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#1 Stanford Cardinal
Key Losses: Simone Manuel (56 NCAA points, 4 NCAA relays), Katie Ledecky (57 NCAA points, 1 NCAA relay), Janet Hu (41 NCAA points, 4 NCAA relays), Ally Howe (36 NCAA points, 3 NCAA relays), Lindsey Engel (11 NCAA points)
Key Additions: #1 Taylor Ruck (Canada – sprint free/back), #2 Zoe Bartel (CO – breast), #6 Morgan Tankersley (FL – free), #10 Lucie Nordmann (TX – back/free), #11 Amalie Fackenthal (CA – sprint free/fly), #20 Allie Raab (TN – breast), Anya Goeders (IN – sprint free)
The Stanford women put on an absolute clinic at the 2018 NCAA Championships. The Cardinal won their second straight title, eleventh overall, with the highest point total (593) since 2005 and the largest margin of victory (220) since 1993. They also tied the all-time record with 13 event wins, and joined Georgia (2005) and Arizona (2008) as the only teams to ever sweep all five relays.
They were spearheaded by two of the sport’s biggest stars – Katie Ledecky and Simone Manuel – who combined for 113 individual points and factored into all five relays. Manuel won the 50 and 100 free while placing 3rd in the 200, and Ledecky won the 500, 1650 and was the runner-up to teammate Ella Eastin in the 400 IM.
Eastin actually out-scored the two Olympic champions, putting up the maximum 60 points with three event wins to earn Swimmer of the Meet honors. In addition to her NCAA and American Record setting win in the 400 IM, Eastin also broke the all-time record in the 200 fly and took down defending champion Kathleen Baker with a new Championship Record in the 200 IM.
In addition to those outstanding performances, they had another national title come from senior Ally Howe in the 100 back, a pair of runner-up finishes from sophomore Katie Drabot, and a few other top-4 showings from senior Janet Hu, freshman Brooke Forde and sophomore Megan Byrnes.
Their historic relay performance was anchored by Manuel, who was key with 20 and 45-point freestyle legs on all four of the sprint relays. Howe and Hu were also crucial factors, especially on the medleys on back and fly, and the 4×200 had no problem winning without Manuel as Ledecky anchored them to victory by over three seconds in 1:39.8.
However, many pieces of last year’s core have now moved on. It’s up to their returning swimmers, along with their outstanding freshman class, to keep things going.
SPRINT FREE: A+
Individually, Stanford loses their only prominent scorer in the sprint freestyles in Manuel. She won both the 50 and the 100 in all three of her NCAA Championship appearances, and her absence will be felt both here and in the relays. They’re also hit with the losses of Hu (both sprint free relays) and Howe (200 free relay), but the reinforcements being brought in will certainly lessen the sting.
The Cardinal bring in a freshman class with no less than five women who can seamlessly step in and contribute at the highest level, led by Canadian Taylor Ruck.
Ruck has the capability of slotting into Manuel’s role as the pivot who swims on four relays and can win individually in her other three. Her 50 free yards best (22.31) is the only one somewhat up to date. Her 100 (48.5) and 200 (1:44.3) bests are from 2014 and 2015 respectively, and her long course times project her to be as fast as 21.1/46.7/1:40.3. Individually there’s a chance she only swims the 200, where she could win, but she’ll prove invaluable on all three freestyle relays.
Along with Ruck, they bring in Lucie Nordmann, Amalie Fackenthal, Morgan Tankersley and Anya Goeders who can all contribute both on relays and individually. All four are 22-point in the 50, Nordmann, Fackenthal and Tankersley are 48 in the 100, and Tankersley and Nordmann are 1:44 in the 200. Depending on how they fare in their first year, they all have a good chance of scoring at NCAAs (last year’s 16th place times from prelims: 22.2/48.0/1:44.6).
They only return sophomore Lauren Pitzer from last year’s 200 free relay, Eastin and Drabot from the 400 free relay, and those two along with Forde from the 800. Drabot brings high-end points in the 200 (4th last year), and Pitzer also has the potential to score after a pair of 18th finishes in the 100 and 200.
A lot of their success here will fall on the first year swimmers, particularly in the shorter distances, but they come in with the pedigree to be able to handle it.
DISTANCE FREE: A+
Stanford’s distance crew was by far the best in the NCAA last season, as they amassed a staggering 93 points from the 500 and 1650 alone. Of course, 40 of those came from Ledecky, who they now lose, but the other 53 return.
In the 500, last year’s runner-up Katie Drabot has a great shot at becoming National Champion with Ledecky gone, and they also had scoring swims from Brooke Forde and Lauren Pitzer. Megan Byrnes also tied for 16th in prelims before losing the swim-off, and Leah Stevens‘ Pac-12 performance (4:37.4) would’ve had her right on the edge of a spot in the A-final (ended up 22nd). Also of note, Ella Eastin was actually the 2nd-fastest swimmer in the country last year behind Ledecky despite not swimming it at NCAAs, going a 4:34.0 at Pac-12s. That gives them another weapon to use here in other meets if it fits her schedule, but it won’t factor into NCAAs as she’s already booked with the 200 IM, 400 IM and 200 fly.
In terms of newcomers, the Cardinal also nabbed the top 500 freestyler in the class in Morgan Tankersley, whose best of 4:37.6 puts her right on the edge of the top-8. However, it’s worth noting she was a bit off her best times in her senior year of high school.
There’s also the potential that Taylor Ruck could swim the 500 at NCAAs. What would have to be considered her four best events (100/200 free and back) all clash with each other on days 3 and 4, so while doing a double on one of those days or swimming five relays are both a possibility, she could realistically swim any of the three individual events on day 2 if she wants. She was 4:41 way back in 2014, and if she trained for it she’d be a threat. However, I do anticipate her training focus will revolve around the 100/200 to keep the speed required to help on the sprint relays.
In the mile, Byrnes and Stevens will hold down the fort without Ledecky coming off 4th and 5th place finishes at NCAAs respectively.
Eastin towers over the entire NCAA field in both medley events, as she’s in prime position to sweep them for a second straight year. In the 200, they do lose their only other scorer in Ally Howe (10th), but also have junior Allie Szekely and senior Kim Williams who weren’t far off the top-16 last year.
Freshman Zoe Bartel, the #2 ranked recruit in the class, threw down a 1:55.7 200 IM in March, instantly making her a scoring threat there. They’ve also got Forde (1:54.9) and Drabot (1:55.1) in their arsenal who only swam this at Pac-12s, and then there’s Ruck, who probably won’t swim this at any significant meets but is certainly capable after going 2:11 LC in-season in March (converts to 1:55.2).
In the 400, they had three of the top-four finishers last year and should maintain two of the top-three without Ledecky. Texas A&M senior Sydney Pickrem looks to be the only swimmer standing in the way of a Eastin-Forde 1-2, though it’s certainly a possibility after Forde dropped four seconds from her long course best this summer in 4:35.09 (a swim that got her on the U.S. World Championship team in 2019).
In butterfly, the Cardinal are in much better shape in the 200 than the 100, as they return last year’s top-2 in Eastin and Drabot. Kukurugya is also on the verge of scoring after placing 21st at NCAAs and going 1:54.9 early in the year.
With the departures of Janet Hu and Lindsey Engel, they lose their two 100 scorers from last year, with rising sophomore Lauren Green (39th) their only returning swimmer who swam it at NCAAs. They bring in Amalie Fackenthal, who has a best of 52.09 which is the 2nd-fastest in the class. That puts her right on the edge of scoring at NCAAs, and will suffice in taking over fly duties on the medley relays. Similar to Hu, another incoming freshman Lucie Nordmann is strong in both the 100 back and 100 fly, and could end up doing the double on day 3 come NCAAs. She comes in with a best of 52.31, which would’ve put her 20th last year.
Ally Howe (51.0 at Pac-12s) was also a contributor in the 100 where they needed her, but they should be OK with Eastin and Drabot also stepping in if required. This is probably their weakest event, but overall their strength in the 200 counteracts it and still gets them an A.
The departures of Howe and Hu are felt a little more on backstroke, where the two combined for 54 points last year. Howe won the National Title in the 100, with Hu 5th, and they were also 8th and 9th in the 200. Howe also gave the Cardinal a lead opening up both medley relay finals at NCAAs (tied with Indiana in the 200). While these two losses are very significant, the additions of Ruck and Nordmann give them two very capable replacements.
As is the case with basically all of her events, Ruck’s long course times (58.9/2:06.3) are far more impressive than her short course yards times, but last December she showed some incredible speed in short course metres at the Swim Cup Lausanne (56.9/2:01.6) which will translate well to yards. With last year’s winners Howe and Baker gone, Ruck has a legit chance to win both at NCAAs. The question, however, is if she’ll swim the events. The 200 free and 200 back are probably going to be in the lineup. She could attempt the 200 free/100 back double, or could try one of the day 2 events where she could be competitive in all three. Time will tell, but either way she’ll be extremely valuable both individually and on the medley relays.
Both of Nordmann’s bests (52.1/1:52.1) put her in scoring position as well, and if Ruck doesn’t swim the 100, she’ll likely be their only entrant in the event at NCAAs.
Stanford’s breaststroke was their weak point last season (though they still had two individual scorers in Grace Zhao and Kim Williams), but that doesn’t look to be the case this year as they add the class’ top breaststroker and #2 recruit overall (behind Ruck) in Zoe Bartel along with arguably the #2 breaststroker in Allie Raab.
Bartel’s best times of 58.7 and 2:06.2 would’ve landed her 5th and 4th respectively at the 2018 NCAAs, and the graduation of Bethany Galat bumps her into the projected top-3 in the 200 behind only Lilly King and Sydney Pickrem. Williams did a fine job on both medley relays last year, but Bartel is probably the favorite to take over her spot (at least on the 400). It won’t be easy though, as both Zhao (58.6) and Williams (58.5) stepped up with big splits in last year’s prelims and finals.
Those two were 13th and 14 last year in the 100, and considering it was Zhao’s freshman year, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see her make an improvement this season. Though Raab was off her best times in her senior year of high school, she was still solid (1:00.6) and comes in with a lifetime best of 1:00.0 which lands right around the cut line for top-16 at NCAAs.
Behind Bartel’s 2:06, the team is very deep in the 200 with Brooke Forde having been 2:07 at Pac-12s last year and Williams, Zhao and Raab all in the 2:09s. That gives them five swimmers with a realistic chance of scoring, though last year Zhao snuck in at 16th, Williams and Forde missed, and Raab’s season-best was 2:11.
Nothing’s a sure thing, especially when you’re relying on freshman, but this breaststroke group is very impressive and will certainly be better than it was last season. If all five of these swimmers are firing on all cylinders, this is the best group in the NCAA (with Texas A&M losing a few key pieces).
Last year’s Cardinal team was so historically dominant that it’s impossible to be replicated. The departures of Manuel and Ledecky are obviously huge, but Howe and Hu were also key cogs in the machine that were relied upon heavily and seemingly delivered every time. That being said, the returnees and the incoming freshman class certainly look like a team capable of bringing Stanford a third straight national title.
Taylor Ruck has limitless potential, and looks as though she’ll be able to instantly bring in 50+ individual points and be a driving force on four relays. Ella Eastin, Katie Drabot and Brooke Forde carry over from last year and will be relied upon a bit more this year with such important pieces now gone, but all three have proven they can shoulder a big load, bringing a lethal combination of talent and versatility.
It also cannot be overstated the help brought in from the likes of Tankersley, Nordmann, Fackenthal and Goeders, as twelve of their 20 finals relay positions from last year are now gone, and those four, along with Ruck, will be able to seamlessly step in and keep the team competitive across the board.
While they’re now weaker in the distance freestyles and perhaps the 100 fly, they got a whole lot stronger on breaststroke, last year’s weak point (if they had one), and now shape up to be the top team in the country there.
Another relay sweep is optimistic, and they probably won’t be putting up record setting point totals like last year, but the Cardinal are poised for their first three-peat since 1996 (when they won five straight beginning in ’92) and the first three-peat of any team since Auburn did so from 2002-04.