2024 W. NCAA Previews: Can Sims Keep The Freshman Streak Alive In 200 Back?



  • U.S. Open Record: 1:47.16 — Regan Smith, Riptide (2019)
  • American Record: 1:47.16 — Regan Smith, Riptide (2019)
  • NCAA Record: 1:47.24 – Beata Nelson, Wisconsin (2019)
  • 2023 NCAA Champion: Claire Curzan, Stanford – 1:47.64

Freshman swimmers have dominated the women’s 200 backstroke over the last three seasons.

In 2021, Phoebe Bacon won the national title in her first year at Wisconsin. After taking a redshirt year, Regan Smith won the title in her lone season at Stanford, and Claire Curzan dominated the event last year in what also turned out to be her only campaign swimming for the Cardinal.

The trend has a very good chance of continuing this season due to the debut of Bella Sims, who has been making an impact on the collegiate scene in her freshman year at Florida.


Prior to her collegiate career, Sims’ event lineup at future NCAA Championship meets was a hotly debated topic. As one of the most versatile swimmers in the country, she could realistically swim anything other than breaststroke and score some major points—coming out of high school, she was the fastest recruit in her class in 10 out of 14 events.

On the final day of NCAAs, the 1650 free may have been the leading candidate for Sims’ schedule early on, but as she slowly moved away from the mile in club swimming, the 200 back, 200 fly, and maybe even a daunting double on one of the other days become realistic options.

Backstroke wasn’t initially viewed as one of her biggest strengths, but everything changed at the FINA World Cup stop in Indianapolis in November 2022, when she broke the World Junior Record in the SCM 100 back (55.75) and dropped a time of 2:01.64 in the 200 back to rank 22nd all-time.

One month later, Sims dropped a time of 1:48.32 in the SCY 200 back at Winter Juniors – West in Austin, ranking her #3 all-time in the girls’ 17-18 age group behind Smith and Curzan.

In her freshman year at Florida, Sims has progressively gotten faster in the 200 back throughout the season, starting with a pair of 1:52s early on before clocking 1:51.15 at the midseason Georgia Invite—prelims only as she missed the final to jet to the Golden Goggles—and then getting down to 1:49.04 en route to the SEC title last month.

Sims’ 200 Back Swims, 2023-24 Season

  • 1:52.49 – Florida vs Virginia (October 13, 2023)
  • 1:52.93 – Florida vs Tennessee vs Kentucky (November 3, 2023)
  • 1:51.15 – Georgia Invite, Prelims (November 18, 2023)
  • 1:50.78 – SEC Championships, Prelims (February 24, 2024)
  • 1:49.04 – SEC Championships, Final (February 24, 2024)

That SEC performance earned Sims the top seed for NCAAs, with only two other women sub-1:50 so far this season.

Sims’ ability off the walls, coupled with the fact that her swims in other events at the conference championships indicate she wasn’t fully tapered—she got a PB in the 200 IM but was shy in the 200 free, 200 back and 200 fly—put her in the driver’s seat at NCAAs with 1:47 within reach.

Other First-Years To Watch

  • Placing 3rd in the SEC final behind Sims was Texas A&M freshman Miranda Grana, who dropped her best time by more than two seconds over the course of the day, coming into the meet with a best of 1:53.30 and going 1:51.06 in the final. A Mexican native, Grana has some international experience under her belt, including a 5th-place finish in the 100 back (and 9th in the 200 back) at Pan Ams in October, so we know big-stage nerves won’t be an issue.
  • The other first-year swimmer seeded inside the top eight is Sims’ teammate Catie Choate, who dropped a massive best time of 1:51.94 en route to the win at the Georgia Invite after Sims withdrew from the final. Choate, who entered the season with a PB of 1:54.90, wasn’t on the same form at SECs, clocking 1:53.18 in the heats before going 1:54.76 to take 8th in the final. The question becomes if she didn’t taper as much for SECs with an NCAA invite locked up, or if she’s struggled to regain the groove she had earlier in the season.
  • Texas’ Berit Berglund is the other freshman seeded inside scoring position at 15th, having set a best time of 1:52.80 at the Texas Invite. Berglund clearly didn’t taper for Big 12s after going 1:55.43, so look for her to be back down in the 1:52s and fighting for points.
  • Virginia’s Tess Howley, Duke’s Ali Pfaff and Florida’s JoJo Ramey are all seeded in the 1:53-mid range. Coming out of high school, Ramey held the fastest best time among the group at 1:52.42, so she’s the leading candidate to earn a second swim and maybe fight for an ‘A’ final if she hits the taper right on. USC’s Macky Hodges is also in the mix as the 31st seed (1:53.75).


The mainstays in the top four of the 200 back over the last three seasons have been Phoebe Bacon and Isabelle Stadden.

After winning the title as a freshman, Bacon has been the runner-up for two straight seasons, clocking 1:49.2 both times after swimming what remains her best time of 1:48.32 as a freshman.

Stadden was 3rd in 2021, 4th in 2022 and 3rd in 2023, showing impressive consistency with 1:49-mid swims in all three finals. The Cal senior set her best time of 1:48.75 last season at Pac-12s, and has perhaps altered her taper strategy to try and hit her best at NCAAs as she was “only” 1:50.16 at the conference meet this season.

Stadden was faster earlier in the campaign, clocking 1:49.21 at the Minnesota Invite, while Bacon hit her season-best of 1:50.05 en route to the Big Ten title last month.

It will take 1:48 to win, it seems, it’s just a question of if either of these women can get down there in the NCAA final, something they’ve only combined to do once in six swims, to challenge Sims.


Tennessee junior Josephine Fuller had a bit of a breakthrough swim at SECs, breaking 1:50 for the first time after her previous best of 1:50.12 had been on the books since November 2022.

Fuller used a blistering back half to place 2nd at SECs, closing faster than Sims in 27.93, and could shake up the top three with Sims, Bacon and Stadden the top podium candidates coming in.

The 20-year-old Fuller is also coming off setting best time of 2:09.16 in the long course 200 back at the Knoxville Pro Swim in January, so it’s clear she’s on the best form of her career.

Last season, Fuller was 4th at NCAAs in 1:50.22, finishing just ahead of NC State’s Kennedy Noble and Virginia’s Reilly Tiltmann.

Noble, who broke out with a 2:06.35 LCM swim at U.S. Nationals last summer (beating Bacon, Tiltmann and Stadden head-to-head), has been 1:50-point four times, most recently at last month’s ACC Championships in 1:50.95.

Coming off her standout summer, Noble curiously only raced the 200 back once this season prior to ACCs. If she’s saving a big taper, 1:49 is certainly in the cards.

Not unlike Bacon and Stadden, Tiltmann has featured in the last three NCAA ‘A’ finals, placing 5th in 2021 shortly after she surprised everyone by joining the Cavaliers one semester early.

Tiltmann then had her career-best swim at the 2022 NCAAs, clocking 1:49.63 for 5th in a stacked final that saw the top six finishers break 1:50. Last year, she was 6th in 1:50.84, and so far this season, she’s been as fast as 1:50.64, done en route to edging out Noble for the ACC title.


Behind the top eight seeds, 11 women have been 1:52-something this season, led by South Carolina sophomore Amy Riordan.

Riordan rewrote the South Carolina record books at SECs, setting new program marks in the 200 free, 100 back and 200 back. In the 200 back, her time of 1:52.05 earned her 4th place in the final and the 9th seed for NCAAs.

Paige Hetrick, Caroline Bentz and Weronika Gorecka are the only returning consolation finalists from last season, as four of the others have graduated and one, 9th-place finisher Anna Peplowski, has opted to race the 100 free. Hetrick and Bentz have both been 1:52.3 this season, while Gorecka’s fastest swim comes in at 1:53.5.

Hetrick is the only one of this group that has broken 1:52, holding a PB of 1:51.70 from the 2023 ACCs. She also went 1:51.84 in the NCAA prelims last year.

Ayla Spitz, who transferred to Northwestern for her fifth year of eligibility after spending her undergrad at Cal, swam the two fastest 200 backs of her career last month at Big Tens, bringing her three-year-old best time down from 1:53.21 to 1:52.37, making her a threat to challenge for the ‘A’ final. Last season, she was 33rd in a time of 1:54.04.

Other swimmers sub-1:53 this season are Stanford’s Natalie Mannion, Ohio State’s Krista Marlin, Texas A&M’s Aviv Barzelay, San Diego State’s Alex Roberts, Tennessee’s Regan Rathwell and Kentucky’s Grace Freriks.

Mannion, Barzelay, Roberts and Freriks all added a bit of time last season at NCAAs and didn’t earn a second swim, while Rathwell is an interesting name to watch—she didn’t race at SECs, but dropped a time of 1:52.96 at the Tennessee Last Chance Invite. She also owns elite best times in LCM (2:09.54) and SCM (2:04.17), so there’s probably some time to drop in yards.

Another name to watch for is Louisville’s Rye Ulett, who is lurking in 23rd on the psych sheets but was in the hunt for a second swim last year, placing 17th at NCAAs in 1:53.07 after going 1:52.24 earlier in the 2022-23 campaign. Her season-best sits at 1:53.43.


1 Bella Sims Florida 1:49.04 1:48.32
2 Phoebe Bacon Wisconsin 1:50.05 1:48.32
3 Isabelle Stadden Cal 1:49.21 1:48.75
4 Josephine Fuller Tennessee 1:49.75 1:49.75
5 Kennedy Noble NC State 1:50.95 1:50.24
6 Reilly Tiltmann Virginia 1:50.64 1:49.63
7 Miranda Grana Texas A&M 1:51.06 1:51.06
8 Paige Hetrick Louisville 1:52.33 1:51.70

Dark Horse: Kacey McKenna, Indiana – McKenna was on fire at Big Tens, powering to a big win in the 100 back (50.49). In the 200 back, she led the final through the halfway mark before ultimately placing 3rd behind Bacon and Spitz, recording a new PB of 1:53.57. With a bit more of taper, and maybe an altered race strategy (or not), she could shake things up.

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4 months ago

Is winning this title as a freshman kind of a curse?

4 months ago

On the flip, can Sims break the 2-year Stamford streak? All signs point to yes.

Viking Steve
4 months ago

Bacon will make this very close and may win… Me thinks she’s been ramping up in the Olympic year with less focus on in season times

I miss the ISL (Go dawgs)
4 months ago

Really rooting for Stadden to finally get her individual title.

About James Sutherland

James Sutherland

James swam five years at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario, specializing in the 200 free, back and IM. He finished up his collegiate swimming career in 2018, graduating with a bachelor's degree in economics. In 2019 he completed his graduate degree in sports journalism. Prior to going to Laurentian, James swam …

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