The 2022 NCAA Swimming & Diving Championships were unlike any other for a lot of reasons. One glaring reason, and one that might have contributed to the unbelievable depth that was present, is that for the first time, swimmers had the option to receive a 5th season of eligibility.
The waiver was granted by the NCAA for athletes who participated in the 2020-2021 COVID-19-ravaged season as a carrot to keep schools from canceling their seasons in order to avoid the disruptions and preserve eligibility.
Athletes at schools like Arizona State or the Ivy Leagues will only receive their four years of eligibility (though the year they skipped won’t count as a year of eligibility; swimmers who were on the team and competed at schools like Cal, Texas, Florida, and Virginia will have their eligibility extended by one year, if they choose).
While this year saw quite a few big-name swimmers, that will taper off in future years for two primary reasons:
- Scholarships for 5th years didn’t count against teams’ totals this year if the athlete stayed at the same school. In future years, scholarships will count against teams’ totals. That means coaches have to weigh the benefits of attracting a freshman recruit for the next four years with that money, or keeping a senior for another year. At a program like Minnesota, where NCAA Champion Max McHugh has already announced that he’ll return, it makes sense, because he has high prominence among other swimmers on the team’s roster. For a team like Cal or NC State or Texas or Virginia, fighting for the top recruits in the country, it might make sense to use that money to improve offers to future freshmen. The same story is true, but replace scholarships with “roster spots,” as many schools have a very narrow range of roster spots that they are instructed to maintain by their athletics directors.
- The further away from the height of the pandemic that we get, the less motivation swimmers will have to stick around an extra year. After last year, a lot of swimmers didn’t feel like they had closure (especially after missing 2020 NCAAs). By the time last year’s freshmen become seniors, however, more are likely to be ready to move on with their lives and go pro in something other than swimming, because it won’t feel as much to them as though they were short-changed.
We wanted to look at some of the ways that these 5th year’s impacted last week’s NCAA Championships. Below is data and discussion of those 5th years and the ways they impacted the meet.
Points By Class
Note: Penn and Arizona State both listed their seniors as 5th years, even though they didn’t compete last year. For the purpose of this analysis, we have relisted them as seniors because it is their fourth season of eligibility. Arizona lists Aria Bernal (5 points) as a 5th year, but as far as we can tell, this was only her 4th year of eligibility. We have moved her to the senior grouping as well.
Points By Swimmer
|TEAM||POINTS – 2021||POINTS – 2022||Difference in Scoring||EVENT||PLACE||TIME||EVENT||PLACE||TIME||EVENT||PLACE||TIME|
|Forde, Brooke||Staford||40||44||4||500 Free||4||4:36.18||400 IM||2||4:00.41||200 Breast||7||2:06.98|
|Pfeifer, Evie||Texas||48||29||-19||500 Free||5||4:37.29||400 IM||19||4:08.76||1650 Free||4||15:48.34|
|Bonnett, Bailey||Kentucky||7||19||12||200 IM||14||1:56.4||400 IM||7||4:07.09||200 Breast||13||2:08.15|
|Romano, Kristen||Ohio State||20||18||-2||200 IM||9||1:54.31||400 IM||9||4:02.13||200 Fly||19||1:55.12|
|Moore, Kate||NC State||27||7||-20||200 IM||23||1:56.61||400 IM||18||4:08.59||200 Back||10||1:51.61|
|Gyorgy, Reka||Virginia Tech||16||7||-9||500 Free||17||4:41.06||400 IM||10||4:04.95||200 Fly||27||1:55.72|
|Yager, Alexis||Tennessee||5||3||-2||200 IM||20||1:56.36||400 IM||14||4:07.9||200 Breast||19||2:08.2|
|Poole, Julia||NC State||13||0||-13||200 IM||17||1:56.13||100 Breast||27||59.83||200 Breast||25||2:08.97|
|Friesen, Morgan||Louisville||0||0||0||100 Breast||36||1:00.47||200 Breast||27||2:09.16|
|Trace, Katie||Ohio State||13||0||-13||200 IM||63||1:59.47||400 IM||21||4:09.26||200 Fly||40||1:57.05|
|Pintar, Tjasa||Tennessee||2||0||-2||50 Free||60||22.74||200 Free||42||1:46.57||100 Free||23||48.32|
|Palsha, Peyton||Georgia||5||0||-5||500 Free||51||4:47.59||400 IM||38||4:15.00||1650 Free||40||16:28.77|
|Dellatorre, Danielle||Georgia||3||0||-3||200 IM||50||1:58.49||100 Breast||39||1:00.61||200 Breast||37||2:10.27|
|Fa’Amausili, Gabi||Georgia||0||0||0||50 Free||47||22.51||100 Back||DFS||DFS||100 Free||DFS||DFS|
|Sheridan, Calypso||USC||0||0||0||200 IM||30||1:57.04||100 Back||19||52||200 Breast||41||2:10.63|
|Smith, Maddie||Northwestern||18||0||-18||50 Free||23||22.11||100 Free||24||48.35|
|Thompson, Sarah||Missouri||23||0||-23||50 Free||22||22.1||100 Fly||22||52.06||100 Back||26||52.24|
|Larson, Chloe||Washington State||0||0||0||50 Free||49||22.53||100 Free||45||49.18|
|Leehy, Mykenzie||Auburn||6||0||-6||50 Free||61||22.75||200 Free||50||1:47.75||100 Free||53||49.42|
|Cummings, Carly||Auburn||0||0||0||100 Breast||34||1:00.19||200 Breast||35||2:10.19|
|Haebig, Autumn||Nebraska||11||0||-11||500 Free||28||4:43.46||200 Free||23||1:45.69||100 Free||55||49.62|
The picture is clear on the women’s side of the pool: the 5th year experiment was not overall a successful one. Out of 22 5th years who we identified that swam individual events, only two scored more points than they did last season: Stanford’s Brooke Forde (40 points to 44 points) and Kentucky’s Bailey Bonnett (7 to 19).
In total, this group of women scored 130 fewer individual points than they did last year at the NCAA Championships.
The top performer of the group was Forde as part of Stanford’s 3rd place team finish. She finished 4th in the 500 free, 2nd in the 400 IM, and 4th in the 200 breast. Texas’ Evie Pfiefer scored 29 points, led by a 5th-place finish in the 500 free: a race that she was 2nd in last year. She was about two seconds better in that race last year than she was this year.
Part of this was probably influenced by a monster freshman class nation-wide, but seniors in general did well too. At the end of the day, only 8 swimmers using their 5th year of eligibility scored at the NCAA Championships, so their impact wasn’t completely for naught, but it wasn’t gigantic either. Crucially was this: without Pfeiffer’s 29 points, Texas doesn’t finish 6.5 points ahead of Stanford for 2nd place.
Virginia didn’t bring back any 5th years (men or women) this season and still managed to win the women’s title. They also had the most freshman points of any team (123) and the fewest senior points among the top 5 (26), which means they’re going to be very hard to beat again next season.
Points By Class:
Texas lists Cameron Auchinachie as a 5th year, except he didn’t actually race last season at Denver. We’re not sure if there’s a wrinkle that meant he burned a year of eligibility at Denver anyway, but for the purposes of this analysis, we’re treating him as a senior.
Points By Swimmer:
|Team||2021 Points||2022 POINTS||Difference||EVENT||PLACE||TIME||EVENT||PLACE||TIME||EVENT||PLACE||TIME|
|Albiero, Nicolas||Louisville||51||42||-9||100 Fly||6||44.61||100 Back||6||44.6||200 Fly||3||1:38.88|
|Julian, Trenton||Cal||48||39||-9||200 IM||7||1:40.47||200 Free||7||1:31.8||200 Fly||4||1:39.00|
|Fail, Brooks||Arizona||42||39||-3||500 Free||5||4:10.05||400 IM||6||3:38.55||1650 Free||7||14:35.33|
|Carr, Daniel||Cal||25||20.5||-4.5||100 Back||12||44.98||200 Back||3||1:39.06||200 IM||22||1:43.03|
|Pumputis, Caio||Georgia Tech||25||18||-7||200 IM||16||1:43.37||100 Breast||14||51.82||200 Breast||5||1:50.61|
|Mefford, Bryce||Cal||36||15||-21||100 Back||14||45.03||200 Back||7||1:40.31||200 IM||19||1:38.94|
|Shoults, Grant||Stanford||11||14||3||500 Free||12||4:12.79||1650 Free||9||14:38.18||100 Back||21||45.57|
|Ferraro, Christian||Georgia Tech||6||14||8||200 Fly||5||1:40.09||50 Free||32||19.44||100 Fly||18||45.24|
|Pellini, Trent||USC||2||14||12||100 Breast||5||50.93||200 IM||32||1:43.78||200 Breast||25||1:53.70|
|Grieshop, Sean||Cal||31||11||-20||400 IM||8||3:40.12||1650 Free||24||15:00.65||500 Free||19||4:14.38|
|Fantoni, Gabriel||Indiana||4||7||3||100 Back||10||44.7||100 Fly||20||45.33||200 Back||17||1:40.39|
|Blaskovic, Bruno||Indiana||0||6||6||50 Free||13||19.14||100 Free||15||42.1||100 Fly||19||45.25|
|Tornqvist, Samuel||Virginia Tech||5||4||-1||200 Back||13||1:39.7||200 IM||33||1:43.80||100 Back||26||45.74|
|Jiang, Alvin||Texas||31||1.5||-29.5||100 Fly||15||45.64||100 Back||Scratch Finals||Scratch Finals|
|Steele, Jacob||Indiana||3||1||-2||200 Back||16||1:41.11||200 IM||54||1:46.29||100 Back||21||45.57|
|Somov, Evgenii||Louisville||15||1||-14||100 Breast||16||52.15||200 Breast||DFS||DFS|
|Knowles, Eric||NC State||0||0||0||1650 Free||19||14:56.86||500 Free||33||4:17.77||400 IM||26||3:45.21|
|David Dixon||West Virginia||5||0||-5||200 IM||52||1:45.73||100 Fly||40||46.83||200 Fly||28||1:43.22|
|Nikola Miljenic||USC||3||0||-3||50 Free||32||19.44||100 Fly||27||45.56||100 Free||25||42.26|
|Daniel Namir||Arizona||0||0||0||50 Free||43||19.63||200 Free||34||1:33.69||100 Free||47||43.45|
|Corey Gambardella||Indiana||0||0||0||100 Fly||39||46.77||200 Fly||20||1:42.29|
|Caleb Rhodenbaugh||SMU||0||0||0||100 Breast||32||52.69||200 Breast||17||1:52.73|
The men’s meet saw a significantly-bigger impact from 5th year seniors, though the same downward trend emerged.
There were four 5th year swimmers who scored at least 20 points at this year’s meet: Nicolas Albiero, Trenton Julian, Brooks Fail, and Daniel Carr. All scored fewer points this season than they did last season at NCAAs.
On net, 22 men that we registered as 5th years moved down 96 points from last year to this year.
A lot of them were concentrated in a couple of events, so those events were definitely impacted. The 100 backstroke, for example, had four 5th-year seniors in the B Final, and the 3rd-4th-5th place finishers in the 200 fly were also 5th year seniors.
In some races, they definitely shaped the results and the cut lines. For example, that 3:39 from Wisconsin’s Caleb Aman that infamously finished 9th would have been 7th if it weren’t for 5th year seniors. A 3:40.15 would have been the first time out of the A Final – still historically fast, but without the same pop as a “3:39 misses A final” headline.
But in other races they mattered less, at least directly.
There were a few odd circumstances in play here though: one of the 5th year seniors, Bruno Blaskovic, suffered a serious back injury that kept him out of most of last season. It’s possible that he would have been granted an eligibility extension by the NCAA anyway.
One of two things must be true: either the COVID year impacted seniors (broad strokes) less than other classes last year, so their relative finishes were higher, or the more likely explanation that the 5th year wasn’t as electric as it was expected to be.
Sometimes we ignore the human element of this all, the mentality of an athlete who has gone through four years with a plan and a class, and then trying to stretch that out one more year doesn’t necessarily mean a progression forward.
I think back to my high school or college years, blasting nostalgic John Mayer songs, soaking up those last few moments before moving forward to the next part of our lives. I think that if I had stuck around for a 5th year, that sort of “senioritis,” with all of its goods and bads, would have faded, and I might have been left feeling a little emptier, a little less motivated, ready to move on.
I think that’s why so many of the American swimmers who skipped college and tried to go pro straight out of high school have been a bust to. It breaks the natural cultural cycle that is so ingrained into the American educational system. The group of athletes that you came up with, that you arrived with and were bonded with through shared experience, move on, and you stay. That bond can’t really be recreated given the intensity of the collegiate athletics experience.
I think my ultimate conclusion is that four years of collegiate eligibility is the right number, and I’ll be glad when this waiver expires and no longer clogs the pipes of the NCAA.