By Tom Slear//Contributor | Thursday, April 23, 2020
Never before in its 96-year history has the NCAA swimming championships been canceled as it was this year. (Well, not entirely true. The men’s and women’s Division II championships lasted a day and a half in early March before they were called off). However, this latest bit of uniqueness is but one of many throughout the meet’s history. Below, by decade, are a few of the more prominent ones.
1920s: The first championships was held in 1924 at the Naval Academy’s brand new 50-yard pool (which still exists). Yet the length of each of the six individual events – there were no relays for another three years – was in meters. Flags strung across the pool served as the finish line. Swimmers in the 100-meter freestyle, for example, swam two laps, turned, and then went 9.1 meters into the third lap, stopping when they crossed under the flags.
This strange setup was due largely to the fact that the NCAA agreed to a national championship with the understanding that in Olympic years the meet would serve as one of the official tryouts. Therefore: meter races in a yard pool. (Not until 1948 were Olympic tryouts consolidated into one meet.)
By 1928 the NCAA settled on a 25-yard course. However, finishes under flags remained a part of the NCAAs until 1963, when electronic timing forced them into retirement. Evidently, suspended touch pads were deemed unfeasible.
1930s: Scoring was instituted in 1937. With the possibility of winning a national championship, the better teams throughout the country began to place more emphasis on the NCAAs than their conference meets.
By then the NCAAs had grown to nine swimming events – seven individual and two relays. The distances, however, defied logic. Breaststroke was 200 yards. Backstroke was 150 yards. (No butterfly or IM yet.) The freestyle events were 50 yards, 100 yards, 220 yards, 440 yards, and 1500 meters (yes, in a 25-yard pool). What was the NCAA thinking?
By the way, Michigan won the first title with 75 points.
1940s: World War II strained American society like nothing since the Civil War, yet the NCAAs soldiered on. In fact, the meet did surprisingly well. In 1943, with the United States two years into the war, there were more swimmers at the NCAAs than in 1939.
But the war took a heavy toll on college swimmers. The 1947 NCAA Swimming Guide listed the names of over 200 swimmers who died while serving in America’s armed services. Since the guide’s editor was able to get feedback from only 42 colleges, the real count was undoubtedly much higher.
Butterfly? Breaststroke? Take your pick
1950s: Soon after the 1952 Olympics, FINA closed the loophole in its rules that allowed breaststrokers to recover their arms above the surface and created the fourth stroke of butterfly. The NCAA adapted awkwardly, to say the least. Rules for the 1954-1955 season included butterfly for the first time but with a strange caveat. In a race 100 yards or less, breaststroke and butterfly could be mixed however the swimmer desired.
That exception was deleted the next season and the 150-yard individual medley went to 200 yards with the inclusion of butterfly. In 1957, the 300-yard medley relay went to 400 yards and there was a 100-yard butterfly individual event.
1960s: The NCAAs changed dramatically during the ‘60s. By the end of the decade it began to resemble more closely what it is today.
In 1963, the 220- and 440-yard and 1500-meter freestyles became 200, 500 and 1650 yards. Australian Jon Konrads, swimming for Southern Cal, won the 500 and 1650, portending a slew of foreign swimmers seeking America’s unique combination of academics and athletics. Southern Cal won the title, as it did in 1960, breaking up the dominance that Ohio State, Michigan and Yale had over the NCAAs for nearly four decades.
Also in 1963, the 400 individual medley was added, bringing the number of individual events to 13, which it is today.
In 1964, the NCAAs split into university and college divisions, the first step toward producing Division I, II and III national championships.
Consolation finals were added in 1966 for individuals and relays that finished seventh though 12th in the preliminaries
But the most profound addition during the ‘60s was the first ever women’s college swimming championships, which was held in 1968 by the Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics for Women. Though the meet created all of the excitement of melted ice cream, it would evolve into the first women’s NCAAs in 1982 and give them what they most wanted and deserved: a viable means of continuing with swimming after high school.
Technology Run Amuck
1970s: The 1977 NCAAs was probably the fastest ever. NCAA records were set in all 16 events (no 200-yard relays yet) and American or U.S. Open records in 14 of them. But with this speed came tougher and tougher qualifying standards. The day was fast approaching when all but the very best collegiate swimmers would have to rest and shave for their conference championships to ensure an invite to the NCAAs. How ironic. With the advent of scoring the NCAAs detracted much of the luster of conference championships, only to give it back with brisk qualifying times.
But nothing else in the ‘70s matched the uniqueness of a tie to the 1000th of a second between Tennessee’s Lee Engstrand and Indiana’s Fred Tyler in the 200 IM at the 1975 NCAAs. To get a winner the officials went along with the electronic timing system, which indicated that Tyler won by anywhere from .0001 to .0009 of a second.
This was technology run amuck. By the end of the decade the NCAA gave up on its experiment with nano-precision.
1980s: In 1980 the Kenyon men won the first of 31 consecutive Division III NCAA titles. Four years later, the women won the first of 16 straight. Never has there been such dominance in any division in college sports. Nothing even close. The mastermind behind these steaks was head coach Jim Steen, who would accrue 50 NCAA titles before he retired in 2010.
“It’s something in the water,” Steen once quipped.
In 1983, Becky Rutt coached Clarion to the DII women’s national championship, making her unique for a time as the only women to coach an NCAA swimming team to a national title. Teri McKeever became the second 26 years later with the Cal-Berkeley women.
The 200-yard freestyle and medley relays were added to the NCAAs in 1980s, bringing the total number of swimming events to 18, which it is today, and making sprinting the primary attribute of NCAA success.
America’s Crown Jewel
1990s: Anita Nall, a ’92 Olympic medalist, was the first high schooler to heed the call of professionalism and turn her back on college swimming. When Brooke Bennett, a ’96 medalist, did the same, it looked like American swimming’s crown jewel might begin to darken.
Instead, college swimming continued to thrive. Of the 47 swimmers on the U.S. 2016 men’s and women’s Olympic teams, 45 had completed four years of college swimming, were swimming in college, or were about to start their college swimming careers. The crown jewel remained as bright as ever.
2000s: For the first time in 72 years, an NCAA Championships was held in a course other than 25 yards when, in 2000, both the men’s and the women’s Division I meets took place in 25 meters. The hope was for plenty of world records, which happened, and more media exposure, which didn’t. The meets in 2004 where in 25 meters, but since then it’s been all 25 yards.
Breaking the Unbreakable
2010s: Over the last decade the NCAAs produced a lot of swims that pierced what were thought to be unbreakable barriers. To cite a few, the men went under 18.0 in the 50 free, 40.0 in the 100 free, 1:40.0 in the 200 IM and 1:50.0 in the 200 breaststroke. The women broke 56.0 in the 100 breaststroke, 50.0 in the 100 butterfly, and 15:10 in the 1650.
The NCAAs is the fastest most exciting meet in the world with the exception of the Olympics. Hopefully next year around this time, we will have it back.