It's a whole new life for Mallory Comerford since she tied Katie Ledecky at NCAAs
Sitting in class at the University of Louisville, Mallory Comerford fields questions she never would have expected barely over a month ago.
In fact, the subject of swimming rarely came up in conversation prior to the NCAA championships. Many of her classmates knew her only as someone on the team, but not by name.
Now, fellow students want to know more about the sophomore sitting near them. What is it like to be the person who shocked the world by tying five-time Olympic gold medalist Katie Ledecky of Stanford for first place in the 200-yard freestyle? It was the first time Ledecky had not beaten every other swimmer to the wall in a major-meet final, and both Comerford and Ledecky were awarded a national championship.
Winning a national title brings attention. Doing so by finishing dead even with one of the most decorated swimmers in history garners even more. Any anonymity Comerford might have enjoyed around campus is gone.
"People in my classes knew all along I was part of the swim team, but after the national championships, they certainly talked to me about swimming more," Comerford said. "They were like 'Aren't you that girl who tied Katie Ledecky? Wow, we didn't know you were that good.' ... The attention actually made the accomplishment seem more real, but there are times when I still can't believe it happened."
While she tried to resume a normal schedule of training and preparing for exams following the meet, it was clear her life has changed. Recently she threw out the first pitch at a Louisville home baseball game against Kentucky, which drew a school-record, standing-room-only crowd of 6,210.
Making her way to the mound amid a thunderous standing ovation, highlights of her national-championship performance played on the scoreboard. Was the record attendance a coincidence? Perhaps not.
"I didn't see what the crowd was watching because I was concentrating on getting the throw right, but members of my family, including my mom, were there along [with] several of my teammates who have made everything possible for me," she said. "It was very cool [to] share the experience with them."
This is the turn life has taken for the bubbly, relentlessly positive swimmer who pulled off one of the biggest surprises in NCAA championships history.
On that life-changing day, the 200-yard freestyle quickly evolved into a fierce duel between Comerford, Ledecky and Stanford swimmer, Simone Manuel, a two-time gold medalist.
Ledecky and Comerford, swimming next to each other, gradually separated themselves from Manuel over the final 25 yards, but neither was able to gain an advantage. They touched the wall simultaneously.
Comerford spun around as the results appeared on the scoreboard, putting one hand over her mouth and grasping the top of the wall for stability with the other as her eyes widened in amazement upon realizing she had tied the holder of multiple world records.
Their time (1 minute, 40.36 seconds) is the third-fastest in history behind the 1:39.10 and 1:40.31 efforts of another five-time gold medalist -- Missy Franklin. Comerford was the last swimmer to exit the pool as exuberant teammates and supporters rushed to greet her.
"I knew I had swam a good race, but when I looked up and a '1' was next to my name, I was in shock and then realized I had tied Katie -- unbelievable," said Comerford, who sliced 1.34 seconds off her previous best time. "I looked over and saw my teammates hugging, crying and celebrating, and sharing a moment like that with them was the best part. Katie was very gracious in congratulating me. I've looked up to her for years -- very cool."
Comerford also finished third in the 100 freestyle, fourth in the 500 freestyle and helped the Cardinals to top-eight finishes in four relays, making her a seven-time All-American -- the maximum possible -- and a feat matched only by Manuel this year. Comerford was a three-time All-American as a freshman.
"It was pure joy and a raw emotional explosion watching Mallory tie Katie, but we foster a shock-the-world mentality when it comes to championship events," Louisville coach Arthur Albiero said. "Honestly, the focus was on Mallory executing a superb race and giving herself a chance. I was not surprised Mallory won, but the reality of tying with Katie was definitely a bit surreal."
Especially considering Comerford had finished more than four seconds behind Ledecky in the Olympic equivalent of the event (200-meter freestyle) at the Olympic trials just eight months earlier.
"The 200-meter freestyle is not the same kind of race as the 200-yard freestyle in a shorter pool we swim in college, but I was hoping for more at the Olympic trials," said Comerford, whose best trials showing was 12th in the 100-meter freestyle. "After the trials, we made some new goals and found better and smarter ways to train, and my confidence grew as I began to have more success this season."
Comerford's next major competition is nationals, which run June 27-July 1 in Indianapolis and serve as the qualifying meet for the world championships, slated for July 14-30 in Budapest, Hungary.
"Representing Team USA is one of my major goals, so I went back to training after just a very short break," she said. "Sometimes, I can't believe my college career is already half over, but hopefully there are more national championships in my future and more celebrating with my team."
Growing up in Plainwell, Michigan, Comerford was encouraged to try the sport by her mother Laurie, an all-conference swimmer at nearby Kalamazoo College.
"Mom was the reason I started swimming when I was about 7 years old, and my older brother was already doing it, so, naturally, I wanted to be like him," she said. "I started competing seriously when I was about 9 and started enjoying working hard to improve. I stayed with swimming because it's a great competitive outlet, and I've loved meeting people and the atmosphere at meets."
Comerford won six individual state titles as a freshman and sophomore at Plainwell High School before swimming exclusively for her club team the next two years. At Louisville, she has lowered her best 200-freestyle time by more than seven seconds and her 100-freestyle best by nearly four seconds.
"From my first unofficial visit, Louisville has been the place for me," Comerford said. "You can't beat this winning atmosphere."
Albiero is thankful that atmosphere includes two more years for Comerford.
"It will be a fun journey," he said.