By Mike Beas
Special to NCAA.com
WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — Twenty-eight years might seem like a dry spell of Sahara-like proportions, but to the Florida women’s swimming and diving program, it seemed like no big deal.
After all, the Gators had plenty of water nearby.
Saving its best for Saturday night at Purdue’s Boilermaker Aquatic Center, Florida rallied to capture its first Division I Women’s Swimming and Diving national title since 1982 by totaling 382 points compared to 379.5 for runner-up Stanford. Defending champion California was third with 363 points.
The 2.5 points separating glory from an off-season of what-ifs might seem razor thin, yet it falls short of the 1.5 points between 2001 titleist Georgia and second-place Stanford (389 to 387.5).
Keeping with tradition, Florida’s entire squad engaged in a celebratory leap into the pool, one that included Gators head coach Gregg Troy, a man who’s never been so happy to be drenched head-to-toe. After all, his squad entered the third and final day of competition in fifth place, but it gained ground rapidly without a single trip to the champion’s platform.
With a second- and third-place showing in the 200 backstroke and thirds in platform diving and the 400 freestyle relay, Florida’s depth took a toll on the competition. The Gators also nabbed a fourth in the 100 free, both a fifth and sixth in the 200 butterfly and a seventh in the 1650 freestyle.
The top five finishers in the 200 breaststroke all lowered the pool record, but it’s Texas A&M’s Alia Atkinson who’ll be in the record books with a championship effort of 2:07.38. It was a fight to the very finish between Atkinson and Stanford’s Elizabeth Smith (2:07.50), Arizona’s Ann Chandler (2:07.68), Yi-ting Siow of Arkansas (2:07.73) and Minnesota’s Haley Spencer (2:07.88).
“It’s about who wants it more,” said Atkinson of her individual win. “Coming in our goal as a team was top four. This is kind of a redemption day for us.” The Aggies didn’t reach the top four. However, their 311 points earned them sixth position in the final team standings.
Georgia’s Wendy Trott swam a 15:48.87 to capture the 1650 freestyle, Indiana senior Kateryna Fesenko outdueled three-time NCAA champion Gemma Spofforth of Florida in the 200 backstroke and Texas A&M’s Julia Wilkinson won the 100 free in 47.61 seconds.
“Texas A&M has never had a national champion in any race, so we knew there were a couple people trying to be that first one for the team,” said Wilkinson. “It’s all about our team. We always feel like we are really underrated, so we wanted to come in here and show what we can do and show how hard we work. I came in second in 2008 and then had surgery, so I had to sit out last year. I have been thinking about this race for two years, so it’s a pretty sweet feeling to hit that wall and hear my name.”
Elaine Breeden of Stanford won the 200 butterfly for the third time in four seasons, this time in 1:52.39.
“It’s awesome,” said Breeden. “I felt a lot of pressure going into that race since it’s such a tight race. I knew I had all of my teammates supporting me, and I had such a great swim tonight, so I just wanted to finish up with a good one.”
IUPUI’s Chen Ni took first in platform diving with a 325.50 score, edging out Carrie Dragland of Alabama, who finished with a 323.05. “It feels good,” said Chen, whose home campus is approximately a one-hour drive from Purdue. “All of my hard work for the year paid off.”
The meet’s swan song event, the 400 freestyle relay, went to Stanford’s team of Kate Dwelley, Samantha Woodward, Elizabeth Webb and Julia Smit in pool-record time of 3:12.32.
“Going into the last relay, the only thing we could do is win. That’s the most points we could score, so that was definitely our goal,” said Smit. “It’s our coach’s first relay win of her career, so we are really happy to give that to her.”
Based on the voting of the coaches, Florida’s Troy was named Coach of the Year, while Stanford’s Smit, a senior, took home honors among the competing athletes.