sims won the Big Ten title over Schmidt at 15:59.70. However, the Wolverines’ lifetime bests came from the shortened 2019-2020 season, both under 15:50. Schmidt’s lifetime best rests at 15:48.53 (a tenth faster than Pfeifer) while Sims swam 15:49.83 as a freshman. Sandwiched between the pair on the psych sheets is #6 seed Arkansas senior Peyton Palsha, who placed third at SECs with a 15:58.42. Looking at Palsha’s closing splits, she did not accelerate her pace until the final 50 while Schmidt and Sims began accelerating at the final 150 yards.

Seeded in 8th is Stanford junior and 2021 Pac-12 champion Morgan Tankersley (16:03.27), who owns a lifetime best of 15:50.81 from last season. Behind her are Georgia senior Olivia Anderson (16:03.61), Kentucky sophomore Tonni McNeese (16:04.07), and Florida senior Taylor Ault (16:05.09), who all have yet to break 16 minutes.

SwimSwam Top 8 Picks:

Place Swimmer Team Season Best Lifetime Best
1 Paige Madden Virginia 15:45.45 15:45.45
2 Kristen Stege Tennessee 15:47.72 15:47.72
3 Evie Pfeifer Texas 15:48.65 15:48.65
4 Kensey McMahon Alabama 15:49.22 15:43.74
5 Sierra Schmidt Michigan 15:53.52 15:48.53
6 Kaitlynn Sims Michigan 15:59.70 15:49.83
7 Peyton Palsha Arkansas 15:58.42 15:58.42
8 Morgan Tankersley Stanford 16:03.27 15:50.81

Dark Horse Threat: Amanda Nunan (SR), Tennessee (16:10.39 — 21st seed) Before Kristen Stege wrote her name on Tennessee’s record board, senior Amanda Nunan was the former program record-holder with her lifetime best of 15:53.89. That time alone would rank 6th on the 2021 psych sheet. At this year’s SEC Championships, Nunan placed 8th overall with her current season best of 16:10.39, almost a 16-second add from her lifetime best. At the 2019 NCAA Championships, Nunan just missed out on a scoring position, placing 17th at 16:04.41. Even if Nunan only managed a 15:59.99 during the NCAA timed finals, that could place top 8.

In This Story

Leave a Reply

Notify of

oldest most voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
3 years ago

Great photo of Schmidt!

3 years ago

Based on her interviews, I think Paige is just excited to be swimming the mile for the last time ever.

3 years ago

Crazy to think how far Kristen Stege’s come in the last year. She might not win this year, but everyone should watch out for her in 2022 👀

Reply to  DCSwim
3 years ago

I agree I think she could get second or third here it was hard for me to pick

3 years ago

Hope Stege can handle the mental side of swimming in the big meet with the pressure of a #2 seed. If she does it portends well for her career!

3 years ago

McMahon takes it. Wasn’t even rested at SECs.

Reply to  wow
3 years ago

I don’t think she will win, close second.

Reply to  Hswimmer
3 years ago

I think it’ll be a close race. I think Madden is going to have a great meet – I see her winning the 500 Free and 200 Free and grabbing 2nd here.

Reply to  wow
3 years ago

Naw, Forde will win the 500.

Reply to  RMS
3 years ago


About Nick Pecoraro

Nick Pecoraro

Nick has had the passion for swimming since his first dive in the water in middle school, immediately falling for breaststroke. Nick had expanded to IM events in his late teens, helping foster a short, but memorable NCAA Div III swim experience at Calvin University. While working on his B.A. …

Read More »