In sports, good teams have the means to put up competitive scores, but great teams can maintain those scores regardless of circumstance. Over the past few years, both collegiate and professional athletics have seen the difference materialize by way of COVID-19 protocols. Teams that lack the depth to perform when missing their top athletes become all the more familiar with the loss column.
No. 1 Cal men’s swimming separated itself from the rest Friday when it faced No. 6 Stanford in the Triple Distance Meet at the Avery Aquatic Center. Though the meet was a non-team-scoring event, the Bears saw the fruits of their depth.
The team brought home the win in three out of six events, as well as both the 200-yard medley and freestyle relays, despite competing with “a little more fatigue” than usual, according to head coach Dave Durden.
The Triple Distance Meet format tests each swimmer’s versatility, having athletes in each event group swim three different distances. In the freestyle, butterfly, breaststroke and backstroke, swimmers competed in 50-, 100- and 200-yard races. Distance freestyle swimmers took part in the 200, 500 and 1,000, while the individual medley competition saw athletes swim the 100, 200 and 400. The winner of each event is determined by the sum of each swimmer’s times in the three races.
“It’s nice that we get to race the 50, 100 and 200 — for some of our guys, where their sweet spot’s in the 100, to extend a little bit into that 200,” Durden said. “For guys that are 200 more or 200 base, to have to work their speed upfront is always a good thing.”
For the blue and gold, sophomore Gabriel Jett and junior Destin Lasco swept the backstroke and individual medley races, respectively, with senior Colby Mefford coming in a close second in the backstroke. And in a stroke of deja vu, the sprint freestyle saw sophomore Robin Hanson replicate last year’s win, putting up midfield times in the 50 and 100 — which were won by junior Bjorn Seeliger — before clinching the overall title with a victory in the 200.
Jett’s and Lasco’s wins in particular showcase Cal’s depth, as their contributions to the team usually come in other events.
“We’re just trying to see some different looks, like having Destin Lasco go 100 IM, 200 IM, 400 IM, where probably his sweet spot is maybe in the backstrokes, (and) try putting Gabe Jett in a backstroke event where his sweet spot is probably the fly,” Durden said.
Despite falling short in the butterfly, breaststroke and distance freestyle after winning the events last year, Cal saw strong individual efforts. Junior Matthew Jensen won the 100-yard butterfly, while junior Dare Rose’s top three finishes in each of the butterfly races earned him second in the event group. In the distance freestyle, junior Jack Meehan placed second in the 500 and 1,000 to take silver in the overall event, and sophomore Jacob Soderlund’s efforts found him third in the breaststroke.
The extent of Cal’s ability was underscored by the absence of graduate students Reece Whitley and Hugo Gonzalez, who won the breaststroke and individual medley titles last year, respectively. Whitley was at the FINA Swimming World Cup in Indianapolis, where he won silver and bronze in the 200 and 100 breaststroke, respectively, while Gonzalez is training in Spain this semester, so neither athlete competed Friday.
By the nature of collegiate athletics, the makeup of a team changes each year. Individuals graduate, transfer or get injured, creating holes that must be filled to maintain or improve the team’s caliber. The Bears’ performance Friday displayed that such holes aren’t a worry for the reigning national champions — their depth goes beyond the swimmers in the usual lineups.
“I don’t normally get to race backstroke here at Cal since we have so many talented backstrokers on the team, and I’m more needed in other disciplines,” Jett said. “I exceeded my own expectations a lot. I didn’t realize that I could go so fast with my backstroke. That just opens up a bunch more opportunities for me.”
Despite the sneak peek of what may eventually be, lineups will return to usual for the rest of the season, according to Durden. When Cal returns to the pool at the Minnesota Invitational at the end of the month, fans can expect swimmers back in their strongest events as they seek to touch the wall first among the nation’s best.