By Greg Echlin//Contributor | Monday, May 11, 2020Photo by Laura Jacobsen
As far as swimming props are concerned around certain college campuses, it’s all about the geography.
For collegiate swimming and diving conference championships to coincide with college basketball’s stretch run in hoops hotbed areas, it’s a no-win situation for the swimmers. So, with the coronavirus pandemic wiping out the NCAA men’s and women’s swimming and diving championships in March, all the swimmers could do was latch the laurels of their best performances to their respective conference meets.
And there were some worth noting.
Take unheralded University of Kansas sophomore Kate Steward for example. The day she successfully defended her Big 12 individual title (Feb. 29) in the 200y breast at the conference championships, the Jayhawks men’s basketball team grabbed first place for good in the Big 12 standings. In hoops, KU ended up as the No. 1 ranked team in the Associated Press poll before March Madness was canceled because of COVID 19.
“I totally understand that everybody loves watching KU basketball. I do, too,” said Steward, who spoke from her home in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, where she’s finishing her spring semester. “But it is sometimes a little bit of a letdown when nobody knows what’s going on and nobody knows the accomplishments that (KU) swimming has had.”
Kansas scored the most points (831 points) in program history to finish second behind the Texas Longhorns (1,012 points), the conference juggernaut in swimming and diving.
It’s not just about Steward’s accolades being lost in Lawrence, Kansas, where the basketball’s inventor, Dr. James Naismith, is buried. How about the high basketball IQ in ACC country?
Imagine how the University of Virginia’s Paige Madden felt after being named the ACC’s Most Valuable Swimmer for five first-place finishes—three in individual events and two on relays—on Feb. 22. Though the UVA women captured their second ACC title in the last three years that day, the Cavaliers won in men’s hoops earlier in the day while in the midst of a season-ending, eight-game winning streak. UVA was the defending NCAA champion this season.
“I’m sure, as far as the UVA population, they were probably excited about the game,” said Madden, a junior who’s finishing her spring semester at her Mobile, Alabama, home. “But swimming is in its own world and I’m used to that.”
On top of that, when it was time for up-and-coming swimmers like Steward and Madden to make more of a name for themselves in the spring events leading into the Olympic trials, they were thwarted again. The latest by COVID 19, which caused spring competition to be curtailed and forced the postponement of the Olympics and the U.S. swimming trials until 2021.
Before the cancellations, Madden planned to swim the TYR Pro Swim Series stops in Mission Viejo (April 16-19) and Indianapolis (May 6-9) as long-course tuneups before the trials.
“For me, it’s just another year to get stronger, so I’m not super down about it,” said Steward who qualified to swim in the 100 and 200 breast in the trials. “It was a bit of a shock, but there’s only so much we can do about it.”
Steward’s got time to make an upward move in the 100 and 200 breast with Lilly King solidly entrenched as the top American breaststroker. Below King, however, there should be some interesting challenges to shore up the breaststroke depth.
Two of Madden’s freshman teammates at Virginia—Kate Douglass and Ella Nelson—weren’t able to break the string of ACC titles that Sophie Hansson, a 2016 Olympian from Sweden competing at North Carolina State, has put together. In her two years with the Wolfpack, Hansson is 4-for-4 at the ACC championships in the 100 and 200 breast.
“From an insider’s perspective, I’m not too surprised because I see what they (Douglass and Nelson) do every day,” said Madden. “I see what they do in the weight room and at practice.”
There’s also a lot of promise elsewhere with the breaststroke.
University of Georgia freshman Zoie Hartman won the 100 and 200 breast at the SEC championships this year, and University of Kentucky freshman Gillian Davey finished fifth last summer in the 200 breast at the Phillips 66 U.S. nationals in Palo Alto, California.
Now it’s a matter of time when COVID 19 subsides and everyone returns to the pool. Next year, geography won’t matter. All the swimming lanes a year from now will lead to Omaha (June 13-20, 2021) where swimmers will create waves at the U.S. Trials leading into the Summer Olympics in Tokyo.