Key Additions: Mollie Pulte (MI – free/back/fly), Hannah Burns (FL – everything), Sydney Sell (KY – back), Tyla Martin (Trinidad & Tobago/FL – IM/fly), Emma Spilman (FL – fly/back), Katie Rourke (IL – diving), Abigail Howell (FL – diving), Miranda Goss (FL – diving)
Key Losses: Jordan Smith (SEC scorer in three events)
The 2014-2015 season for Florida was its first without Olympic star Elizabeth Beisel on the roster, presenting a unique challenge to the team in terms of identity.
Luckily for the Gators, the team had a new star step up: British distance swimmer Jess Thielmann rose to become one of the nation’s top high-yardage threats.
Thielmann had a dream junior season. She split up the nearly-unbeatable Georgia combination of Amber McDermott and Brittany MacLean in the distance freestyles, beating both in the 1650 at SECs and finishing second behind McDermott in the 500 at the same meet.
Thielmann followed that up with an even better NCAAs, with three appearances in the national A finals yielding 3rd (1650 free), 5th (500 free) and 8th (400 IM) place finishes and triple All-America honors.
At the other end of the yardage spectrum, sprinter Natalie Hinds came up with two NCAA A final appearances and a third-place finish of her own in the 100 free – part of what’s believed to be the first 1-2-3 finish by African American swimmers in NCAA history.
The bad news was that, by and large, the team added significant time from SECs to NCAAs, scoring only two relays and two individual events outside of Thielmann and Hinds. That dropped the Gators from 6th overall in 2014 to 9th in 2015, and cut their point total nearly in half.
Almost No Turnover
The good news for Florida is that the roster will return with almost no impact graduations in 2015. Only three seniors were on the roster a year ago, and only one, Jordan Smith, scored SEC points. Smith competed in three different C finals between the 400 IM, 500 free and 1650 free, but did not compete at NCAAs.
That means a monster class returns as seniors for the Gators in 2015-2016, led by the aforementioned Thielmann.
The Brit should see her stock rise significantly this season, coming back as the 2nd-fastest swimmer in the nation in both distance free races. Georgia’s Amber McDermott and Texas A&M’s Sarah Henry have graduated, and Cal freshman sensation Cierra Runge will take an Olympic redshirt year, leaving only Virginia’s Leah Smith between Thielmann and an NCAA title. Helping matters even more, world record-holder Katie Ledecky will defer her enrollment at Stanford until after the 2016 Olympics, keeping her out of the way until Thielmann graduates.
Also in that rising senior class is Hinds, one of the nation’s best sprinters in both fly and free. She won the SEC title in the 100 free and finaled in the 100 fly and 50 free. Hinds appears to be best over the 100-yard distance in both fly and free, but if she can summon up a little more pure speed as a senior, she’ll be in the hunt for an NCAA A final slot in the 50 free as well.
The other two returning individual NCAA point-scorers are also seniors: diver Kahlia Warner and backstroker Ashlee Linn. Warner was 6th on the 1-meter springboard last year, while Linn took 10th in the 200 back.
The final member of that NCAA scoring senior corps would be backstroker Sinead Russell, but the Canadian import missed last post-season with a scary medical condition. Russell was hospitalized last January with blood clots around her brain. She’s been reportedly improving ever since, and hopes to make a return to the sport when she’ll fully healthy. However, the nature of her condition makes it nearly impossible to put any sort of timetable on a return. At this point, any future production she provides for Florida has to be considered a bonus, though she remains an inspirational and emotional leader for the team.
Still no Breaststroker
It was about a year ago that we were talking about Florida’s big breaststroke weakness heading into a season, and not a whole lot has changed in the time since. Despite being loaded in the backstrokes, Florida still lacks an impact breaststroker, and will continue to have to scramble to fill out the medley relays.
Last year, mid-season addition Theresa Michalak, primarily an IMer, filled in the breaststroking gap- sneaking under a minute (59.94) at SECs. But she hovered right around 1:00 on her relay splits, and Florida’s 400 medley was nowhere near NCAA scoring range. Keeping with the theme of tossing IMers into the breaststroke role, the Gators used Lindsey McKnight on their 200 medley relay. McKnight filled in admirably with a 27.9 split, but with a whole host of 26- and 27-low splits across the NCAA, Florida still fell well short of scoring as a relay.
It now appears Florida’s succession plan in the breaststrokes centered around would-be sophomore Ally Donahue, who dropped off the team last fall and transferred out to Brown this summer.
Michalak returns as the team’s top 100 breast option and McKnight’s 2:14.50 was the Gators’ top 200 breast time last year. Coach Gregg Troy will have to bank on some big development by sophomore Paige Scheriger (1:02.6 and 2:15.2 as a freshman) to stay afloat, Otherwise, it looks like another year of plugging in versatile non-breaststrokers to fill out the team’s breaststroke gap.
Maybe the best option will be incoming freshan Hannah Burns, who goes 1:04.12 and 2:12.80 in the 100 and 200 breasts, respectively. That would make her the best 200 breaststroker on last year’s team by about two full seconds. But putting Burns into a breaststroke race keeps her out of other events in which she could perhaps score more points. (More on that in the next section).
Versatility is the Name of the Game
This recruiting class (and roster in general) screams Gregg Troy in terms of versatility and grit.
There’s a joke that says every swimmer at Florida is a 400 IMer, they all just branch out into different events. That’s not entirely true, but looking at the Gators’ roster, it’s not entirely false either. The incoming freshman class and the roster as a whole are made up of swimmers with a plethora of potential event options.
Take Burns for instance. Though she may wind up being the team’s best 200 breaststroker, she could very easily fit in as a distance freestyler (1:47.9 in the 200 free, 4:46.6 in the 500 and 16:28.7 in the 1650) or as a pure IMer (1:59.9 in the 200, 4:09.3 in the 400).
Michigan’s Mollie Pulte is arguably the team’s top recruit, going 49.8 in the 100 free and 1:47.8 in the 200. She’s also a 55.7 100-flyer, and would probably compete as a developmental backstroker on any team not as loaded in backstroke as Florida.
The backs were almost an embarrassment of riches for Florida last year, even with the loss of Russell mid-season, and Kentucky’s Sydney Sell adds yet another power there with times of 53.8 and 1:55.2.
Trinidad & Tobago international Tyla Martin adds strong butterfly potential (1:03.3 and 2:19.0 long course), but can also swim a solid 200 IM. In the butterflys, she’ll be joined by in-state pickup Emma Spilman, who put up times of 1:03.4 and 2:15.4 over the summer and should be a good fit with Troy’s 200 fly training.
That adds to a roster already loaded with all-around talents. Last post-season, McKnight swam the 200 IM, 200 free and 100 breast, plus legs on all five relays at NCAAs. Michalak swam everything from the IMs to the 200 fly (at NCAAs) to the 100 breast (SECs) to the backstroke leg of the 200 medley relay (SECs) in just three months with the team.
Big Dropoff from Conference to Nationals
Probably the biggest issue for Florida last postseason was a pretty noticeable dropoff in times from the SEC Championships to the NCAA Championships about a month later.
Though Thielmann and Hinds managed to put up big swims in their primary events at nationals, each had an event in which they added time from the conference level – Thielmann in the 500 free and Hinds in the 50 free. Every single relay went slower at NCAAs, with the exception of the 400 free relay, which went faster in prelims, then fell back behind their SEC time in finals.
Florida had a lot of entries at NCAAs, but struggled to convert many of them into points. A lot of that might be because the NCAA’s three-day format feels much more compressed than the 5-day SEC lineup. That extra rest (and prevention of too many single-session doubles) at the conference level allows swimmers a better chance to put up an NCAA invite time, but the downside is that repeating that time at NCAAs becomes much harder after a swimmer is accustomed to the extra recovery time in the expanded event lineup.
That NCAA dropoff is something that will have to change for Florida to push into the top 8 teams in the nation this season.
Other Key Swimmers
- Florida does return SEC 200 free champ Amelia Maughan, who blasted a 1:44.68 at the conference level. Maughan fell victim to that NCAA dropoff though, adding a second and missing finals, then struggling to a 1:47.0 split on the 800 free relay.
- A sophomore and British import just like Maughan, Georgia Hohmann is one of the team’s many great backstrokers. Hohmann is a returning SEC A finalist.
- Sophia Batchelor was one of the team’s key pickups a year ago, transferring out of California to join the Gators. Batchelor has the potential to be the team’s best butterflyer, which would help the medley relays immensely by allowing Hinds to man the freestyle leg instead.
- Rising junior Taylor Katz was an NCAA qualifier last year and set a lifetime-best in the 500 free. Also an SEC A-finalist in the 200 fly (third in 1:54.50) and 500 free (seventh in 4:43.15), Katz should be a big contributor in her third season in orange and blue.
- Fellow junior Autumn Finke placed 9th at SECs in the 1650 last year and should be the team’s top distance threat behind Thielmann.
- Joining Warner on the diving boads are a pair of talented in-state freshmen, Abigail Howell and Miranda Goss. Both come out of Florida. The Gators also went to Illinois to pick up Katie Rourke.
With the makeup of Florida’s roster, projecting a week-to-week meet lineup, or even end-of-year relay rosters, is a difficult task. Florida’s greatest weapon is also arguably its biggest weakness: versatility.
A roster of multi-stroke and IM swimmers means Florida should never be without options to fill out lineups in every event. On the other hand, though, the lack of true elite talents in events like the breaststrokes leaves stopgap solutions in some key spots, especially on relays.
Outside of that, though, Florida has the tools to be really dominant in the events where they’re strong, and that list could be pretty long. Distance free, backstroke, IM – if the Gators can score enough points in these events to overcome their weaknesses elsewhere, this team is going to move upwards in the SEC and NCAA.
That’s not an ideal formula for college dual meets, but it can work at the championship meet level.
The other bit of intrigue for Florida this coming season is an increased focus on long course swimming. With a large international hub splitting their focus between college season and preparing for Olympics or Olympic Trials for a host of different nations, Florida has tweaked its 2015-2016 schedule to include two long course dual meets as well as a long course mid-season championship meet.
Florida will dual SEC rivals Georgia and Auburn in the Olympic-distance long course meters rather than the traditional college format of short course yards. In addition, Florida has two mid-season invites on its schedule: the short course Ohio State Invite and the long course U.S. Winter Nationals. It’s likely we’ll see most of the team in Ohio State, but probably serious Olympic contenders and perhaps athletes with shots at new Olympic Trials cuts heading to Washington for U.S. Nats.