2023 W. NCAA Previews: How Low Can Virginia Go In The 400 Free Relay?


The Virginia women are stacked in the four shorter relays at the NCAA Championships, and in the meet-closing 400 free relay, the story is the same. Their 3:06.83 iS the fastest swim ever, and sits two full seconds ahead of second-seeded Stanford.

While I don’t expect anybody to challenge Virginia for that title, if the meet is still in contention at the day’s conclusion (a possibility given the 50+ points Texas might score in the 200 fly one event earlier), that could impact Virginia’s aggressiveness on their relay exchanges.

So we’ll break the race down on the assumption that Virginia is not going ‘safe starts,’ but keep in mind the context that they might.

Virginia’s Record Chase

The Virginia women are chasing a second consecutive title in the 400 free relay, which would make them the first team to repeat in this event since Stanford in 2014 and 2015 (one without Simone Manuel and one with).

UVA swam 3:06.83 at ACCs, which shaved .08 seconds off their record from NCAAs last year. Lest we think they’ve used up their best swim there, remember that, even at the end of a long meet, Virginia dropped 1.3 seconds off their ACC Championship time in this event at last year’s NCAA Championship meet.

Gretchen Walsh was 46.0 at NCAAs last year. Kate Douglass was 45.86 in the 100 free individually at ACCs this year, though her relay split was half-a-second slower. Alex Walsh doesn’t swim a lot of flat-start 100 frees, but did split 46.49 on this relay last year.

The only leg of this relay who really felt maxed-out at ACCs was Lexi Cuomo, who split seven-tenths better than her 100 free personal best from earlier in the meet and was generally firing on all cylinders. And if the coaches find that through three days, she doesn’t seem to be repeating that same fire, they could look to Aimee Canny as well.

So even if Cuomo is even with her ACC swim, that would give Virginia another 1.5 seconds off their ACC Championship time, on paper.

Splits of the top teams:

Virginia Stanford Louisville NC State Ohio State
2023 ACCs 2023 Pac-12s 2023 ACCs 2023 ACCs 2023 Big Tens
1st leg Gretchen Walsh – 46.41 Taylor Ruck – 47.54 Gabi Albiero – 46.95 Katharine Berkoff – 47.04
Kit Kat Zenick – 47.57
2nd leg Kate Douglass – 46.35 Kayla Wilson – 47.40 Christina Regenauer – 47.11 Abbey Webb – 48.31
Catherine Russo – 48.22
3rd leg Lexi Cuomo – 47.00 Torri Huske – 46.74 Julia Dennis – 47.87 Kylee Alons – 47.28
Teresa Ivan – 47.70
4th leg Alex Walsh – 47.07 Claire Curzan – 47.15 Ella Welch – 46.99 Abby Arens 47.41
Amy Fulmer – 46.63
Final Time 3:06.83 3:08.83 3:08.92 3:10.04 3:10.12

Reason to Pause on Stanford?

However, it doesn’t look like Stanford was necessarily maxed-out at Pac-12s either. Taylor Ruck has been 46.7 on a flat-start (albeit in 2019), Torri Huske has been 46.82 on a flat-start (leading off this relay at NCAAs last year), and Claire Curzan has been 47.23 on a flat-start (at a post-COVID intrasquad meet).

Given Huske and Curzan’s international accomplishments in the 100 free, it’s not hard to imagine that they could undercut their splits at Pac-12s. Kayla Wilson is the peer of Cuomo – her relay split at Pac-12s was a monster relative to the personal best of 48.21 she swam at the same meet.

So if we say that Stanford has another 1.5 seconds, like Virginia, that closes the gap and evaporates Virginia’s margin of error. Stanford usually does slightly better in this relay at NCAAs than mid-season, so a second-and-a-half would be a huge leap for them, but the splits make that seem plausible.

Even so, based on history, Virginia doesn’t add even half a second on relays at NCAAs. Unless we get into a “safe starts” scenario for the Cavaliers, the gulf seems too big, but not impossible.

Other Podium Contenders

Louisville almost always improves on seed at the NCAA Championships, but in this relay, everyone was about where you’d expect them to be based on personal bests, so while their seed isn’t far behind Stanford, it would take something pretty special for them to catch the Cardinal.

That leaves them in a battle with NC State and Ohio State for 3rd place. NC State’s relay is stacked, and the slowest leg from ACCs, Abbey Webb, is kind of a red herring. She split 48.31 on the 400 free relay, but 48.05 in the individual 100 free. So, similar to Virginia’s Douglass, she should be able to improve that split at ACCs.

With the depth of Louisville, it will probably take four 47-or-better splits for anybody who wants to knock them off 3rd. NC State has that, and it might come down to whether they capture the marginal drops possible from their other three legs. They usually improve from seed in relays at NCAAs, and last year Louisville dropped about two-tenths while NC State dropped about three.

That is the opposite pattern of Ohio State, which has added in this relay at each of the last two NCAA Championships (in spite of the fact that in 2021, they overall improved a ton from seed, and last year, dropped from seed).

I think the totality of that evidence would place NC State 3rd, Louisville 4th, and Ohio State 5th or 6th as the most defensible order.

Other Top Seeds

The LSU women, with Maggie MacNeil, are the #6 seed – and the SEC Champions. Aside from MacNeil, it feels like the Tigers probably maxed out to get that conference title, so it’s hard to expect much more drop there. The Florida women are swimming well as a team and return all four swimmers from their 7th-place relay at last year’s NCAA Championships, so they’re due for a move-up as the 7th seed.

The real big question mark then is Texas. Their splits at Big 12s:

The Longhorns were a pleasant surprise with three 47-second splits at Big 12s, showing off their depth. That includes one from Ava Longi, whose lifetime best coming into the year on a flat-start was 49.33.

Texas really needs one of two things to happen: they need Kelly Pash to be the hammer that the SwimSwam staff is all expecting her to be at NCAAs, or they need a fourth 47-second leg to show up.

If they get one, they’re in the top 8. If they get both, they could sneak as high as the top 5.

Other Teams to Watch Out For

Like LSU, Hawaii has exploded this year thanks to the incoming transfer of an All-American sprinter, Laticia-Leigh Transom from USC. On paper, I’d say the same thing as I did about LSU, that I expect they’ll have trouble replicating their Last Chance Meet time at NCAAs. Then again, that Last Chance Meet result was itself a huge breakout from their conference meet just a few weeks earlier.

Unlike LSU, this is Hawaii’s only relay, which means they’ll have rested swimmers and some pent-up emotion – only Transom is swimming individually from that group.

Indiana has a sneaky-good relay thanks to Kristina Paegle‘s breakout at Big Tens. Arkansas has flown under the radar but has parlayed its Anna Hopkins results from a few years back into some sustained relay success.

But my favorite sleeper pick to look out for are the Cal women. They were whacked by the transfer portal after last season (some that happened, some that didn’t). They were just 11th at NCAAs last year, and have managed to earn a 14th seed in spite of those challenges.

The two returning legs, Emma Davidson (47.71 rolling split at Pac-12s vs. 48.92 leadoff last year at NCAAs) and Isabelle Stadden (48.06 split at Pac-12s vs. 48.50 at NCAAs last year) have thrived under the coaching change.

Eloise Riley, the anchor at Pac-12s, split only 49.07 – but flat-started a personal best of 48.40 two years ago. Ayla Spitz split 49.07 on the leadoff leg at Pac-12s, but has a best of 48.63 from 2019 when she was still in high school.

If Cal can get those last two cylinders to fire at NCAAs and bring this relay together for a 4:11-low or 4:10-high, then that would be the cherry on a successful righting-of-the-ship by coaches Dave Durden and Dave Marsh.

SwimSwam’s Picks

Rank School Season Best
2022 NCAA Finish (TIME)
1 Virginia 3:06.83 1st (3:06.91)
2 Stanford 3:08.83 2nd (3:08.97)
3 NC State 3:10.04 4th (3::09.95)
4 Louisville 3:08.92 6th (3:10.69)
5 Ohio State 3:10.12 8th (3:11.44)
6 Florida 3:10.83 7th (3:11.07
7 Texas 3:11.29 9th (3:11.71)
8 LSU 3:10.57 Did Not Qualify

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Say's Phoebe
1 year ago

Regarding Louisville and NC State for third/fourth:

If you are going to give the benefit of the doubt to Abbey Webb you should also give it to Julia Dennis. Dennis split 47.87 at ACC’s and her best is 47.93. Plenty of room to improve there. A side note on Dennis, she was 9th in the morning in the 50 and 9th at night, with Parker and Cuomo in lanes 3 and 5. In the 100 she was 9th in the morning and 9th at night with Countie and Parker in lans 5 and 6, Dennis didn’t seem to be on anyone’s radar (other than Arthur’s) coming out of high school, but she’s really really good.

If you match the swimmers… Read more »

1 year ago

I think the key for Cal is that they need to figure out the relay order. Davidson needs to lead off, she’s swimming the 100 individually with a 48.2 entry time. There were multiple swimmers also hovering in the 48.9-49.0 range at Pac-12s after Stadden and Riley, so it will be interesting to see who the 4th swimmer is.

1 year ago

Taylor ruck can split 45

Reply to  Bryan
1 year ago

Ruck has the 4th and 7th fastest relay splits ever right? The search on USASwimming doesn’t work anymore for some reason

Reply to  jeff
1 year ago

I’m not sure where she falls in terms of history but Rick was electric in her 100 free splits in 2019 and I would say she’s a better relay swimmer than flat start. If Stanford is hitting, I think they can have Ruck, Huske, and Curzan all around 46 low with maybe one of them going 45 high. I also feel like Huske and Curzan should be much better at the 100 SCY free than they have shown given how they’re both better than Douglas in the event LCM by quite a bit and have strong under waters. All that said, I don’t think they’ll be able to quite get UVA here.

Reply to  swimswamswum
1 year ago

yeah she was definitely better relay than flat start, 46.7 flat vs like 45.6 and 45.8 relay. I’m fairly sure that her 45.6 has only been by Manuel a couple times and MacNeil last month but there might be other sub 46 splits faster than Ruck’s that I’m missing

Reply to  jeff
1 year ago

That part of the USAS website seems to be broken more often than not.

Joel Lin
1 year ago

If UVa has the meet clinched going into the last relay I wouldn’t be shocked if DeSorbo simply stacks this relay with seniors only to give them one last NCAA meet swim together as a class that entered 4 years ago. It’d be a good move. Records today will be gone tomorrow. Giving the seniors a moment like that is lasting.

That’s a big if given a possibility Texas racks up monster points in the diving events, which could make it close.

Reply to  Joel Lin
1 year ago

Interesting take, but there’s no way he’s leaving Gretchen Walsh off that relay

Reply to  Joel Lin
1 year ago

Absolutely not. That would be a terrible idea. You’re suggesting he put Donahoe on the relay and leave off Canny and both Walshes for a “nostalgia” relay? not only is that antithetical to the culture at UVA but I’d feel pretty crappy having my last race be making my team come in last place when I know my more deserving teammates could have won and made history.

Last edited 1 year ago by Yikes
Joel Lin
Reply to  Yikes
1 year ago

Fair points. It’s also likely the best 4×100 free relay UVa will ever have with Douglass graduating & likely also a likely relay record we’ll see stand for years to come.

I see a point in the criticism…was just a provocative point. The downvotes have merit this time.

Reply to  Joel Lin
1 year ago

In his interview with Coleman he said they’re trying to score as many points as possible versus previous years, so I doubt they would ever do that, even if they have a comfortable lead. Also, event records are always meant to be surpassed and it would be the last time we would see Kate/Alex/Gretchen swim together on a relay in a college meet so that’s not something he’d want to pass up.

About Braden Keith

Braden Keith

Braden Keith is the Editor-in-Chief and a co-founder/co-owner of SwimSwam.com. He first got his feet wet by building The Swimmers' Circle beginning in January 2010, and now comes to SwimSwam to use that experience and help build a new leader in the sport of swimming. Aside from his life on the InterWet, …

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