Georgia wins first NCAA championship since 2005 in record fashion
INDIANAPOLIS -- Georgia finished off its fifth national championship in women‘s swimming and diving in record fashion Saturday night.
The Lady Bulldogs already had clinched the Division I Women’s Swimming and Diving Championships team title ahead of runner-up and two-time defending national champion Cal. Head coach Jack Bauerle was greeted with congratulatory hugs and handshakes every time he turned to walk on the pool deck.
Then came the rousing finish in the 400 freestyle relay for Allison Schmitt, Megan Romano, Shannon Vreeland and Chantal van Landeghem. For U.S. Olympians and seniors Schmitt and Romano, it was their final collegiate race and they did not go quietly. The crowd was on its feet the entire time at the IU Natatorium.
Schmitt, swimming in the third leg, and Romano, swimming anchor, not only overtook Cal’s and Arizona’s relay squads, but they ripped through the water in a national record time of 3:09.40. The NCAA, national championship and U.S. Open record of 3:09.88 had been set four years ago by Cal.
Romano jumped into the arms of Schmitt once she was back on the pool deck. Bauerle, who was named the National Coach of the Year, wound up with a bucket of sports drink over his head. Georgia fans, seated in a section just above the Bulldogs‘ athlete area, shouted their approval.
“I‘m so excited to finally accomplish it,” said Schmitt, a six-time Olympic medalist and three-time NCAA champion. “It‘s a dream come true.”
Georgia finished runner-up to Cal the last two years. Schmitt took last year off to train for the Olympics, but returned this year to rejoin seniors Romano and Kelsey Gaid to nail down a national title. Georgia totaled 477 points, ahead of Cal’s 393 and Tennessee’s 325.50.
“To win this feels great,” Bauerle said. “I’m happy for the seniors especially. This is really a special feeling it puts inside.”
The Bulldogs were not the only ones celebrating on the final night of the championships. Cal freshman Elizabeth Pelton smashed the national and American records in the 200 backstroke and USC diver Haley Ishimatsu broke the championship platform diving record by more than 30 points. For both, the wins were their first at the national championships.
NCAA Swimmer of the Year Pelton had the crowd on its feet as she led the 200 backstroke from start to finish, and even picked up the pace in the last few laps as she won in a record 1:47.84. She had already broken an American record in the event on March 2 with a time of 1:48.39.
After touching the wall, she looked up and saluted the crowd with a wave. Florida junior Elizabeth Beisel, who finished third, greeted Pelton with a hug on the pool deck.
“It was good,“ said Pelton, who earlier in the week had finished second in the 200 freestyle and 200 individual medley. “I was going into it not thinking about, oh, I might win at the NCAAs. It was more like, let‘s see if I can get a better time.”
Ishimatsu, a 2008 Olympian and 2013 Pac-12 Diver of the Year who did not qualify for either the 1-meter or 3-meter finals or consolation finals, was dominating in the platform. She placed second in the prelims, then scored 396.75 points in the finals. Southeastern Conference diving champ Tori Lamp of Tennessee finished more than 68 points back.
“My confidence was a lot better than the springboard. The platform is my event,” she said.
Haley Anderson of USC and Margo Geer of Arizona were double winners. Anderson polished off her collegiate career by winning the 1,650 freestyle in her final race. She had also won the 500 free for a consecutive year earlier in the week. An open water and long distance Olympian, she is the first USC swimmer to win the 1,650.
“It feels really good to go out my collegiate career with a win,” Anderson said. “I’m really excited. Just trying to get the points for the team.”
Geer completed a double gold performance by winning the 100 free. She edged out Georgia’s Romano with a time of 47.19 seconds. Geer had also won the 50 free on Thursday. She is the first Arizona winner to win the 100 and 50 national titles in the same year. Also winning a title for Arizona this week was Samantha Pickens in 1-meter diving.
But when the splashing was all over, it was clearly a Georgia night. Swimmers from Cal and Tennessee put their arms up to form a tunnel on the pool deck as Georgia’s athletes ran underneath to accept the national championship trophy.
“It’s surreal. It’s like a dream,” said Georgia sophomore Lauren Harrington, who finished second in the 200 butterfly. “I’m like, am I actually at the NCAAs? Am I at a dual meet? I just don’t quite understand it. I am so blessed to be on this team.”
Romano played key roles in helping the Bulldogs win the 400 and 800 free relays, and place second behind Tennessee in the 200. She swam on four relay teams that set school records during her career. She also won gold on the U.S. 800-meter free relay team at the 2012 FINA Short Course World Championships.
“She may be the best relay swimmer in the history of our sport,” Bauerle said.