All business in Atlanta: Cal breaks top 10 in NCAA championships

photo of Cal Women's Swim and Dive
Vanessa Lim /Senior Staff

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From coast to coast, the fight to touch the wall first and earn a spot on the podium never stopped. Rather, it only grew stronger.

After finishing second to Stanford in the Pac-12 championships, Cal women’s swim and dive felt the wrath of top-tier competition. Long-standing rival Stanford stole Cal’s reign of the Pac-12 conference from its victory in the 2021 Pac-12 championships. The Bears had to fight for their second place spot in every race — however first place was out of the picture, as the Cardinal earned over 270 points above Cal. This margin was a harbinger for the racing obstacles that the NCAA championships would later present.

In Atlanta, from March 16 to March 19, the Bears dove into the waters against some of the nation’s greatest athletes. With a squad of 16 swimmers, Cal maintained a balance between veterans and newcomers who had yet to experience the NCAA tournament. While nine of the swimmers had previously raced in the national championship, five freshmen were new to the meet. Nevertheless, all of Cal’s squad understood its esteemed role in the NCAA, after having earned a top-five place for 15 years straight.

The meet commenced with Wednesday’s events: the 200-yard medley relay and the 800 free relay. As the pressure of continuing the tradition of success grew larger with every stroke, the Bears were ready to claw their way to the top. And when the opportunity presented itself, the blue and gold took it by storm.

In both races, the Bears made history with their season-best times. Specifically, sophomore Isabelle Stadden, freshman Leah Polonsky, freshman Mia Kragh and senior Elise Garcia finished the 200 medley in 1:34.60 — Cal’s fastest time since 2019. Placing seventh, the Bears were not totally satisfied with the rank and decided to crank their competitive edge up a notch.

The foursome of Polonsky, junior Mia Motekaitis, junior Ayla Spitz and senior Isabel Ivey dove into that water and came out on the pedestal. Their 6:53.52 time stole the spotlight and earned the Bears third place.

Meanwhile, Ivey’s impeccable time of 1:41.35 solidified her national prowess. This performance was this year’s fastest race time, and also put Ivey in Cal’s all-time second place pedestal, only below Olympian Missy Franklin. After such a strong performance, it was apparent that the team’s trip to Atlanta was all business.

Having beaten Stanford by 2, the Bears went into day two of competition ranked fourth with 56 points.

Ivey did not let her momentum slip, as she earned her fifth individual top-five finish by placing third in the 200-meter individual medley. Her winning spirit was passed down to freshman teammate Polonsky, who swam the 200 individual medley in 1:55.13, earning her third All-American honor in Atlanta. These two all-stars were the core of Cal’s cumulative score, which stood at 89 going into the third day of competition.

In Friday’s events, Ivey placed second in the 200 freestyle. It is no shock that Ivey was the outstanding Bear carrying the team through the NCAA championships. Her continuous success throughout the season defined her success until the end. As the backbone to Cal women’s swimming, Ivey strengthened the team’s score each day.

On Friday, Stadden also placed seventh and earned her lifetime best in the 100 backstroke. With the combination of Ivey and Stadden’s performances, the Bears moved up to sixth place, putting them in a prime position for the fourth day.

Stadden and junior Rachel Klinker became the swimmers to watch on those final events to wrap up the four-day stretch. At the NCAA championships, they produced their lifetime bests in their respective races.

As a team, the Bears concluded their meet in eighth place. Since 1997, they’ve maintained a top-10 finish nationally. Though Cal couldn’t quite break the top five this time around, its remarkable 2021-22 season was still a historic one to remember.

Alisa Steel covers softball and women’s swim and dive. Contact her at [email protected].