2023 W. NCAA Previews: Can Sullivan Knock Off Defending Champ Paige McKenna in the Mile?


The 1650 free at this year’s Women’s NCAA Championships is going to feature many of the same faces we saw in the event last year. In fact, the only podium-finisher from last year who isn’t returning this year is Texas alum Evie Pfeifer, who was a fifth-year last year. At last year’s championships, Pfeifer came in fourth with a 15:48.34.

While Pfeifer has now concluded her NCAA career, her younger sister Abby Pfeifer, also a Longhorn, qualified for NCAAs this year for the first time in her career. The younger Pfeifer swam a 16:07.14 at the Sterkel Classic in early February, punching her ticket to this meet, where she is the #23 seed in the event. That swim was also a massive personal best for Pfeifer, taking about 30 seconds off her previous best time in the event. She’ll likely need to swim another personal best on Saturday in order to score points in the event, however.


This year’s NCAAs sees defending champion Paige McKenna (Wisconsin) return as the top seed. Last year, McKenna swam a 15:40.84, pulling away from the field in the middle of the race to win comfortably. She enters this year as the top seed after swimming a 15:46.90 at Big Tens last month, which also marks the top time in the NCAA this season. Her Big Tens performance was notably just a tick faster than she went last year (15:47.31), so if her NCAAs performance last year is any indication, we can expect her to drop from her seed this year as well.

McKenna will need every piece of to defend her title, since Texas’ Erica Sullivan and Alabama’s Kensey McMahon, who were also the second and third place finishers in the event last year, have also been under 15:50 this season. Sullivan, who finished second last year in 15:45.94, comes in as the third seed after swimming a season best 15:49.16 at Big 12s last month. It’s hard to measure Sullivan off her Big 12s time, since she wasn’t in a position where she needed to rest that much for the meet, since she’d already safely qualified for NCAAs and Texas doesn’t need to go all out to win their conference meet.

That being said, we can judge Sullivan a bit on her past performances, as well as her personal best in the event. She had a healthy drop from her seed time of 15:53.80 at last year’s NCAAs, coming in eight seconds faster at 15:45.94. On top of that, Sullivan has the fastest lifetime best in this field by a wide margin, having clocked a 15:23.81 in December of 2019. Although it was admittedly some time ago that Sullivan posted that time, it still makes her the only swimmer in this field who has been under 15:40 before, let alone 15:30. It’s also worth noting that Sullivan did swim a 15:41.41 in the LCM 1500 at the Tokyo Olympics in the summer of 2021, which is much more recent than her yards personal best and, crazily enough, is faster than all but McKenna’s yards time in the mile.

All of that is to say that even if Sullivan doesn’t reach her lifetime best in event on Saturday, she should be viewed as the swimmer most likely to go under 15:40, since she’s the only one who has done it.

Kensey McMahon comes in as our second seed this year after swimming a 15:47.02 at the SEC Championships last month, just 0.12 seconds off McKenna’s time. After finishing third in the event last year with a 15:47.60 at NCAAs, McMahon is definitely one of the top contenders as we head into the meet.

Perhaps the most notable thing about McMahon is that she’s already been faster this season than last. Last year, she swam a 15:51.71 at SECs before going 15:47.60 at NCAAs, meanwhile she clocked a 15:47.02 at SECs this year. She hasn’t consistently dropped in the event at NCAAs, however. In 2021, she went 15:49 at SECs then finished sixth at NCAAs with a 16:00. If she’s at her best on Saturday, McMahon has a real shot at winning this event.

Another swimmer who finished in the top eight last year and will be back racing this year is Georgia sophomore Abby McCulloh. Last year as a freshman, McCulloh came in fifth with a lifetime best performance of 15:49.87, making her one of the five swimmers at the meet to swim under 15:50.

Now a sophomore, McCulloh has been a little slower this season than she was at this point last season, having swum a season best 15:57.08 at the Georgia Fall Invite. She was just off that mark at SECs last month, clocking a 15;58.45. That could very well be a product of the Georgia coaching staff feeling good enough with her mid-season performance that they didn’t want to go all-in on SECs and instead keep the focus on NCAAs, but time will tell. Of note, McCulloh comes in as the ninth seed this year, meaning it’s highly unlikely she’ll race in the fastest heat in finals. It’s worth mentioning that being the top seed in the early can end up working out really well for some swimmers.

Virginia’s Maddie Donohoe took sixth last year with a 15:55.14, taking eight seconds off her seed time. This year, she comes in as the 12th seed, having swum a 15:59.54 at ACCs, which is her season best. That time is four seconds faster than she came into NCAA’s last year. The senior typically paces her mile very well and given the way the fastest of the early heats is shaping up to look like, that heat in particular should be a very fun race to watch.

Northwestern junior Lola Mull came in seventh last year, swimming a 15:55.96. She swam in the fast heat with finals last year, but this year she enters way down on the psych sheet, coming in as the #31 seed with her season best of 16:11.41, which she swam at the Purdue Invite in November. At Big Tens last month, she went 16:14.35, which is notably 23 seconds slower than she swam at Big Tens last year, when she posted her lifetime best of 15:51.38.

Our last returning All-American from last year is Tennessee senior Kristen Stege, who finished eighth last year with a 15:59.49. Her performance in this event last year at NCAAs was not great, as she had been 15:42.37 at SECs last year. That being said, the fact that Stege added 17 seconds from her seed last year and still made the podium speaks volumes to just how good of a miler she is.

This year, she comes into the meet as the fifth seed after swimming a 15:53.47 at SECs last month. Tennessee has reportedly shifted their focus to peaking at NCAAs rather than SECs this season, so if that ends up being the case, Stege is definitely someone to watch out for, as she has the third-fastest lifetime best in this field.


Perhaps no swimmer in this event is more intriguing than Louisville junior Liberty Williams. She was one of the hot picks to win the event last year after swimming a 15:43.21 at the ACC Championships, but ended up finishing 13th at NCAAs in 16:04.15. This year, it seems as if Williams has shifted her focus towards peaking at NCAAs, having only been 16:03.60 in the event this year. That time has earned her the 17th seed in the event, which means as long as no one ahead of her scratches, Williams will be the top seed in the second-fastest of the early heats on Saturday. That could work to her benefit, if she’s able to get out and really pull away from a heat full of swimmers whose lifetime bests are well behind hers.

Given her lifetime best, Williams could definitely be a contender here, assuming it is the case that her focus has been on this meet this season.

Another swimmer we definitely want to take a look at is Ohio State’s Maya Geringer. She was the first one off the podium last year at NCAAs, finishing ninth with a 15:59.82. Geringer enters the meet this year as the 20th seed with her season best of 16:05.34. She dropped from her seed at NCAAs last year, so it feels like we can say with confidence Geringer is in prime position to score in the event once again this year, and maybe even land on the podium.

Tennessee’s Aly Breslin comes into the meet seeded fourth after popping a lifetime best of 15:52.71 at SECs last month. It was a big lifetime best for Breslin, who finished 25th in the event at NCAAs last year with a 16:11.74. Even if Breslin isn’t quite as fast as she was at SECs this weekend, if she just goes somewhere around that time she’ll finish in the top 16 and maybe even the top eight.

Penn senior Anna Kalandadze is entered as the sixth seed for this meet, having swum 15:53.88 at the Ivy League Championships. The performance marks a personal best for Kalandadze, who is having a terrific season for the Quakers. She’s in a very similar position as Breslin. Even if she isn’t able to match her conference champs performance, just being fairly close to it will be enough to score on Saturday.

Georgia Tech freshman Deniz Ertan will be racing in the fastest heat with finals as well. Ertan, who was born and raised in Turkey and is competing in her first yards season currently, is a terrific LCM distance swimmer, holding a personal best of 16:14.26 in the LCM 1500 free. At the ACC Championships last month, she clocked her yards 1650 personal best of 15:55.77, which earned her the seventh seed for NCAAs. Since we don’t have a ton of history of yards racing to go off for Ertan, it’s a little tougher to project her out, but she’s definitely someone who could make some noise in that fastest heat.

Indiana’s Ching Hwee Gan will also be racing with the fastest heat in finals on Saturday. Gan had a solid swim at Big Tens last month, clocking a 15:56.55, which earned her the eighth seed for this meet and the final spot in the fastest heat. She has a lifetime best of 15:53.81, which she swam at last year’s Big Ten Championships. That being said, Gan clocked a lifetime best in the 500 free at Big Tens last month, so that could be a sign that she’s primed to drop in the mile at this meet.

Florida freshman Hayden Miller had a big swim in the mile at SECs last month, breaking 16:00 for the first time in her career with a 15:59.21. That swim will put her in the fastest of the early heats that will lead into finals on Saturday afternoon.

Miller’s new Florida teammate Emma Weyant is someone to keep an eye on as well. One of the best 400 IMers in the NCAA currently, Weyant is also a sneakily fast distance swimmer. We know she’s great at the 500, boasting a personal best of 4:34.99, but the real question is how much has she developed in the mile since joining Florida’s program, which has been performing exceptionally in distance swimming.

Weyant has a lifetime best of 16:02.51 in the 1650, which she swam in November of 2021. However, she didn’t race the event at SECs last month, so she’s down at #24 on the psych sheet with her season best of 16:08.24.

SwimSwam Picks

Name Team Season Best Lifetime Best
1 Erica Sullivan Texas 15:49.16 15:23.81
2 Paige McKenna Wisconsin 15:46.90 15:40.84
3 Kensey McMahon Alabama 15:47.02 15:43.74
4 Liberty Williams Louisville 16:03.60 15:43.21
5 Kristen Stege Tennessee 15:53.47 15:42.37
6 Abby McCulloh Alabama 15:57.08 15:49.87
7 Maddie Donohoe Virginia 15:59.54 15:55.14
8 Emma Weyant Florida 16:08.24 16:02.51

Dark Horse: 

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17 days ago


Sherry Smit
17 days ago

The dark horse in all of this is Mariah Denigan, who went 15:57 at Big 10’s this year.