Heading into the NCAA championships at Indianapolis from Thursday to Saturday, Cal women’s swimming is facing an intriguing problem.
The Bears have the talent to claim their fourth national championship in five years, but they may suffer from having too many of their stars competing against each other.
Cal has many of its most talented athletes in overlapping events. This may make it difficult for the Bears to accumulate the high number of points for a team win.
This problem was particularly evident in Cal’s third-place finish at the Pac-12 tournament in early March. For Caitlin Leverenz, Rachel Bootsma, Elizabeth Pelton and Cindy Tran, the swimmers that consistently reap the most points, their biggest competition was often each other.
In the 100 and 200 back races during the meet, three of the top five finishers raced for Cal. The 200 IM race came down to a mere two-hundredths of a second between first-place Pelton and second-place Leverenz.
The Bears’ best events feature many of their strong swimmers, but Cal’s depth in some events leaves others lacking punch. Cal has great depth in the back and fly events but suffers in the long- and short-distance freestyle events.
The Bears’ freestylers placed high in the Pac-12s. Freshman Rachel Acker took the title in the 200 free and sophomore Kaylin Bing took third in the 50 free. But at the national level, Cal’s free times are not good enough to place individually.
Acker’s best 100 free time was 12th in the NCAA, and her best 200 free was only 11th. Bing’s best 50 free time was 16th in the nation.
The Bears’ weakness in freestyle events puts them at a disadvantage in at least five events — the 50, 100, 200, 500 and 1,650 free.
Compared to the individual free events, Cal’s chances at free relay national titles are still high. Cal’s 400 free relay is ranked second in the NCAA, and the 200 and 800 free relay are ranked in the top eight. The disparity between the free relays and individual free events can be partly attributed to top swimmers like Pelton, Bootsma and Tran swimming in the former events but not the latter.
Sporting 13 swimmers and one diver, the Bears’ bevy of NCAA-qualified swimmers allows opportunities for Cal to rack up more points. In contrast, No. 8 Georgia and No. 3 Auburn bring 17 swimmers and 13 swimmers, respectively.
Among these 13, two Cal swimmers have two top times going into the NCAAs — Pelton in the 200 IM and 200 back and Tran in the 100 back.
With Pelton, Tran and other stars, Cal is obviously talented. But the Bears have obstacles to overcome. If they can swim their top times, the NCAA championship is within reach for the Bears.
If the Bears do not walk away with the national championship, it may not be because they were not the best team in the nation. It was probably because they stacked their talents too heavily on selected events.
Jessica Lim covers women’s swim. Contact her at [email protected].