By James Hemker
Make it three national titles in three years for the women’s swimming and diving team. After trailing Cal going into the final day of competition, Stanford mounted an impressive comeback at the University of Texas on March 23 to claim its record eleventh NCAA title. This championship brings the school total to 119 NCAA team titles, the most by any program in the nation.
A testament to the strength of the competition and a function of Stanford’s youth, the Cardinal scored 456.5 points to beat rival California (419 points) by just 37.5 points. That difference is the second-smallest margin of victory in the last seven years.
While the previous two championships were headlined by American records and national titles, this year’s team claimed just two individual victories and one relay win. Even if they could not win events outright, the Cardinal used their deep roster, featuring nine freshmen, to rack up points. Out of 21 total events, Stanford scored in 18 of them.
“The upperclassmen did a really good job of setting the tone for the year, and we the coaching staff went back to doing a little bit more teaching,” said head coach Greg Meehan. “If you look at our results in November, we really weren’t very good. Going from that to having all nine freshmen score in the meet is incredible.”
One of those leading upperclassmen was senior Ella Eastin, who finished her Stanford career with three podium finishes, including her fourth consecutive national title in the 400-yard IM.
She started her individual competition finishing second in the 200 IM in 1:51.81, unable to defend her title from last year.
The next day, Eastin returned unfazed and completed her career sweep of the 400 IM with a time of 3:57.03. She is the first woman in history to win four consecutive collegiate 400 IM titles. Eastin finished her tenure at Stanford with eight individual national titles.
“I probably didn’t do a good enough job to get her rested so she could be her best self here,” Meehan said. “But it’s so awesome how she came out of the 200 IM and stayed sharp for the 400 IM. It says so much about her character since you know she was disappointed, but she refused to let it get the better of her.”
Sophomore Brooke Forde joined Eastin on the 400 IM podium. Forde (3:59.26) took home the bronze and was just the third swimmer to break the four minute mark this year. Freshman Allie Raab (4:06.11) also scored points in the A-final, finishing in seventh place.
“Being able to put my hand on the wall first in the race that I have kind of taken ownership of is special,” Eastin said. “But at the end of the day, our individual goals took a backseat to the team. It was about moving forward for the group.”
In the 200-yard butterfly A-final, Eastin (1:50.46) finished second and was joined by junior Katie Drabot (1:51.94), who touched fifth. Forde (1:53.93) brought in more points by taking second in the B-final. With that silver, Eastin never finished below second place in all twelve of her individual NCAA finals.
Forde won Stanford’s other individual championship in the 500-yard freestyle on the first full day of competition. Over the course prelims and finals, Forde (4:31.34) shaved six seconds off of her previous personal best time to swim the second-fastest time in school history. Touching sixth, sophomore Lauren Pitzer (4:36.54) made it two Cardinal swimmers in the A-final.
“Winning the 500 was not something I came into the meet expecting to do,” Forde said. “But Greg [Meehan] said ‘you can go for it, and you really have a chance to win.’ His confidence in me then gave me the necessary confidence before I got on the blocks and during the race.”
In the B-final, Drabot (4:37.87) and freshman Morgan Tankersley (4:38.43) contributed more points to the winning total.
Leading the wave of new Cardinal swimmers was freshman Taylor Ruck, who found the podium in all three of her individual events and swam legs in four of the five relay teams.
“I thought it was a really cool experience to start my first NCAAs,” Ruck said after her first event. “I’ve gotten so close with these girls over the past few months, and I’m just so happy to be able to share this experience with them and to take all this hard work that we have done and see what it comes to in the pool.”
Her first individual finish came in the 200-yard freestyle, where she touched second and posted a time of 1:40.37, which is just one one-hundredth slower than the school record set by Katie Ledecky. Pitzer (1:42.84) recorded Stanford’s fifth-fastest time ever to win the B-final.
Ruck’s next individual race, the 100-yard backstroke, came just two events later. She rounded out the podium in third with a 50.34 finish. Nordmann (51.44) and Voss (51.87) made appearances in the B-final to add more points.
“We had to figure out how to maximize our points with Taylor,” Meehan said. “That double that she did, 200 free and 100 back, was a hard double, and she absolutely crushed it. She’s an incredible swimmer but her maturity throughout her racing in this meet was noteworthy for sure.”
Ruck stopped the clock in the 200-yard backstroke at 1:47.59 to claim her second silver finish. She is the first Cardinal to break the 1:48.00 mark in the 200 back. This was Stanford’s best overall event, with junior Erin Voss (1:50.92) and freshman Lucie Nordmann (1:51.10) finishing fourth and fifth, respectively.
Senior Leah Stevens was the final Cardinal to score points in the top eight. For the third straight year, Stevens ended in the top five in the 1,650-yard freestyle. She finished the mile long race in 15:47:31, a new personal best, touching fourth. At 16th, junior Megan Byrnes (16:03.41) claimed the final scoring spot in the event.
“I was just focused on getting my hand on the wall and getting as many points as possible for my team,” Stevens said. “Even more fairytale-ish than breaking my personal best was looking over and seeing my teammates cheering for me at the end of my final swim.”
Three Cardinal swimmers earned a spot in the 200-yard breaststroke B-finals. Out of lane one, Raab (2:06.85) surprised the field to take the win. Freshman Zoe Bartel (2:08.27) finished two spots behind Raab in third, and sophomore Grace Zhao (2:09.32) claimed seventh.
Freshman Anya Goeders took fourth in the B final for the 50-yard free, and 12th overall, with a time of 22.07. Goeders’ prelim time of 21.98 made her one of nine woman in Stanford history to break the 22 second mark.
In addition to the stellar swimming results, Stanford performed well on the boards. Off the 1-meter springboard, freshmen Daria Lenz (302.65), Carolina Sculti (297.80) and junior Haley Farnsworth (277.85) all earned points in the B-final.
On the higher 3-meter variant, Sculti (316.60) was the only Stanford diver to make the finals, finishing 14th. Coming in 13th, Lenz also faced a decidedly non-Cardinal final in the platform finals, where she scored 254.95.
Despite losing 13 of its 20 relay spots with the end of last season, Stanford was able to come away from the relays with success.
“We have so much youth, you never really know how it’s going to go,” Meehan said. “I think all four prelim relays had at least 3 freshmen, and as a coach that’s terrifying, but they did a good job, and we didn’t have any slip ups.”
The Cardinal secured their third straight 800-yard free relay title to open the meet. Drabot, Eastin, Ruck and Forde dropped over four seconds off their seed time to claim the race in 6:47.22, which broke the Texas pool record.
“Getting the win in the first session was a great way to get our momentum going into the meet, so that was really important for us,” Forde said.
The Cardinal also found third place finishes in the 400-yard and 200-yard free relays. Ruck, Pitzer, Goeders and freshman Amalie Fackenthal each sprinted 50 yards for a total time of 1:26.50.
The final event of the championship, the 400 free relay, was swum by a very similar lineup of Eastin, Fackenthal, Pitzer and Ruck. Having already secured the championship before the event started, the four completed their collective victory lap in 3:09.73.
The medley relays didn’t fare as well, though both teams still earned spots in the A-finals. In the 400-yard medley relay, Eastin, Fackenthal, Raab and Ruck stopped the clock at 3:28.45 for sixth. Fackenthal, Goeders, Nordman, and Zhao took the 200-yard variant in 1:36.13, which was good for seventh.
18 different Cardinal competitors were named All-Americans at the meet, and they combined for 51 All-America honors.
The team’s future looks bright, as Ruck collected the maximum seven honors and Fackenthal was awarded five, while Forde and Pitzer each added four more honors to their resumes. Eastin also earned six honors, which brings her career total to 20.
Under the guidance of Meehan and the leadership of the senior class, Stanford was able to claim the three-peat for the first time since Auburn achieved it from 2002-04.
“It means a lot to go out like this,” said senior Kim Williams. “We get our fairytale ending. Every team wants to go out with an NCAA championship. Every year is special, and every team is different, and we just had a lot of fun doing it. We couldn’t ask for anything more.”