Most of the country is honing in this weekend on their NCAA basketball brackets, and trying to find the so-called Cinderellas of the “Big Dance” that will leave them to office-pool glory.
But we in the swimming community have our fair share of Cinderellas too. These are swimmers who don’t come from a BCS program but who still have a chance to make a big splash at NCAA’s. Some of these swimmers’ NCAA performances are moderately predictable, as we can base some predictions off of past-years performances. Some of them are a little tougher to peg, as this will be their first real exposure on the national level, and we don’t have a good historical sense of how the program tapers.
We’ve picked out a few of these mid-major swimmers and want to give you a little bit of a primer on them, so that you’re not left wondering who the glass-slipper belongs to this weekend.
Ashley Danner, Jr., George Mason
Last year, Ashley Danner was the singular big surprise of the NCAA Championships (as we highlighted in our interview with her). She is well-versed in the ways of NCAA’s, as she entered the 2010 meet as the top overall seed in the 100 breaststroke. She ultimately finished 2nd behind champion Annie Chandler of Arizona, but she still showed that she had the capability to stack up against anyone in the country. This season, she enters more under the radar. She will have the 13th seed in the 100 breast (59.97), 22nd in the 200 breaststroke (2:10.68), and 34th in the 200 IM (1:58.84), all three of which are events that she scored in last season. She seems to have slow-played her taper moreso this season than last, which means that she could be much faster at NCAA’s than she was at NCAA’s last season. The caveat here is going to be the fact that the breaststroke fields are loaded this season. In the 100, her best event, she was runner-up last year in a 59.0. It will likely take a 58-high to even place in the top 3 this season.
Amber Boucher, Jr., Boise State
This will be Boucher’s first ever NCAA appearance, as well as the first-ever appearance for Boise State’s swim program at NCAA’s. She will be swimming the 50 free (19th-22.30), 100 free (9th-48.33), and 100 fly (6th-52.05). Boucher is a two-time WAC Swimmer of the Year, and has improved by leaps-and-bounds this season. Prior to this year, her career-best times were 54.4 in the 100 fly and 23.0 in the 50 free. And her improvements are no flukes. She went several best-times this season, indicating a bona fide improvement, rather than just a normal improvement and maturation. Two A-finals and a B-final are certainly not out of the question here, and she should definitely score in at least the 100 fly and 50 free.
She’ll have one big advantage in this meet: a teammate. Her Boise St. classmate Stephanie North was also invited in the 100 free, where she’s seeded 22nd, and will bonus-swim the 50 and 200 freestyles as well. This may seem like a small thing, but in her first NCAA appearance, it will be a huge boon for her to have a teammate there to help her maintain focus, to share the experience with, heck to share a warm-up lane with.
Claire Donahue, Sr., Western Kentucky
Donahue will be swimming at her second-consecutive NCAA Championship. She will be swimming two bonus events (50 free, 200 fly), but her big focus is going to be the 100 fly. Last season, she placed 4th in that race, making her the first woman in Western Kentucky history to qualify for a finals session at NCAA’s. She entered NCAA’s in this event last year with an identical 51.95 seed time, and was just barely off of that mark in the final.
She could also grab a B-final in the 200 fly, where she place 17th last season. This is Donahue’s final collegiate meet, but she’s got a future in international swimming. At last summer’s USA-Swimming National Championships, she placed 8th in the 100 fly (59.28). That made her one of only three college swimmers to qualify for the A-final, and ranked her in the top 50 in the world.
Meredith Budner, Sr., Towson
Budner is a part of an energized Towson program that is led by the very methodical and calculating Pat Mead. She is bar-none the best swimmer in Colonial Athletic Association history and has never lost a race at the CAA Championships (for 12 individual titles). Last season, she had a great NCAA Championship when she placed 6th in the mile (16:01.3) and 8th in the 500 (4:40.1). This season, however, she’s already blown those marks away. She’s the second seed in both of those races with a 4:36.8 500 free and a 15:52.0 mile. Last season in that 1650, she dropped 9 seconds at NCAA’s. Given the consistency of coach Mead’s training from year-to-year, it’s not outside of the realm of possibility that she will have another huge drop at the meet, which puts her well in range of an NCAA title.
Towson has developed a very impressive group of swimmers that, in addition to Budner, includes fellow distance swimmers Brooke Golden and Kayla Zeller, and butterflier Cari Czarnecki. With these four swimmers in attendance, Towson was even able to enter four relays, and once you start getting relays to NCAA’s, that’s where a program can really get itself rolling downhill. This is going to be a banner year for Towson, and Budner is the anchor.
Therese Svendsen, Jr., SMU
Svensen has qualified for the NCAA Championships every year of her college career thus far, including a career-best 13th place in the 100 back last season. This year, she enters the meets seeded 10th in the 100 back (52.62) and 11th in the 200 back (1:53.82). She entered last year’s meet with a similar seed in the shorter race, but has shown huge improvements this season in the 200 distance. Each of the past two seasons, she’s added time at NCAA’s, but she’ll definitely be hoping to reverse that trend this year.
Kelsey Vehr, Sr., Miami (OH)
Vehr is another mid-major breaststroker, and was an All-American last year thanks to her 7th place finish in the 100 (1:00.60). In prelims of that meet, she just barely missed breaking the minute barrier in a career-best 1:00.07. This season, she enters the meet seeded 19th in a much-faster breaststroke field (1:00.33) and 14th in the 200 (2:10.37).