2023 W. NCAA Previews: Ruck Seeks Title Defense Against Bunched Up Field In 200 Free

2023 NCAA WOMEN’S SWIMMING AND DIVING CHAMPIONSHIPS

The women’s 200 freestyle looks like it will be one of the deeper events at the 2023 Women’s DI NCAA Championships. Five of the ‘A’ finalists from last year return. Among those who won’t be back is 2022 runner-up Izzy Ivey, who swam 1:41.59 to place second last year, along with  Lia Thomas and Riley Gaines, who tied for fifth (1:43.40).

On top of that, only one of last year’s ‘B’ finalists, Arizona alum Erica Laning, will not be racing the event at these championships, meaning that 12 of the 16 finalists in the 200 free from 2022 will be in the mix this year.

Another interesting dynamic to this year’s 200 free is that the field has actually seen the addition of a senior who is elite in the event but didn’t race it at NCAAs last year. Ohio State’s Amy Fulmer enters this meet as the fourth seed with a 1:42.94, which she swam leading off the Buckeyes’ 800 free relay at Big Tens.

Last year, Fulmer would have had a good shot at being an ‘A’ finalist in the event, after having won the event at Big Tens, but she instead didn’t swim the race individually. At the 2022 NCAAs, Fulmer swam on all five of Ohio State’s relays, only racing the 50 free and 100 free individually.

There does remain a question as to whether Fulmer is a little bit better on relays than she is individually. At Big Tens last month, she led off the 800 free relay in 1:42.94 but was off that mark individually by just over half a second, placing second in 1:43.45.

RETURNING ‘A’ FINALISTS

Stanford senior Taylor Ruck returns to defend her title from last year. Ruck won in a tight race with Cal alum Izzy Ivey last year, clocking 1:41.12. Importantly, Ruck’s winning time from last year is more than a second faster than anyone else in this year’s field has ever been, slotting her in as the favorite.

Some may be wondering how we’re calling Ruck the favorite when she’s seeded fifth at 1:43.04. It’s worth noting that Ruck entered last year’s NCAAs with a season-best of 1:44.53 before clocking a 1:41.89 in prelims at NCAAs, then winning the event in 1:41.12. That being said, we have no reason to think Ruck won’t drop significantly from her seed time.

Additionally, it’s worth noting that Ruck has a lifetime best of 1:40.37, which she swam at the 2019 NCAAs when she was a freshman at Stanford.

The next-fastest returner is Texas senior Kelly Pash, who finished third in the event at last year’s NCAAs and enters this year’s NCAAs as the third seed. Last year, Pash came clocked a lifetime best of 1:42.38 in the final.

This season, Pash has been as fast as 1:42.73, which is notably significantly faster than she was last season pre-NCAAs. Heading into last year’s meet, Pash had a season-best of 1:43.83. While that doesn’t mean anything definitively, it could mean that Pash is primed for a lifetime best in the event this week, which would potentially lead to an excellent battle between her and Ruck.

Behind Ruck, Stanford has two other returning ‘A’ finalists in sophomore Lillie Nordmann and fifth-year Morgan Tankersley. Last year, Nordmann finished fourth as just a freshman, finishing fourth in a lifetime best of 1:42.63. Notably, Nordmann was the only underclassman (freshman or sophomore) to qualify for the ‘A’ final.

Nordmann enters these championships a bit down the psych sheet, coming in as the 27th seed with her season best of 1:44.83. Like Ruck, that may seem like an indication that Nordmann may be having a bit of an off season, but in actuality, Nordmann is seeded with a faster time this year than she was last year, so we have no reason to think Nordmann will be any slower at these NCAAs than she was last year.

Tankersley is competing in her final season with the Cardinal. She’s been a huge contributor to the team dating back to 2018-2019, when she helped Stanford to a national title. Out of her top events, the 200 free, 500 free, and 1650 free, the 200 free is probably Tankersley’s weakest, however, that hasn’t stopped her from reaching All-American honors in the event in both 2020 and 2022.

Last year, Tankersley came in eighth in the event in 1:43.78. She clocked her lifetime best in the event in prelims at NCAAs last year to qualify eighth for the ‘A’ final in 1:43.53.

Unlike her Stanford teammates Ruck and Nordmann, Tankersley enters this year’s NCAA Championships with a faster season best than she had last year heading into the meet. Tankersley is the 14th seed with a 1:44.04, a time she swam to place third at Pac-12s last month.

The other returning ‘A’ finalist is fifth-year Laticia-Leigh Transom. As a senior at USC last year, Transom came in seventh in the event, swimming a 1:43.49 in finals. Importantly, that swim came after Transom clocked 1:42.93 in the prelims, which would have been good for fifth in finals.

Now, Transom has transferred to Hawaii, where she is using her fifth year of NCAA eligibility. Of note, Transom hasn’t been nearly as fast this year as she was last year, at least to this point in the season. Last year, Transom entered NCAAs with a season-best of 1:42.49, meanwhile, she’s only been 1:44.89 this season.

We know Transom has the speed to make it into the ‘A’ final again this year and make some noise in it, but we haven’t seen her swim at that level yet this season. It’s also possible that, after her best swim came prior to NCAAs last season, she’s taken a bit of a different approach to peak in mid-March in her final go-’round.

RETURNING ‘B’ FINALISTS

Reilly Tiltmann, a Virginia sophomore who won the ‘B’ final of the 200 free at last year’s NCAAs, returns as well. Tiltmann narrowly missed out on the ‘A’ final last year as a freshman, swimming 1:43.59 in the prelims to fall just .06 shy of the championship final cutoff.

She enters this year’s championships as the 18th seed with a season-best of 1:44.28. That is notably a bit off the 1:43.53 she was entered with heading into last year’s meet.

Anna Peplowski (Photo: Indiana Athletics)

Another sophomore, Indiana’s Anna Peplowski, returns after finishing tenth in the event last year. Peplowski is fresh off a great Big Ten Championship performance, where she swam lifetime bests in all three of her individual events, including the 200 free. The sophomore won the 200 free at Big Tens with a 1:43.33, seeding her seventh this week. She also won Big Ten Swimmer of the Meet for her performances.

She’s proven she has the ability to be an All-American in this event, however, Peplowski has yet to swim 1:43-point in a 200 free prelim, which she’ll more than likely need to do in order to make the ‘A’ final this year.

Virginia Tech’s Emma Atkinson comes in as the sixth seed with a 1:43.31. Last year, Atkinson came in 11th in the event with a 1:44.31. Now a junior, Atkinson is improving steadily in the event. Last year, she had a best time of 1:44.25. She’s already cleared that mark this season by nearly a full second. Like Peplowski, she’ll need to show her hand in prelims in order to make the ‘A’ final.

Florida’s Talia Bates took 12th in the event last year with a 1:44.74. Bates was wildly consistent at the level last year, swimming a 1:44.72 at the SEC Championships, then going 1:44.74 in both prelims and finals at NCAAs. The senior has already improved on those times this season, having swum a 1:44.37 at SECs. If her performances from last year hold true and she’s basically the same speed at NCAAs as she was at SECs, Bates shouldn’t have a problem making it back for finals.

Cal’s Ayla Spitz comes in as the 30th seed in the event with a season-best of 1:44.97. Last year, Spitz came in 13th in the event with a 1:44.72. Notably, she dropped from her seed at last year’s NCAAs. Spitz was entered with a 1:45.11 last year, then clipped that time in prelims, swimming a 1:44.92, before she dropped down to 1:44.72 in finals. That being said, Spitz is basically in the same place coming into this meet as she was last year, so she should stand a great shot at making another finals appearance.

Georgia’s Dune Coetzee came in 14th last year, swimming a 1:45.22 in finals. She’s seeded way down on the psych sheet this year, entering as the 60th seed with a 1:46.67. While that doesn’t necessarily look promising, Coetzee was seeded at 1:46.14 last year, then popped a 1:44.65 in prelims at NCAAs to finish 13th. Given that, we should still keep an eye on Coetzee on Friday, because she could absolutely still make it into the top 16 if she has a similar prelims performance to last year’s.

Chloe Stepanek (Photo: Texas A&M Athletics)

Texas A&M’s Chloe Stepanek took 16th in the event last year in 1:45.44, well off the 1:42.40 lifetime best she set less than a month earlier at SECs.

That being said, Stepanek hasn’t been quite as fast to this point in the season as she was last year, which could be an indication her focus has shifted to NCAAs rather than SECs. Stepanek comes into this year’s meet as the eighth seed with a 1:43.37, which is almost a full second slower than her season best was at this point last year.

NOTABLE FRESHMEN

There are a number of freshmen who are set to make some noise in the 200 free this year. Leading the way is Virginia freshman Aimee Canny, who blasted a new lifetime best of 1:42.62 at ACCs last month. Canny’s time marks the third-fastest in the NCAA this year, but she’s the second seed coming into the meet, as Alex Walsh, the top-ranked 200 freestyler this season, isn’t racing the event at NCAAs.

Originally from South Africa, Canny is now coming to the end of the first yards season of her career. She’s swum exceptionally well, excelling in the 200 free in particular. She’s shown she has the ability to make the ‘A’ final in the event, and even contend for the title. It looks like it’s just going to come down to her prelims swim. She swam a 1:44.88 in prelims at ACCs last month, which she’ll need to be at least a second faster than in order to make the ‘A’ final this week.

Stanford freshman Kayla Wilson comes into NCAAs as the ninth seed with her season best of 1:43.74. Wilson is in a little bit of a unique position as a freshman, not having clocked a personal best in the 200 free yet this season. Her lifetime best is a 1:43.17, which she swam at the VA SC Senior Championship last March. For the sake of comparison, 1:43.17 would come in as the sixth seed for this meet.

Wilson was solid in the event at Pac-12s last month. She split 1:43.20 on the anchor of Stanford’s 800 free relay. She then went on to swim a 1:44.51 in prelims then drop down to her season best of 1:43.74 in finals, taking second behind teammate Taylor Ruck.

Michigan freshman Katie Crom has been having a terrific season with the Wolverines. She posted a huge lifetime best in the 200 free at Big Tens last month, bringing her time down to 1:44.11, which has earned her the 15th seed for NCAAs. Crom has been steadily dropping time all season, having won Freshman of the Year honors at Big Tens last month. Crom was 1:45.95 in prelims of the 200 free at Big Tens, so she’ll need to be able to swim faster than that in the morning on Friday in order to make it back for finals.

Wisconsin’s Blair Stoneburg is an intriguing swimmer worth making note of as we head into these championships. Stoneburg went 1:44.63 as a 16-year-old in November of 2020 and hasn’t swum a personal best in the 200 free since then. That being said, Stoneburg has seen improvement in her LCM racing since then, including this past summer. Her season best in the 200 free is a 1:45.92, which has her seeded down at 49th. The remaining question is whether Stoneburg has a personal best in her or not this week. If she does, she’ll make it into finals.

BREAKOUT SWIMMERS

On top of the freshmen who are, of course, new to the scene, there are a few non-freshmen swimmers that have improved in the event enough to put themselves into the conversation. First and foremost, our top seed for the meet, Tennessee’s Brooklyn Douthwright, fits into this category. The sophomore led off Tennessee’s 800 free relay in 1:42.45 at SECs last month, setting a new personal best in the event, as well as the second-fastest time in the NCAA this season behind Walsh. Due to Walsh’s absence in the event, Douthwright is the top seed this week.

Douthwright has improved by exactly a second in the event over last year. As a freshman, she swam 1:43.45 at the 2022 SEC Championships. She went on to swim a 1:45.87 in prelims at NCAAs, tying for 25th. It’s worth noting that while Douthwright is the top seed in the event this year, her time of 1:42.45 would have come in fourth at last year’s NCAAs, and two of the three swimmers who were faster than that time return this year (Ruck and Pash). That being said, Tennessee has reportedly shifted its focus from SECs to NCAAs for this season, which, if true, is a departure from the previous philosophy. Again, if true, that means it would be more likely than in years past that we see Tennessee swimmers dropping time from their seeds at NCAAs this year.

Florida sophomore Micayla Cronk is also someone to look at. Cronk swam on Florida relays at NCAAs last year, but didn’t qualify for the meet individually. Her 2021-2022 season best was 1:45.37, which she swam at a Last Chance meet. This year, however, Cronk swam 1:43.77 at SECs, marking a huge lifetime best. She also earned the 10th seed for NCAAs with her performance. Cronk also has shown great improvement in the 50 and 100 free this season, so be sure to keep an eye on her this week.

Wisconsin’s Abby Carlson is having a terrific year in her sophomore season. Carlson blew away her lifetime best of 1:45.56 at Big Tens last month, swimming a 1:44.19. She put herself squarely in position to score, landing the 16th seed for NCAAs. If Carlson can clock another 1:44 in prelims on Friday, she should make it into the top 16.

Arizona junior Julia Heimstead is another name to watch. Heimstead just started racing the 200 free individually this season and has begun to really excel in it. At Pac-12s last month, she led off Arizona’s 800 free relay in 1:44.83, establishing a new personal best, which earned her the 26th seed for NCAAs. She went on to race the 100 fly and 200 free in a grueling back-to-back double at Pac-12s a few weeks ago, qualifying for the ‘A’ final in both. She swam 1:45.16 in prelims of the 200 free, before swimming 1:46.68 in the final. For NCAAs, Heimstead has dropped the 100 fly from her schedule, so the 200 free will be her only individual race on Friday. We’ll see what effect that has on her performance in the event.

SwimSwam Picks

Name Team Season Best Lifetime Best
1 Taylor Ruck Stanford 1:43.04 1:40.37
2 Kelly Pash Texas 1:42.73 1:42.38
3 Lillie Nordmann Stanford 1:44.83 1:42.63
4 Aimee Canny Virginia 1:42.62 1:42.62
5 Reilly Tiltmann Virginia 1:44.28 1:43.17
6 Brooklyn Douthwright Tennessee 1:42.45 1:42.45
7 Kayla Wilson Stanford 1:43.74 1:43.17
8 Morgan Tankersley Stanford 1:44.04 1:43.53

Dark Horse: Ekaterina Nikonova (Florida)Nikonova has shown flashes of the potential she came into her collegiate career with this season, hitting a personal best of 1:43.96 leading off Florida’s 800 free relay at SECs. The sophomore went on to place sixth in the individual event (1:44.63), and wasn’t able to close off either swim well (54-plus coming home both times). If her early speed remains and the back half of her race gets tightened up, she’s a threat to final.

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Bud
1 year ago

Stepanek taking 5th
You heard it here first

Sherry Smit
1 year ago

canney for the win

ALEXANDER POP-OFF
1 year ago

Would love to see Ruck get back to 1:40. And in this tight field, she may need it to win.

Abbey Lee Miller
1 year ago

Don’t forget about NC States beloved Aussie, Abbey Webb. She lives for taper season and has been absolutely slaying. She may surprise everyone with a podium finish.

Potatoes
1 year ago

Brooklyn is securing a top 4 spot

ArtVanDeLegh10
1 year ago

Top seed picked to get 6th. I bet that doesn’t happen very often.