Key Additions: Theresa Michalak (Germany – IM), Ally Donahue (FL – breaststroke), Chelsea Lawson (Scotland – back/free), Elisavet Panti (Greece – back/free), Paige Scheriger (TN- breast)
Key Losses: Elizabeth Beisel (33 NCAA points, 1 NCAA relay), Ellese Zalewski (14 NCAA points, 5 NCAA relays), Hilda Luthersdottir (5 NCAA points, 2 NCAA relays), Alicia Mathieu (11 NCAA points)
Last season saw Florida riding high on a big senior class that was headlined by Olympian and reigning NCAA 400 IM champ Elizabeth Beisel. Winning the 400 IM has to put you in the conversation for the title of “most versatile swimmer in the nation,” and Beisel may have been just that. Swimming everything from IM to backstroke to distance free, the senior was a force for the Gators as well as a steadying presence in a season that had its ups and downs.
The early goings were good, wth the Gators looking tough at their home invite and crushing Missouri on the road. But then Florida faced a tough stretch where they went on the road to Cal and Georgia, dropping each dual by about 20 points. Cal might have been the NCAA favorites when that dual took place, and Georgia wound up winning the national title. All-in-all, it was as tough a stretch as coach Gregg Troy could ask for early in his season.
The Gators went on a run from there, winning all the rest of their meets until dropping one more road matchup to end the season. That was in Tennessee, where the Vols knocked off their conference rivals on senior night by just 4 points.
But the Gators put it together come NCAAs, leapfrogging the Vols to take 6th by a 16 point margin.
As good as Beisel had been in her college career, in 2014 she actually struggled some in a point-scoring sense. The decision to swim her in the 200 back and 200 fly back-to-back turned out to be a bit ill-fated as she faded to 15th in the fly, only scoring two points. Beisel was still the national runner-up in the 400 IM, though, and was clutch on the team’s 800 free relay.
Fellow senior Ellese Zalewski was the driving force behind the relays. Zalewski only scored in one event individually (5th in the 100 fly), but swam on all five Florida relays, none of which placed lower than 9th overall. Icelandic Olympian Hilda Luthersdottir was a big breaststroking presence while Canadian sophomore Sinead Russell scored in both backstrokes and added 5 relay appearances of her own. Russell’s classmate Natalie Hinds started to look like an elite sprinter and senior Alicia Mathieu chipped in points in the mile as Florida put up 239 points to finish just behind USC in the national standings.
A changing of the guard
The past four years, Florida has essentially been the “Elizabeth Beisel Gators.” With Beisel out of eligibility, the team has a distinctly new look, and it might be fair to say these are the “Sinead Russell-Natalie Hinds Gators.”
Those two juniors will be key to everything Florida does this season. They’re the only two returning individual point-scorers from NCAAs, and accounted for two of the team’s five championship finals appearances in individual events at nationals.
Russell was outstanding last year in the backstrokes, and actually placed higher in the 200 back than Beisel, although Beisel was somewhat affected by the tough 200 back/200 fly double she swam at both prelims an finals. But Russell wasn’t far out of first place, and could be a potential national championship contender this season, although the race may get even tougher if Cal’s Missy Franklin jumps back into the hunt. Russell’s versatility was huge in 2014, as she filled key legs on all five relays. Depending on how solid the other three legs of each relay look, it might make sense to put Russell on all-relay duty again, although she’s probably talented enough to score in a third individual instead if coach Gregg Troy opts to go that way.
Where Beisel was known for her versatility and endurance, new team leader Natalie Hinds is all about speed. The junior takes over the sprint butterfly role from the graduated Ellese Zalewski, and has already looked strong there in the early goings of this season. And that comes on top of her main focus, which is sprint freestyle. 4th in the 100 free last year, Hinds could benefit from the exact same scenario Russell could be hurt by – if Missy Franklin returns to the 200 back, she vacates the #3 spot in the 100 free from last year. Between that and national champ Margo Geer‘s graduation, Hinds could be the second-fastest returning 100 freestyler in the nation with an outside shot at her own national title (Stanford freshman Simone Manuel is still probably the prohibitive favorite). Hinds won the B final of the 50 last season at NCAAs and cracked 22 for the first time at SECs and is a potential national finalist in that event as well.
Seniors leave shoes to fill – breaststroke gap is biggest
The losses of swimmers like Beisel and Zalewski will be tough to overcome. But the underrated graduation for these Gators might be Icelandic Olympic breaststroker Hilda Luthersdottir. Without Luthersdottir, Florida takes a big step back in both breaststroke races, plus both medley relays, which combined to account for 62 points at NCAAs last year.
It’s not just that Florida’s returning breaststrokers aren’t as fast as Luthersdottir – it’s that there aren’t really any returning breaststrokers to speak of. The Gators didn’t have anyone besides Luthersdottir even entered in the 100 breast at last year’s SEC Championships. Junior Rebecca Rainer was the only other Gator entered in the 200 breast, and she’s no longer on the Florida roster.
Florida did pick up one of Florida’s better breaststroke prospects in Ally Donahue, plus Tennessee’s Paige Scheriger for their freshman class. But they’ll have to hope for a quick transition from those two young women if they hope to be competitive in the breaststrokes or medley relays, and with freshmen, you never really know how they’ll respond to the dramatic changes in living situation and training philosophy over the first season.
We got a hint in the early goings of this year as to how Florida plans to weather the transition, though. At last weekend’s All-Florida Invite, the Gators were using freestyler/IMer Lindsey McKnight as their fill-in breaststroker. McKnight was on the NCAA team last year, but as a 200 freestyler and 200 IMer. Her transition to breaststroke has had some bright spots early, but mostly in the shorter distances. McKnight split an admirable 28.57 on the 200 medley relay, the second-fastest split of the field. Though her individual times of 1:03.83 and 2:21.29 probably won’t scare any of the top breaststrokers in the nation, she was able to finish top-4 in both and was significantly faster on the 400 medley relay with a 1:02.32 split.
Odds are, McKnight will be a breaststroker for dual meets, but come SECs and NCAAs, she’ll go back to other events while still filling the relay roles if another breaststroker doesn’t spark before then. So it’s a positive for Florida that her relay swims have been her best. On the other hand, the Gators have some serious work to do to replicate the splits from Luthersdottir (27.04/59.25 last season).
Michalak a big mid-season reinforcement
German Olympian Theresa Michalak arrived in Gainesville last winter, but has to wait a year before becoming eligible. That does mean that she’ll be available for Florida for its post-season run, and the IMer looks like a huge mid-season pickup.
Michalak made some appearances on the Grand Prix circuit last spring and summer after starting to train with the Gators in the second semester of the school year. She was highly-impressive there in a host of events, and brings some Beisel-like qualities to the team in terms of lineup-writing.
Michalak can swim it all. She’s best known as a 200 IMer, where she took 12th at the London Olympic Games. (Her top time is 2:12.96, which roughly converts to a 1:56.90 – emphasis on “roughly”). But she’s also an outstanding butterflyer, breaststroker and even freestyler. With a lifetime-best of 1:10.80 in the 100 long course meter breast, it’s possible she’ll end up being the solution to the breaststroke problem by March as well.
The question with Michalak, as it is with all highly-touted foreign prospects, is how quickly she’ll adapt to swimming in yards and in a short course pool. The transition seems effortless for some, but can be brutal for others, especially in strokes like fly and breast, where stroke count and wall timing are at a premium. It’s worth noting that Michalak has some good experience in short course meters from multiple World Cup appearances, which may help ease her transition to short course yards.
It’s more an interesting side-note than anything, but Florida has had great success recruiting internationally. Based on the roster from the team’s website, over a quarter of the women’s team comes to Gainesville from outside of the U.S.
We’ve already mentioned Michalak (Germany) and Russell (Canada). The team has three Brits: redshirt freshman Georgia Hohmann (England), new freshman Chelsea Lawson (Scotland) and distance swimmer Jessica Thielmann (England). Also on the roster is Australian diver Kahlia Warner (more on her below) as well as Greece’s Elisavet Panti.
Coach Troy has obviously had a lot of success transitioning foreign athletes into a college environment. One needs to look no further back than last season, when Hilda Luthersdottir (Iceland) and Ellese Zalewski (Australia) were major players. The presence of so many different nationalities no doubt gives Florida swimmers an interesting look at varying world cultures – not to mention plenty of fun accents to listen to on the deck.
Other names to watch
Though the graduations last spring hit the Gators hard, one bright side to this season is that the team will hardly lose anyone to graduation before the 2015-2016 season. With only 3 seniors on the roster, Florida is led by a huge junior class. We already discussed Sinead Russell and Natalie Hinds (both juniors) at length, but here are some other key juniors for the Gators this season:
- Jessica Thielmann: the British swimmer was an All-American as a freshman after placing 6th in the 1650 free at NCAAs, but fell off a little in her sophomore season, falling to 20th and failing to break 16 minutes after going 15:52 the year before. Thielmann was still not far from NCAA scoring in all three of her events, though, and if she can get back to her previous level, she’ll be a huge contributor for the Gators.
- Ashlee Linn: Linn, an in-state product originally from the Sarasota YMCA, was another freshman sensation who hit a bit of a sophomore slump. She was an NCAA scorer in the 200 back in 2013, but failed to score individually in 2014. Still, she was a big part of the relay effort, swimming on all three relays, and is one of the more experienced swimmers returning in 2014-2015.
- Kahlia Warner: Warner heads up the Gator diving crew, and was an SEC championship finalist last year on both 1-meter and 3-meter. Though she didn’t qualify for NCAAs, Warner should have a shot this year. She’s a former Australian Junior National champ.
- Megan Rankin: Rankin transferred to Florida last season after swimming her freshman year at UCLA. She finished her first season in blue and orange with an NCAA appearance, though she was a ways out of scoring range in the 500, 1650 and 400 IM. With plenty of NCAA experience under her belt now, though, she could turn out to be a player for a Florida squad that really needs to develop some depth to stay afloat in the NCAA.
The Gators have been 6th at the past two NCAA Championships, but they definitely face a challenge in filling the shoes of their last graduating class. Perhaps the two biggest priorities for Florida moving forward will be filling in the graduated relay spots and filling the leadership void their last class left behind. The former might be more easily done than the latter.
The breaststroke leg has the potential to sink or float the medley relays. A decent breaststroke leg could allow Sinead Russell and Natalie Hinds to do their thing on the two adjacent relay legs, and Florida could be looking at two championship final appearances in the medleys (though placing 3rd and 4th, as they did in 2014, seems a bit of a stretch). But there aren’t many options for those breaststroke legs. In all honesty, Theresa Michalak might be the team’s best hope there – Lindsey McKnight filled in admirably last weekend, but she’s got a ways to go to be a real threat nationally, and the team would probably rather let her focus on her freestyle and IM races than split her focus to include sprint breaststroke.
Though Elizabeth Beisel actually wasn’t as big a point scorer at NCAAs as she’s been in other years, her leadership was invaluable to the team. Beisel is a highly-experienced swimmer at every level, a bubbly and positive presence and a do-everything workhorse who willingly swam wherever the team needed her. There’s no doubt Florida will miss her experience and leadership, but it now falls to Hinds and Russell to step up and lead the team. A big class of juniors now find themselves stepping out of the shadows and into the leadership roles in the program, and their response to that increased responsibility is going to have a big impact on how Florida handles adversity this season.
The good news for Florida fans, though, is that the team’s not going to change much over the next two years. With only 3 seniors on the roster right now, the nucleus of this team will return next season, making whatever finish they come down with this year a building block on the road to perhaps a better season in 2014-2015. Still, it’s dangerous to look too far ahead in sports. Florida appears to have a high level of talent and only a few major holes to fill. But it’s on the new-look Gators this season to define define who they are if they hope to achieve a third-straight top-6 finish or better.