We’ll be previewing the top 10 men’s and women’s programs from the 2016 NCAA Championships – stay tuned to our College Swimming Previews channel to catch all 20. Can’t get enough college swimming? Check out the College Preview issue of SwimSwam Magazine for more team previews and power rankings of every major Division I conference.
Key Losses: Brittany MacLean (54 NCAA points, 2 NCAA relays), Hali Flickinger (46 NCAA points, 3 NCAA relays), Annie Zhu (16 NCAA points)
Key Additions: Chantal van Landeghem (redshirt: 27 NCAA points, 4 NCAA relays 2015), Chelsea Britt (Florida State transfer: back/fly/IM), Meryn McCann (Canada- sprint & mid free/ back), Veronica Burchill (sprint free)
Last season, the University of Georgia Bulldogs won a hard-fought NCAA title under the leadership of head coach Jack Bauerle, taking the trophy by a tight 19-point margin. The win marked their third victory in four years, but, in an incredibly evenly-matched national championship climate, every finals swim truly counted toward the overall victory.
Soon-to-be Olympians Olivia Smoliga, Brittany MacLean, and Hali Flickinger led the way for the Bulldogs, locking down a collective 149 individual points, three championship titles, one NCAA record, six individual medals, and three relay medals between them.
SPRINT FREE: A+
Although Stanford’s Simone Manuel/Lia Neal pairing and Cal’s Abbey Weitzeil/Farida Osman duo form intimidating couplings in the Pac-12, the Georgia women answer the call with the formidable matchup of Olivia Smoliga and Chantal van Landeghem.
Smoliga comes into the 2016-2017 season as the the defending NCAA champion in both the 50 and 100 free. Her 50 from last year’s championships, 21.21, holds the NCAA record and ranks as the all-time second-fastest 50 yard freestyle in history. Meanwhile, her winning 46.70 sits in the top 10 fastest performances in history.
Van Landeghem redshirted last season, but now she returns to the Bulldogs with an Olympic bronze medal, coming off a year with Ben Titley at the Ontario Performance Center. Back in 2015, she scored 27 points for the Bulldogs with an NCAA 5th in the 100 free (47.48) and sixth in the 50 free (21.97). Beyond her immense individual scoring potential, van Landeghem will give Georgia a definite medley anchor. Last year, they anchored both relays with swimmers not traditionally known for their sprint freestyle, finishing 7th in the 200 medley with Meaghan Raab at the tail (22.22 split) and 4th in the 400 medley with Flickinger finishing in a 47.64 split.
Newcomer Veronica Burchill is a very strong third swimmer, the seventh overall recruit from her class with 22.3/48.5. Behind Burchill, Georgia’s sprinting bench is full of relay options; Raab, Kylie Stewart, and Emily Cameron all swam on last year’s NCAA bronze medal 200 free relay, and Raab doubled up to join the silver medal 400 free relay and gold medal 800 free relays as well.
In the 200 distance, Raab will have the chance to carry the program, after finishing eighth with 1:44.62 last season, behind her gold-medal teammate MacLean and fourth-place Flickinger.
DISTANCE FREE: B
The Georgia distance program was hit hard this May, graduating NCAA 200 free champ, 500 free silver medalist, and 1650 free bronze medalist Brittany MacLean and 500 free bronze medalist Hali Flickinger. The returners carrying the distance program will be seniors Stephanie Peters and Rachel Zilinskas, who B-finaled at NCAAs last year. Peters finished 14th overall with 4:40.07 in the 500 free, and Zilinskas grabbed 14th in the 1650 with 16:06.74.
World junior silver medalist Meryn McCann out of Ontario doesn’t have much short course yards experience, but her 1:59.18 SCM 200 free and 4:13.31 SCM 400 free could translate to NCAA scoring come March. And, given Bauerle’s history of molding world-class mid-distance women, McCann should see improvement in the coming season.
The ever-versatile Emily Cameron will be the headliner of Georgia’s IM program in her senior season. Cameron has seen steady improvement since the beginning of her career with the Bulldogs, building from missing finals her freshman year, to B-finaling her sophomore year, to finishing 11th in the 200 IM and grabbing a bronze medal in the 400 IM (4:03.66) last season.
This coming season in the 400 IM, expect to see Cameron right in the mix with Stanford’s NCAA record-holder Ella Eastin, Ohio State’s 2016 silver medalist Lindsay Clary, and the dynamic Texas A&M duo of Sydney Pickrem and Bethany Galat.
Though junior Megan Kingsley failed to make finals in the 200 IM last season, her personal best time (1:57.04) has scoring potential. Her fellow junior Meaghan Raab also has IM talent; Raab missed the 200 IM final in 2016, but she finished 12th overall in 2015 with 1:56.61.
Last season, Georgia scored major NCAA points in the 200 fly, as Megan Kingsley and Hali Flickinger teamed up for third and fourth finishes with 1:53.10 and 1:53.32. In the 100 fly, Kylie Stewart made the A final, finishing eighth with 51.68 for 11 points.
In 2017, both Kingsley and Stewart are returning, and FSU transfer Chelsea Britt will slide right into the space left by Flickinger, proving an asset to the Bulldog fly program due to her versatility across the 100 and 200 distances. Though Britt didn’t compete for the Seminoles last season, her personal best times of 51.79 (an FSU school record) and 1:53.89 would have been good for a 100 B final performance and a 200 A final swim.
Between the three, the Bulldogs have a solid training group that could make a major impact on the NCAA scene.
One of the most exciting impending showdowns coming up this season will be a face off between 2016 American 100 backstroke Olympians Olivia Smoliga and Cal’s Kathleen Baker.
The two represent the second-fastest (Baker) and fourth-fastest (Smoliga) Americans in the history of the long course version of this event, and the sixth (Smoliga) and tenth-fastest (Baker) Americans in the history of the short course yards version.
Last season, Smoliga’s NCAA 100 backstroke was a bit of a dark spot on her sparkling record. Despite clocking a time just .13 out of the top ten performances in history in finals, she placed an overall 9th due to an incredibly packed event prelim. (Though she didn’t get to stand on the podium, her 50.58 was second-fastest overall.) This season, expect to see Smoliga cap off her collegiate career by fighting for gold in her signature stroke.
Kylie Stewart will be battling for big points in the 200 distance, an event where she placed 8th overall last year with 1:51.20. And, though she finished 15th in the 100 last year, the heats were tight, and she could claw her way into the A final alongside Smoliga this season.
Rachel Zilinskas had an off-year in the backstroke last season, only making the C final in the 200 back at SECs and scratching the event at Nationals, but, if she can return to her personal best 1:52.20, she could score for the Bulldogs. And, while Chelsea Britt‘s backstroke is not as strong as her fly, training with Jack Bauerle could give her a boost in the 100 to move her up into contention for the B final.
Much like the Cal women in Berkeley, Georgia is facing a hole in its lineup in the breaststroke events. Annie Zhu, last year’s 6th-place finished in the 200 distance, graduated Georgia’s only individual breaststroke points scored from the 2016 NCAA meet.
Though she didn’t score individually in the breaststroke last season, Emily Cameron is still a solid medley option. She split 27.22 in the NCAA A final of the 200 medley in March, one of four swimmers in the heat over 27.00. In the 400 medley, she went 59.39, which, adjusted for the flying start, puts her in B final contention for the 100 breast. However, its proximity to the 400 IM makes the 200 breast a better option for her schedule. Last season, she finished 23rd overall in the event with 2:10.27.
Outside of Cameron, Georgia has few chances to score at the NCAA level. At the conference level, now-sophomore Caitlin Casazza finished twelfth overall in the 100 at SECs last year with 1:01.33.
Georgia’s overall victory last season was a battle well-fought and well-won, but the NCAA climate has changed quickly over the summer the return and new arrival of stars like Simone Manuel, Katie Ledecky, and Abbey Weitzeil.
The spotlight will be on the Olivia Smoliga/ Chantal van Landeghem duo to spearhead the team’s performance, but, as always, the difference-making points will come from lower down the roster. Returning upperclassmen like Megan Kingsley, Emily Cameron, Meaghan Raab, and Kylie Stewart will all have the chance to grapple for individual and relay podium spots. Meanwhile, through swimming with one of the best programs in the country, newcomers Chelsea Britt, Meryn McCann, and Veronica Burchill could see improvements that drive them to score crucial points.
The Bulldog lineup is strong as ever, but this year in NCAA swimming will be far from typical, and it is going to take a full team of perfect performances and meet of extraordinary swims to take the 2017 title.