INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. — Following two consecutive runner-up finishes in the NCAA Division I Women’s Swimming and Diving Championships, Georgia is clearly positioned for another run at the title.
Georgia, a four-time national champion, is the only school which qualified the maximum number of 19 swimmers and divers for the championships. The three-day meet begins Thursday at the IU Natatorium in Indianapolis. Finals will be held all three nights, preceded by preliminary races during day sessions.
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California-Berkeley is the two-time defending champion. Other title contenders from the Pac-12 Conference include Southern California, which was ranked No. 1 during the regular season, and eight-time national champ Stanford, which knocked off both USC and Cal to win the conference championship.
Georgia coach Jack Bauerle was quick to proudly point out the Lady Bulldogs’ accomplishments and their 19 qualifying spots during an impromptu team meeting aboard a bus ride Tuesday.
“It’s an indicator that they’ve done a good job this year. They should be proud of that,” he said.
And then came the message: Everybody must score points in order for the Southeastern Conference champ Bulldogs to contend for its first national title since 2005.
“Everybody has to be a part of the scoring process,” he said. “It‘s important that everybody just stands up and does the job. It makes us feel pretty good that they‘ve done a really good job training and making their times and getting here. It‘s not a small feat.”
Among Georgia’s 19: Allison Schmitt, one of the world’s top freestylers who won three gold medals and five medals overall at the London 2012 Olympic Games. She is seeded No. 1 in the 200 freestyle, an event in which she is the American record-holder and Olympic gold medalist.
“She’s fast and she’s great. She changes her environment pretty much every day,“ Bauerle said. “She’s fun to be around. She’s fun around the athletes.”
Schmitt and Georgia teammate Shannon Vreeland are just two of several 2012 and 2008 Olympians in a three-day meet that will certainly have an Olympic feel to it. Schmitt, a senior, is back in the NCAAs after taking 2012 off in order to train for the Olympics. There are many more Olympians, including:
Cal’s Caitlin Leverenz, a bronze medalist in the 200 intermediate medley in London, is the defending NCAA champion in the 200 breaststroke and a three-time Pac-12 titlist in that event. She is seeded No. 5 in the 200 breast and No. 2 in the 200 IM.
Cal’s Rachel Bootsma, a freshman and Olympic gold medalist, is seeded No. 2 behind teammate Cindy Tran in the 100 backstroke and among the top seven seeds in the 100 and 200 fly.
Florida’s Elizabeth Beisel, a two-time Olympian who won silver and bronze medals in London, is seeded No. 1 in the 400 individual medley. She is the SEC Female Scholar-Athlete of the Year.
Southern Cal diver Haley Ishimatsu, a 2008 Olympian at age 15, scored a perfect 10 in the platform competition at the NCAA Zone E Championships. She also won the Pac-12 diving championship.
USC teammate Haley Anderson, the first American to medal in the open water 10k at the Olympics, is a four-time Pac-12 champion at 1,650 yards. She is seeded ninth in the 500, an event she won last year.
And although the youngest sensation of the 2012 U.S. Olympic swimming team, Missy Franklin, is still one year away from her collegiate debut with Cal, this year’s championships feature plenty of impressive freshmen. Elizabeth Pelton of Cal broke her own American record when she won the 200 backstroke at the Pac-12 championships with a time of 1:48.39. She is seeded No. 1 in the 200 back and 200 IM.
Kendyl Stewart, a freshman at USC, is seeded No. 1 in the 100 fly.
While the top schools battle for points in the race toward a national title, the relay events promise to be fast and eventful. The relays will include the 200 free relay and 400 medley Thursday, 800 free and 200 medley Friday, and 400 free Saturday, which is the final event of the championships. Georgia, the Southeastern Conference champion, has the nation’s fastest times in all three freestyle relays.
Stanford won two relays at the 2012 NCAA championships and set a school record in the 800 free relay at the Pac-12 championships with a time of 6:57.12. Andi Murez, a three-time All-American and on both of Stanford’s winning relay teams last year, is the anchor for the 800 relay.
All of the relays could combine for a wild finish when the national champion is crowned Saturday night at the IU Natatorium. Twelve schools have qualified at least 10 swimmers. Big Ten Conference champ Minnesota qualified 14 swimmers and two divers, including seven-time All-American Haley Spencer, and Texas A&M has 14 total. Defending national champ California leads the Pac-12 with 13 qualifiers, Southern Cal has 12 and Pac-12 champ Stanford has just nine, but is qualified for every relay event.
“We’ve been second to Cal twice and we really want to get this one for our team,” said Megan Romano, a Georgia senior who won the 100 free at the SEC Championships and is the school record-holder in that event. “It’s exciting. I think we can do it. The seniors don’t want to end their careers seconds again. Winning it all would mean everything to us.”