Disclaimer: BlueSeventy 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 BlueSeventy Swim 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.
It’s not often the three-time defending NCAA champs are vulnerable to a charge from an unranked opponent. But for the Texas A&M Aggies, the perfect storm of events led to that exact situation against the mighty Texas Longhorns. And if it weren’t for Mauro Castillo Luna, the Aggies might never have been in that position.
Texas has a rangy and powerful roster dotted with Olympians, national teamers and NCAA title favorites. But their universally-acknowledged weakness is in the breaststrokes – the exact domain of Castillo in his senior year. The NCAA format – which limits each swimmer to just four entries in a dual meet – can make it tough for one swimmer to take over a meet the way a transcendent quarterback or basketball player can. But Castillo made the most of all four of his swims to knock off the Longhorns in a statement meet for the Aggies.
Our official swim of the week comes right at the beginning, with the Aggies looking to steal the 200 medley relay from Texas, the defending national champs in that event. It’s extremely hard to win a college dual meet without winning one of the two relays, and Texas A&M had their work cut out for them to steal either from the Longhorns, who returned all but one leg from both this medley and the 400 free relay after winning NCAA titles last year.
But that breaststroke weakness was massive, and A&M went right by the book in nabbing the medley. Brock Bonetti narrowly outsplit NCAA runner-up John Shebat – the other key matchup for the Aggies on the day – leaving Castillo in clean water. And Castillo effectively ended the relay, splitting 24.29 to stake his team to a lead of eight tenths of a second. The Aggies also benefited from the absence of Olympic champ Joe Schooling on fly, holding even in splits on that leg, and anchor Adam Koster held off a hard charge from Brett Ringgold to put the Aggies up 29-7. (That score also included a clutch 1-2-3 from the Aggie divers on 1-meter).
Texas charged back, though, going 1-2-3 in the next two events to erase the lead and go up 39-35. Bonetti beat Shebat in the backstroke, but Texas’s depth came through to hold the lead at 47-46. That was when Castillo hit the water again for a 53.70 win in the 100 breast, leading a 1-2 and putting the Aggies up 10. They would never trail again the rest of the day.
Texas battled back in the 50 and 100 frees, though another Bonetti upset win erased some of those points in the 200 back. But then Castillo came up with the dagger swim, blasting a nation-leading 1:55.93 in the 200 breast to firmly recapture momentum and lead a brutal 1-2-3 sweep. In fact, A&M’s top exhibition swimmer even beat the whole Longhorn crew in a 1-2-3-4, and A&M suddenly led 118-89 with five events remaining.
The meet was never really close after that, despite Texas taking narrow point wins in the 500 free, 100 fly and 3-meter diving. Getting one last shot in under the buzzer, Castillo came back to touch out Jon Roberts for the 200 IM win, 1:47.54 to 1:47.74. That was courtesy of a whopping 2.4-second advantage on the breaststroke leg, fully erasing Roberts’ advantages in back and free.
Aside: Certainly this meet doesn’t suggest that we’ve got a new NCAA title favorite, or that the Aggies should leapfrog Texas in next week’s Power Rankings. But it does stand out as a pretty noteworthy accomplishment for a Texas A&M team that didn’t count themselves out, setting a lofty goal and following the perfect blueprint (load up on breaststroke points, steal the medley and upset in the backstroke) to accomplish it.
Perhaps swimming fans in general need a paradigm shift in how we view dual meets. Instead of seeing them as an all-encompassing arbiter of which teams are superior (see the furor in the comment section of our last Power Rankings, for example) or as a completely meaningless indicator of who determinedly-unobjective fans think did or didn’t taper (an utterly useless discussion we as swimming fans repeatedly refuse to give up), we could see dual meets for what they are: opportunities to race, avenues for tone-setting swims, chances to set goals and execute game-plans, and opportunities for every team to create beats on the overall narrative of the season.
Back to the story at hand: Now a title favorite in the 200 breaststroke later this year, Castillo proved in A&M’s 158-142 win that one swimmer, even a breaststroker, often the most specialized and pigeonholed of swimmers, can have a massive impact on a team’s fortunes, and for that, he earns our Swim of the Week.
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