Olympians Katie Ledecky, Simone Manuel, Lilly King headline NCAA swimming championships
Even for Olympians, there's something about the NCAA swimming and diving championships, which will pit the nation's best (and sometimes the planet's best) against one another Wednesday through Saturday at the Indiana University Natatorium in Indianapolis.
"It's super crazy, mentally and physically exhausting, compacted into four days. You barely sleep," said Cal sophomore Kathleen Baker, the NCAA's top seed in the 200 backstroke. "There's so much cheering, the atmosphere on the deck is crazy. In the final heat, every single team is standing up and cheering as loud as they can for everyone."
The NCAA championships is the ultimate test for teams to prove themselves, whether chasing a national championship, placing in the top four or trying to crack the top 10 for the first time.
"Each year, it's by far the best meet in the world," said Greg Meehan, coach of top-ranked Stanford. "You get in the environment and from the very first session Wednesday night until about Saturday night, it's pretty intense and just really fun, and I think the teams just feed off that energy inside the building."
Here are seven swimmers to watch. You're going to recognize a bunch of them.
Katie Ledecky, Stanford, freshman
After dominating the international stage, the five-time Olympic gold medalist hasn't let up in collegiate competition. The 19-year-old is the NCAA's favorite for the 500 freestyle (4:25.15) and 1,650 free (15:03.92). She is seeded second (behind a decorated teammate; more on that later) in the 200 free (1:40.50).
"There's a lot of external expectations for her every time that she races, but I know what she's focusing in on and what her inner goals are, and she's just going to pursue those with a passion," Meehan said.
"She's part of the team environment, and I think for our whole team, they are motivated. It's not just about points, but it's also about inspiring others. And for someone like Katie, it's not just about the win, it's about having a great swim to inspire her teammates."
Ledecky helped the Cardinal win their first Pac-12 crown since 2013 by setting American and NCAA marks in the 500 free, the 400 individual medley (3:57.68) and the 800 free relay (6:49.42). In all, she has set world records 13 times and American records 27 times.
Stanford's stacked squad includes senior Lia Neal, juniors Simone Manuel, Ally Howe and Janet Hu, and sophomore Ella Eastin.
Owning an NCAA-record eight national championships, Stanford aims for its first crown since 1998.
Olivia Smoliga, Georgia, senior
Smoliga is no stranger to the NCAA championships, having won the 50 and 100 freestyle in 2016 to lead the Lady Bulldogs to the NCAA title.
She craves more in her final meet, and is seeded third in the 100 free (46.95), fifth in the 100 back (50.60) and sixth in the 50 free (21.56).
"There's so much excitement," Smoliga said. "There's emotions -- it's my last one, my last as a Bulldog, so it definitely means the most, although I do go into every NCAA with the same mindset, which is to race and make my Georgia Bulldogs proud."
She dominated at the SEC championships, taking home the 100 back and 100 free titles.
The Lady Bulldogs have finished first or second at the national meet 15 times over the past 18 years. "It makes you swim for a bigger purpose," Smoliga said. "It's different when you train day in and day out with the same group of girls. You sweat, you cry and you bleed for them."
Lilly King, Indiana, sophomore
In just two seasons, King has solidified her spot among the nation's best. The Olympic gold medalist is the NCAA's favorite in the 100 breast (56.30) and 200 breast (2:04.03).
"I'm definitely a taper swimmer, championship season," King said. "The more pressure for me, the better."
King, who won three individual Big Ten titles including the 200 breast, in which she broke the conference meet record, learned from a young age that poise during competition comes from poise during practice. World champion and gold-medal winner Janet Evans taught the then-8-year-old that lesson at a local clinic.
"She said that she was definitely not the most talented person, but she outworked everybody," King said.
"That shifted my focus in the sport to working hard in practice. The only way I was going to get anywhere in the sport was if I kept pushing and working as hard as I could and getting crazy times in practice."
Simone Manuel, Stanford, junior
Manuel, a two-time individual NCAA champion in the 50 and 100 free in 2015, is back to defend her titles after taking a year off to train for Rio.
The two-time Olympic gold medalist, who became the first African-American woman to win an individual Olympic gold in swimming, is the NCAA favorite in the 50 free (21.29), 100 free (46.36) and 200 free (1:40.37). One of the meet's most anticipated matchups pits Stanford teammates Manuel and Ledecky in the 200 free on Friday.
Manuel won Pac-12 crowns in the 50, 100 and 200 (beating Ledecky). Manuel's work ethic rubs off on teammates, according to Meehan.
"She's one of our best trainers and most consistent trainers," Meehan said. "She really sets the bar incredibly high for our team as a whole and specifically for our sprint group for how to be a consistent trainer at a high level, and that's made a huge difference for us."
Madisyn Cox, Texas, senior
Cox has long visualized the NCAA meet -- the pool, the strokes, the success. It's the three-time All-American's final crack at victory, and she is seeded second in the 400 IM (4:01.15) and third in the 200 IM (1:52.82).
"It's crazy thinking about how quickly four years have gone by," Cox said. "I feel like I've really embraced each moment, and all of it has led up to this. I'm ready for it, and our entire team is."
Cox was named women's swimmer of the meet at the Big 12 championships, setting school and Big 12 records in both individual medley events.
Placing third in the 200 IM at the 2015 NCAA championships and fourth in the same event in 2016, she has increased her strength training in preparation for this year's national meet.
"It's definitely one of the most competitive meets there is, but when it boils down to it, it's just racing," Cox said. "It's racing the person next to you, it's getting in your mind, getting in that competitive nature to put your hand on the wall first."
Kathleen Baker, Cal, sophomore
Baker, the NCAA favorite in the 200 back (1:48.33), has long eyed the American record for the event. "Elizabeth Pelton, my former teammate who broke the record," Baker said, "she said, 'If anyone gets it, I want you to get it.'"
Baker, who won the 200 back at the Pac-12 championships by setting a meet record, is now within a half-second of Pelton's American record (1:47.84) from the 2013 NCAA championships.
Baker also aims to make a splash in the 100 back (50.27) and 200 IM (1:52.74). She is seeded second in both events.
Cal's rivalry with Stanford has helped prepare her and her teammates for the national meet, she said.
"It's funny, I go from being super close with them to being [Olympic] teammates in the summer to now being rivals during the school year," Baker said. "Both teams inspire each other. It's a lot of fun."
Leah Smith, Virginia, senior
Smith, who took home NCAA crowns in the 500 and 1,650 free in both 2015 and 2016, is back for more. There's just a little more company this time around.
Facing off against Ledecky, the 11-time All-American is seeded second in the 500 free (4:30.81), second in 1,650 free (15:31.49) and seventh in the 200 free (1:43.29).
"This year, I'm just really looking to have fun, and I know that Katie will give me a great race," Smith said. "It's a great opportunity any time you get to race the best in the world, so I'm definitely going to seize that opportunity."
The Olympic gold medalist won ACC championship crowns in the 500 and 1,650 free.
"I'm going into this meet with the same attitude that I would go into any meet with," Smith said, "and that's just that I'm going to swim the best I can and I'm going to give it everything I have."