2024 W. NCAA Previews: Katharine Berkoff Set For 3rd 100 Back Title At Her Last NCAAs

2024 WOMEN’S NCAA SWIMMING AND DIVING CHAMPIONSHIPS

WOMEN’S 100 BACK

Typically setting an NCAA record in an event before the NCAA Championships makes you the undisputed favorite in that event. But Gretchen Walsh has switched up her schedule, choosing to swim the 100 butterfly instead of the 100 backstroke on Day 3 in Athens.

She’s not the only swimmer presumably relying on leading off the 400 medley relay to log a 100 backstroke time. Three of the top five swimmers in the event (Walsh, Bella Sims, and Isabel Ivey) have opted for other events on Day 3. That’s thinned out the top of the field a bit, but it hasn’t really changed how we see the race unfolding. If Walsh was swimming, she would be the undisputed favorite.

But even with Walsh is forgoing the individual race, there is still a clear favorite for the title: Katharine Berkoff.

Berkoff, now in her fifth-year at NC State, is looking for her third 100 backstroke crown after winning in 2021 and 2022. The only time she hasn’t won the NCAA title was in 2023, when she finished 2nd. She’s also the former NCAA record holder; in 2022 she became the first woman to break 49 seconds with a blistering 48.74.

At ACCs last month, she dropped four-hundredths off that time to claim her fifth-consecutive conference title, improving her mark as the second-fastest performer in history to 48.70. That mark puts 1.56 seconds clear of the rest of the field. Even if Berkoff hadn’t just dropped a personal best that makes her the commanding favorite, she would still be the only one in the field who’s broken 50 seconds in their career.

In her final NCAA appearance, Berkoff looks ready to claim another 100 backstroke title.

2023 ‘A’ Finalists

Walsh dominated the 2023 ‘A’ final, blasting out to a (now former) NCAA record of 48.26. But with Walsh and 3rd place finished Claire Curzan both absent from the race this year, there are plenty of returning ‘A’ finalists aiming to climb higher on the podium.

Isabelle Stadden holds down the 2nd seed in 50.26. She finished 6th last year, adding time from the 50.73 PB she swam in prelims. Stadden has flourished in the Dave Durden era of the Cal women’s team. Since that coaching change, she’s dropped .55 seconds in the 100 back, lowering her best to the 50.26 she swam at the Minnesota Invite. Stadden was just off that at PAC-12s, when she collected the conference title in 50.39. Stadden is certainly the obvious pick for 2nd, there just can’t be a repeat of last year by adding time from prelims to finals.

That’s because there are swimmers like Josephine Fuller nipping at her heels. Fuller was Tennessee’s breakout star of last year and she’s only continued improving in her junior season.

At SECs, Fuller went sub-51 seconds for the first time in her career. She swam 50.59 for the silver medal, then followed that up with another sub-51 outing leading off the 400 medley relay (50.95). Last season, Fuller improved from SECs to NCAAs and if she does that again, she could easily challenge Stadden for second place.

The other 2023 ‘A’ finalists slated to return in Athens are Phoebe Bacon and Olivia Bray. Both are seeded outside the ‘A’ final with Bacon tied with Eboni McCarty for 9th (51.14) and Bray seeded 16th (51.70.) Neither have had to show their cards too much yet this season and Bacon historically has made dramatic time drops from the regular season to NCAAs. She’ll be much more of a factor for the title in the 200 back, but Bacon has made the 100 back ‘A’ final twice (2023, 2021) and won the ‘B’ final in 2022. She was 4th in 2023, showing that she’s a more than capable contender in this sprint. She holds the 3rd fastest personal best in the field (50.39), though she swam that in 2021.

Meanwhile, Bray swam a personal best 50.61 to finish 5th last year. In October 2023, she opened up about her struggles with depression, which reached a peak last season while on the outside, everything looked fine as she was reaching new heights both in the pool and the classroom. She also shared that stepping away from swimming over the summer and focusing on her mental health helped her regain her love for the sport.

Bray has been competing for Texas this season, and holds a season best of 51.70 from an October dual meet. She likely didn’t rest much for Big-12s, which makes it a real possibility that she can move up from her seed. In 2023, it took 51.15 to make the ‘A’ final and 51.60 to qualify for the ‘B’ final.

The Freshman Impact

In addition to the returning faces, there are two freshmen primed to make themselves known on the national stage during their first NCAAs.

Miranda Grana, courtesy Texas A&M

Miranda Grana found immediate success after arriving at Texas A&M in the fall. Grana, who represents Mexico internationally, had swum the 100-yard back once before starting university, posting a 55.26 in July 2019. Her first meet with Texas A&M she swam 52.49. She’s reset that PB four times already this season, lowering it to 50.65 for a 3rd place finish at SECs. Grana’s strength in this race is her back half, so if the race is bunched together in the closing yards that could really play to Grana’s advantage.

Another freshman worth keeping an eye on is Texas’ Berit Berglund. Like the rest of the top eight swimmers in this field, Berglund has already swum a personal best this season. At midseason, she swam her first PB in this event in two years, leading off the 400 medley relay in 50.77. That was her first sub-51 performance and she followed that up with a 50.85 later in the meet.

The race between Texas and Florida is projected to be a close one and both Berglund and Bray scoring points in this event where Florida’s top performer is seeded 17th could be huge for the Longhorns.

Other Contenders

We’ve gotten pretty far into this preview without mentioning Indiana’s Kacey McKenna, but she is absolutley someone you should watch. A junior, McKenna didn’t even make the Hoosiers’ NCAA roster last season. She’s exploded this year, dropping from a 51.93 personal best set in 2022 all the way to 50.49. That’s a 1.44 second drop for McKenna, which has propelled her up the standings and made her a major player in this race as the #3 seed.

Further back, Caroline Famous and Kennedy Noble are separated by just one-hundredth as the 7th and 8th seeds at 50.78 and 50.79, respectively. Like many of the swimmers we’ve mentioned, Famous has made huge improvements this season. She started this year with a 52.77 best from 2022, which she’s lowered by almost two seconds. She swam her 50.78 PB at USC’s February duel against Cal, then followed up with a 50.90 at PAC-12s. A relay only NCAA swimmer in 2023, Famous has turned herself into an ‘A’ final threat. USC’s taper has been hit or miss the past couple seasons, but Famous’ PAC-12 swim was a solid sign that she’ll earn a second swim.

In her freshman year at NC State Noble made big improvements in yards. She translated that to meters well, breaking through on the long-course scene in the 200 backstroke. Now back in yards, she’s continued make strides in the 100 backstroke. She broke 51 for the first time last summer, then swam a 50.79 personal best at the NC State Invitational. She missed out on last year’s ‘A’ final by finishing 13th in prelims, but the moved up to 11th in finals.

Without diving, the scored psych sheets have NC State finishing 8th–a significant drop from their 5th place finish in 2023. Getting Noble into the ‘A’ final with Berkoff and maximizing their points in this event will be key for the Wolfpack’s ambitions in the team race.

And speaking of the team race, what about the Cavaliers? Without Walsh in this race, their highest-seeded swimmer is Reilly Tiltmann. Tiltmann holds a lifetime best of 50.42 from 2022 ACCs. At 2023 NCAAs, she was 12th. This season, she’s seeded 11th with a season-best 51.39. Based on last season’s prelims, that would land her in the ‘B’ final again. She’s on the bubble of the ‘A’ final and her personal best would certainly land her there, but she’ll need a strong morning swim if Virginia wants to put a swimmer in this ‘A’ final.

SWIMSWAM PICKS

Place Swimmer School Season Best Lifetime Best
1 Katharine Berkoff NC State 48.70 48.70
2 Isabelle Stadden California 50.26 50.26
3 Josephine Fuller Tennessee 50.59 50.59
4 Miranda Grana Texas A&M 50.65 50.65
5 Kacey McKenna Indiana 50.49 50.49
6 Berit Berglund Texas 50.77 50.77
7 Kennedy Noble NC State 50.79 50.79
8 Olivia Bray Texas 51.70 50.61

Dark Horse: Scarlett Ferris, Freshman (Nevada) — A freshman from the United Kingdom, Scarlett Ferris wasted no time in making her mark in mid-major history. Her 51.49 from the Mountain West Conference Championships is the fastest time in history from a mid-major swimmer. She’s seeded 13th with that time and as with international swimmers competing in yards for the first time, there’s a lot of question marks about how the combination of taper and getting more comfortable in yards will play out. She seems like a decent bet to earn a second swim and it’s also easy to see a world where she makes another drop and secures a spot in the ‘A’ final. 

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Pescatarian
3 months ago

Go Pack!

Swimmerj
3 months ago

48.10 is a jumpscare to look at. Remember when it was 49.97 forever?

About Sophie Kaufman

Sophie Kaufman

Sophie grew up in Boston, Massachusetts, which means yes, she does root for the Bruins, but try not to hold that against her. At 9, she joined her local club team because her best friend convinced her it would be fun. Shoulder surgery ended her competitive swimming days long ago, …

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