Cal women’s swim and dive returns 23 in pursuit of NCAA Championships

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It’s September again. There are marks to be taken and records waiting patiently for an extraordinary performance. Sound the buzzer, because swimming is back — and memories of just six months ago are as fresh as ever.

After two consecutive second-place finishes to rival Stanford in the NCAA Championships, the Cal women’s team approaches its first meet of the new season with the goal of returning to the grandest stage in college swimming.

Last season, the Bears came away with a bounty of new records, including a sweep of school relay records in the 200 free relay, the 200 medley relay and the 400 freestyle relay. Cal’s performance was capped off with an outstanding showing from Olympian Kathleen Baker, who set a new national record in the 200-yard backstroke and a program best time in the 200 medley.

From freshmen to seniors, the team is armed with the same grit and drive that propelled it to the NCAA Championships last season.

“I think we’re really honed in on what the end goal is,” said senior captain Amy Bilquist. “I think that’s what we’re really striving for this year, not being so much individual pieces but being one collective unit striving towards the goal.”

Assistant coach Sarah Dunleavy attested to both the high aspirations and the raw ability of Cal’s swimmers this year.

“I think the goal is to always to win a national championship, especially at the point that Cal is at with its program,” Dunleavy said. “I think we’re in a really good place to be able to definitely be in the conversation.”

In their push for the title, the Bears will have to manage the vacancy left by Baker, who has forgone her last year of NCAA eligibility and turned professional. A part of the gold-medal American 400 medley relay team at the 2016 Olympics, Baker also owns both a silver medal and a world record 58-second time in the 100-meter backstroke.

“It’s sad she’s gone, but I think the team is doing really well with her turning pro,” Bilquist said of her former teammate. “I think it’s kind of a good wake-up call for some people. … We have to step up even more.”

Twenty-three swimmers from last year’s second-place team have returned, but the talent in the freshman class will certainly be called upon. Cal added five new names to watch this season: Cassidy Bayer, Elise Garcia, Ema Rajic, Alex Sumner and Alicia Wilson.

The Bears’ first showcase of the season will be held Friday at the annual Queen of the Pool event with Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo. In an unconventional meet format, each swimmer will race in five events of 100 yards each — freestyle, backstroke, butterfly, breaststroke and individual medley. The swimmer with the fastest combined time encompassing all events is named Queen of the Pool.

With Baker as the two-time reigning Queen, it is certain that the crown will change hands on Friday. Cal has dominated the event in the past two years and will aim to kick things off on the right foot in the early going.

“You’re always hungrier when you come away second,” Dunleavy said.

Start setting those tables, because this year’s Bears will be a definite force in the water.

Chanun Ong covers women’s swimming and diving. Contact him at [email protected].