arena Swim of the Week: Kensey McMahon Upsets 500 Free Field To Win NCAA Title

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Disclaimer: Swim of the Week is not meant to be a conclusive selection of the best overall swim of the week, but rather one Featured Swim to be explored in deeper detail. The Swim of the Week is an opportunity to take a closer look at the context of one of the many fast swims this week, perhaps a swim that slipped through the cracks as others grabbed the headlines, or a race we didn’t get to examine as closely in the flood of weekly meets.

No one was picking Alabama’s Kensey McMahon to win the 500 freestyle at the Women’s NCAA Championships on Thursday, but with a perfectly executed swim, the fifth-year senior did just that.

McMahon came into her fourth NCAA Championship appearance flying under the radar in the event, sitting down in 23rd on the psych sheets after swimming a time of 4:40.03 at the SEC Championships.

Last season, McMahon logged a personal best of 4:38.34 at SECs before placing seventh at NCAAs in 4:40.06 (going 4:38.76 in the prelims). She also had a strong result back in 2021, taking 10th at NCAAs in 4:39.98, but while McMahon had the pedigree of someone who can perform at the biggest meet of the year, she wasn’t among the pre-race favorites as 22 women had broken 4:40 this season coming into the meet, and she wasn’t one of them.

However, the 23-year-old Jacksonville, Fla., native put herself in the mix with a very strong prelim swim, putting up a personal best time of 4:37.81 to qualify fourth for the final.

At night, surrounded by a field consisting of six sophomores and one junior, the graduate senior kept herself in the hunt by swimming near the front of the race for the first half, and then soared to the front of the pack late. As the only woman managing to keep her 50 splits 28.0 or faster, McMahon took over the lead at the 350 mark, turning .01 ahead of pre-race favorite Erica Sullivan.

Leading by less than two-tenths at the bell turn, McMahon charged home in 26.89 to solidify the win, touching in 4:36.62 to mark another lifetime best and her first career national title.

McMahon Split Comparison

2022 SECs 2023 NCAA Prelims 2023 NCAA Finals
25.87 25.96 25.94
53.51 (27.64) 53.70 (27.74) 53.89 (27.95)
1:21.34 (27.83) 1:21.40 (27.70) 1:21.74 (27.85)
1:49.70 (28.36) 1:49.41 (28.01) 1:49.68 (27.94)
2:17.87 (28.17) 2:17.40 (27.99) 2:17.71 (28.03)
2:46.05 (28.18) 2:45.56 (28.16) 2:45.76 (28.05)
3:14.24 (28.19) 3:13.74 (28.18) 3:13.72 (27.96)
3:42.49 (28.25) 3:41.93 (28.19) 3:41.81 (28.09)
4:10.93 (28.44) 4:10.25 (28.32) 4:09.73 (27.92)
4:38.34 (27.41) 4:37.81 (27.56) 4:36.62 (26.89)

Wisconsin’s Abby Carlson came back to take second in 4:36.96, while Texas’ Olivia Bray (4:37.02) had the fastest closing split in the field (26.04) to snag third ahead of Sullivan (4:37.28). With Georgia’s Rachel Stege fifth in 4:37.32, the top five finishers were separated by just seven-tenths of a second.

McMahon spoke on the emotions of the victory in her post-race interview, but also touched on her strategy, and how the middle three 100s were critical to her success.

“There’s a lot of emotions—kind of feel like I’m going to cry right now,” McMahon said. “I have to keep looking up on the board to make sure that’s real.”

“I knew I wanted to take the race out strong this morning. Those middle three 100s are definitely a big turning point for me and I was feeling so good, and I’ve been practicing that last wall all season, so I’m glad I could execute it.”

Race Video:

Hear more from McMahon below:

McMahon is now gearing up for what is regarded as her best event, the 1650 free, as she comes in as the #2 seed behind Sullivan after winning the SEC title last month in 15:47.02.

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1 year ago

Slight correction: She’s seeded second behind Paige McKenna

1 year ago

So happy for Kensey, i had a good feeling about her going into this meet. She came off of a top 10 finish at OW Worlds last summer in the 25K, and then in december, untapered and shaved took home a bronze in the 1500 at SC Worlds. She’s always down to race, and that’s something I love about her

1 year ago

even though the times were slower i thought this was such a fun race to watch

1 year ago

NCAA women’s distance swimming is wide open right now with weak fields, props to Kensey for capitalizing

1 year ago

No chance this should be the swim of the week. How about a 1:48 200 IM or 20.7 50 free? 4:36 would get 3rd or 4th at Jr Nationals. And yes i read the disclaimer.

Reply to  James Sutherland
1 year ago

Call it something else then. “Arena Swim of the Week” is a little misleading here considering the other swims from the meet.

Reply to  Chester
1 year ago

After also reading the disclaimer, I must agree with both Andrew and Chester.

You can only beat the people in the pool with you, and, face to face, Kensey whipped them all in a great race and deserves to be, and will be, in the books forever as NCAA Champion for 2023 Division 1 500 yd. Freestyle.

But the context as to how weak the performance was by the field she beat, presents a story worth telling as well, especially when the winners of the next two events on the program were the fastest ever in history.

One was a rare happening in races of 200 and less: a “skip a second”(Whaaaat happened to the 1:49s?) special… Read more »

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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