Cal women’s swim aim to defy odds in NCAA Tournament

A swimmer comes up for air while swimming in a competition.
Karin Goh /File

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Before the school commitments and the cut times inherent to college swimming, there were the leisurely swims on warm spring days and the awe of holding a medal for the first time. In the realm of high-octane college sports, it’s far too easy to forget what brought athletes to the sport in the first place. This year, the Bears plan to turn back the clock and have some fun on college swimming’s biggest stage.

“I just think we’ve really come together as a strong unit and we’re just a team now that’s having fun,” said senior backstroke specialist Amy Bilquist, speaking on the team’s mentality. “We have each other’s backs, and for me, it’s the most supported I’ve felt by a team in all my four years.”

In a year that began with the loss of Cal’s top swimmer in Kathleen Baker, the Bears were expected to have a tougher time treading water at the national level. Without a doubt, Baker’s presence was sorely missed in the points department, but the swimmers in the water for Cal have proved more than capable of keeping the team afloat.

Junior Abbey Weitzeil and seniors Katie McLaughlin and Bilquist have all stepped up to fill the void, accompanied by freshman talent in Ema Rajic, Alicia Wilson, Cassidy Bayer and midyear addition Isabel Ivey. Sophomores Sarah Darcel, Robin Neumann and Ali Harrison along with juniors Maddie Murphy and Keaton Blovad round off the 12-women swimming contingent that will be representing Cal at nationals.

The dominance of the Bears’ relay squads is reflected in the event seeding, as Cal is top-ranked in four of the five relay events — the 200, 400 and 800 free relays as well as the 400 medley relay.

By the standards set in years past, this season has been shaky — one would need to look back to the Bears’ 2016-17 campaign to find the last time they lost two dual meets in a season. At nationals, Cal will see Texas, who inflicted an early season loss onto the Bears’ record, for a second time; meanwhile, the Bears will face off with Stanford for the third time this season. As of now, Cal’s 7-2 record and second-place finish at Pac-12s mirror its efforts from two years ago; that year, the Bears took home second at NCAAs.

Despite the Bears’ respectable performance in conference, Cal remains an outside contender for the title this season. Even so, the team believes that it can prove doubters wrong at the NCAA championships.

“I think our biggest strength right now is that we’re the underdogs, and no one was really expecting us to do well at our conference meet,” Bilquist said. “I think we can perform well when we’re having fun and we’re doing it for each other; that’s how we’ve been swimming this year, and I know that’s how we’ll swim at NCAAs.”

The four-day event will see the top schools from across the United States send their best, and the Bears roll into their date with nationals March 20 in Austin. For Bilquist and McLaughlin, the two graduating seniors in attendance, it will be their last time swimming with a Cal cap.

“I think we’re ready. I most definitely think we are,” Bilquist said. “I know when we come together and have fun, very few things can stand in our way. … I’m just excited to go out there and let it rip with these girls one last time.”

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