March 18, 2010

By Mike Beas
Special to

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- The Georgia Bulldogs have a history inside the Boilermaker Aquatic Center on the campus of Purdue University, one that includes hugs, ear-to-ear smiles and a limitless supply of spur-of-the-moment team photographs.

Oh, and one raised NCAA Championship trophy.

Not comfortable resting on the exploits of the 2005 squad, the Georgia's women's swim team opened the NCAA Championships on Thursday at Purdue with 134 points to place itself in prime position for a run at this year's title. Leading the way with 142.5 points is Stanford, while defending team champion California sits third with 122.

The Bulldogs wasted no time playing to their strengths as Allison Schmitt defended her title in the 500 freestyle in a time of 4 minutes, 34.14 seconds. Fast at the start, Schmitt was never seriously challenged, her closest pursuers being Cal's Lauren Boyle in a second-place time of 4:37.18 and third-place Wendy Trott of Georgia (4:37.50).

"I was just going out there to have fun and see what I can do. It was really exciting," said Schmitt, a sophomore. "This is definitely a great pool for us, and we just want to keep the tradition going. I hope we can carry this momentum into the next two days. I just went out there and raced trying to win it for Georgia, and I knew that there were two other girls representing Georgia, and we were just trying to go and do the best we can."

Not to be outdone, Stanford senior Julia Smit proved equally convincing in the 200 individual medley, defending her title with a new pool standard of 1:53.56 that lowered the previous mark of 1:54.34 established by her during preliminaries earlier in the day.

Another Julia, Wilkinson of Texas A&M, took second at 1:54.45 and Georgia's Morgan Scroggy came in third in 1:54.62.

Liv Jensen of California proved fastest in the down-and-back known as the 50 freestyle. Her winning time of 22.04 seconds made her only the second Golden Bear ever to win the event, following the lead of 1985 champion Conny Van Bentum. An eyelash behind in second place was Stanford's Betsy Webb (22.07) and Georgia's Anne-Marie Botek, coming in third (22.14).

"It feels pretty good. It's gratifying, and the best feeling in the world to look up and know that I swam that," said Jensen. "It feels really great to be able to swim for my team and do that."

Florida got the evening started with first place in the 200 freestyle relay. Shara Stafford, Gemma Spofforth, Stephanie Napier and Sarah Bateman teamed for a time of 1:27.79, besting the 1:28.38 of runner-up Stanford.

"It's a really great way to start off our meet," said Stafford. "We're all really excited to see what else we can do, and it shows that you never know what is possible."

In 1-meter diving, Anastasia Pozdniakova tallied Houston's only 20 points with an NCAA-record point total of 356.20, thus defending her championship. Minnesota's Kelci Bryant took second (352.65) and Jaele Patrick of Texas A&M placed third (340.60).

"It's a relief for sure," said Pozdniakova, a 24-year-old redshirt junior born in Russia. "It was really close, but it's a great feeling to win it again."

The evening's final event saw Arizona lower its own pool record in the 400 medley relay. The Wildcats foursome of Ana Agy, Ann Chandler, Whitney Lopus and Justine Schluntz earlier in the day posted a time of 3:31.16, then shattered it at night with a winning time of 3:29.76. The victory podium proved familiar turf for Agy, Chandler and Schluntz, who were members of the NCAA-winning 400 medley in 2009 in 3:28.31.

"It was really special to me just because that was the first relay I was ever on and we won it all three times I was on it. So for me to win that my senior year, it was awesome," said Agy. "Winning that one shows our strength as a group for when we start the big day tomorrow. It sets the team up really well to compete at the top level tomorrow morning and get a lot of girls to qualify."

Among the featured events on tap Friday will be Stanford's Smit in the 400 IM, an event she's conquered in 2008 and 2009, and her teammate, Elaine Breeden, attempting to claim the 200 butterfly title for a third time in four years.