2021 W. NCAAs Previews: UVA and Alabama Seeded Just .14 Apart in 400 Free Relay

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

As the final event of the meet, the 400 free relay could ultimately decide which team claims the 2021 NCAA team title. Virginia enters the meet as the top seed in all 5 relays, although it’s tight in the 400 free relay. Alabama comes in just .14 seconds behind UVA, and the pair have an approximately 1-second buffer between themselves and 3rd-seeded Cal.

The relays will be run very differently at this year’s NCAAs, due to new protocols surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic. Firstly, they will be run in a timed finals format, as opposed to the traditional prelims/finals format. This will have an effect because teams won’t have to worry about missing out on the A or B final in prelims, and there’s no risk of getting DQ’d in prelims. It also means that any of the entered teams could potentially make the podium or win the event in finals.

The other change to relays, which will have more of a direct effect on the races, is that the relays will be run with an empty lane between each squad, meaning they’ll be run in heats of 4. This is being done to limit the number of swimmers behind the blocks at a given time. However, this means that it’s entirely possible all the title-contenders in a relay may not actually end up racing head-to-head in finals. For the 400 free relay, the fastest heat will include UVA, Alabama, Cal, and Michigan, while the 2nd-fastest heat will have UGA, Ohio State, Tennessee, and Texas.

UVA enter the meet as the top seed with their season best 3:10.14 from ACCs, and have done so with a young squad. They’re led by sophomore Kate Douglass, who leads the NCAA in the 100 free this season (46.83), and is the top seed in the individual 100 free. Freshman Alex Walsh also provided a 47.22 anchor split at ACCs, while senior Paige Madden gave the team a 47.90 split at ACCs. Sophomore Alexa Cuomo rounds out the UVA squad, and she split 48.14 at ACCs.

Right behind UVA on the psych sheet is Alabama with their season best of 3:10.28 from SECs. Bama is the only team who had all 4 of its legs under 48 seconds at their conference championships this year. Junior Kalia Antoniou was a revelation at SECs, clocking many huge lifetime bests, and leading off the relay in 47.93. She was followed by junior Morgan Scott in 47.35, then senior Flora Molnar in 47.74, and sophomore Cora Dupre anchored in 47.26. Going head-to-head with UVA should lead to an exciting race, as Douglass will lead off faster than Antoniou, but Bama will likely eat into that lead through the rest of the race.

Cal comes in 3rd on the psych sheet with their 3:11.27 from Pac-12s. The Bears took a different approach than many of the other NCAA qualifying relays, having star 100 freestyler Izzy Ivey anchor at Pac-12s. Ivey, who is the 2nd seed in the individual 100 free with a 47.24, anchored Cal in 46.81, which was the fastest split we saw at any conference meet this year. At Pac-12s, Cal was led off by sophomore Eloise Riley in 48.40, then senior Robin Neumann split 47.96, and junior Elise Garcia split 48.10.

Next on the psych sheet and rounding out the fastest heat of 4 is Michigan, who have had a shake up in their relay team for the event. Senior Daria Pyshnenko, their 2nd-fastest leg on the relay, suddenly retired following the Big Ten Championships, and will not be competing at NCAAs. Pyshnenko split 47.68 on the 3rd leg of Michigan’s relay at Big Tens, helping them to their 3:11.61 final time, and the Big Ten title. Pyshnenko also anchored the Wolverines in the exact same split, 47.65, at the 2019 NCAAs, where Michigan came in 2nd behind a Cal squad that set the NCAA record.

Without Pyshnenko, it’s unclear who will step up to fill in the 4th spot on the relay. It may be up to freshman Claire Newman, who was on Michigan’s 200 free relay at Big Tens, where she split 22.50. Newman has a personal best of 49.90 in the 100 free, which she swam Big Tens. The Wolverines may also tab Sophie Housey or Kathryn Ackerman, both of whom are freshmen, and both of whom were on the Big Ten 800 free relay.

However, even though Michigan lost Pyshnenko, they still have junior Maggie MacNeil, one of the current stars of the NCAA. MacNeil could end up being pivotal for this Michigan relay team, as she led off in 47.47 at Big Tens, but she’s been much faster than that previously. MacNeil has a lifetime best of 46.57, which she swam at the 2020 Big Tens. That means she’s the only swimmer entered in the meet who has been faster than UVA’s Kate Douglass, and MacNeil could potentially give Michigan the lead after the first leg, which would be huge for the Wolverines. Michigan also has junior Olivia Carter, who anchored Big Tens in 47.93, to lean on. Sophomore Megan Glass was the other member of Michigan’s Big Ten relay, splitting 48.53.

The race between the top 4 teams in the fastest heat should be extremely exciting. One of the most interesting questions is whether Cal will continue to anchor Ivey at NCAAs, or if they’ll switch her to the lead-off. Anchoring Ivey worked out very well for Cal at Pac-12s, as Riley’s 48.40 lead-off was actually the fastest in the field. However, in this heat at NCAAs, leading off with anyone other than Ivey will put Cal well behind both UVA and Michigan at the 100 mark. Although, it’s possible Cal sticks with Ivey on the anchor, hoping the first 3 legs can keep the team in close enough position that she can catch the others on the final leg. Having a large deficit at after the first leg won’t be as big a deal this year as it would in years past, though, because there will be an empty lane between each team, so the water should be clear regardless of whether a swimmer is ahead of or behind the field.

The 2nd fastest heat of 4 will be just as tight. UGA is the 5th seed with their 3:12.08 from SECs, led by a 47.52 anchor from sophomore Zoie Hartman. The Bulldogs also had a sub-48 split from senior Courtney Harnish on the 2nd leg.

Tennessee will also be in that heat with their seed of 3:13.10, and like Georgia, they had a big anchor leg from senior Tjasa Pintar (47.53). The rest of the Vols splits were 48.4 or higher, but if each of them goes just a touch faster, or one of them pops off a big split, Tennessee could take the 2nd-fastest heat.

Ohio State is the 6th overall seed with their 3:12.90 from Big Tens. The Buckeyes have a lot of depth in the event, and only had one sub-48 split at Big Tens, which was a 47.99 from freshman Katherine Zenick. Like Tennessee, if Ohio State can get just slight improvement from each of their legs, or a big swim from one of the legs, they could take the 2nd-fastest heat, and maybe even sneak into the top 4.

Texas rounds out the 2nd-fastest heat with their seed of 3:13.32, which they swam at Big 12s. The Longhorns are an interesting case, since their Big 12 relay team might not be their fastest combination of swimmers, given the depth they have in the 100 free. sophomore Miranda Heckman led the team off in 49.34, a time which B relay swimmers sophomore Kyla Leibel (48.77) and freshman Grace Cooper (48.80) were faster than off relay starts. Also, sophomore Bridget Semenuk‘s season best flat-start 100 free is faster than Heckman’s.

Another important note on Texas, junior Julia Cook only split 48.21 on the 2nd leg of the relay at Big 12s. At the 2019 NCAAs, Cook split 47.16 in prelims of the 400 free relay, and 47.56 in finals. The Longhorns also have an excellent leg from sophomore Kelly Pash, who anchored the Big 12s relay in 47.27.

TOP 8 PICKS:

  1. Virginia
  2. Alabama
  3. Cal
  4. Texas
  5. Michigan
  6. Georgia
  7. Ohio State
  8. Tennessee

Darkhorse: UNC – North Carolina snuck into an NCAA qualification in the event, thanks to their 3:16.07 from December. UNC was hit with COVID-19 exposures before ACCs, causing them to compete with a reduced roster of only 14 swimmers. Their ACCs relay finished in 3:19.15, but only had 2 of the swimmers from their 3:16.07 season best swim. If the full squad is back for NCAAs, the Tar Heels could move up from their last place seed.

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DMSWIM
8 months ago

It’s interesting to see many teams put their fastest leg first. Fifteen to twenty years ago, it was a given that the fastest swimmer go last.
It will also be interesting to see how the lane spacing plays a role. You can’t pull a Lezak style draft to catch an opponent.

Alec Scott
Reply to  DMSWIM
8 months ago

It depends on who has the best flat start. Like Team USA going with Dressel to lead off in Rio, he was likely the 3rd fastest leg at the time behind Adrian and Phelps, but it wouldn’t be smart to not take advantage of his flat start which was already arguably the best in the world.

flex tape cant fix that
Reply to  Alec Scott
8 months ago

yeah and michael has one of the worst starts

BearlyBreathing
8 months ago

I had a dream last night the Cal women stormed from behind against all odds a la Jason Lezak to win this relay and the meet. 80s arena rock was playing. Everyone cheered. I was played by John Stamos.

Cal Swim Fan
Reply to  BearlyBreathing
8 months ago

Go Bears!!!!

ALEXANDER POP-OFF
8 months ago

Is Bama known for hitting their taper at NC’s? That’s one of the variables. My guess is that Cal beats them. They will outswim our expectations. Looking for 3 47s and a low 46. Another thing— Alex Walsh is much much more of a star than is recognized in an NCAA context. But NC’s will force everyone to put more respect on her name. VA is the fave, yes, but it will be a battle.

ALEXANDER POP-OFF
Reply to  ALEXANDER POP-OFF
8 months ago

When I say they will outswim— I mean Cal.

JCO
Reply to  ALEXANDER POP-OFF
8 months ago

Bama has never had more than just a couple girls make NCAAs at a time. The last time an NCAA meet was held was in 2019 when they were 11th at SECs. So the answer to your question is no one really knows

JeahBrah
Reply to  ALEXANDER POP-OFF
8 months ago

Bama men’s relays have performed reliably well at NCAAs