GREENSBORO, N.C.—A year after capturing the silver medal, Duke's 200-yard medley relay squad climbed the blocks with two goals in mind—punching their tickets to the national championships in Atlanta March 23-26 and earning a spot up on the ACC podium again.
The Blue Devils will have to settle for one out of two.
Entering the meet seeded third and just 0.32 off of the A standard time, the quartet of Kaz Takabayashi, Peter Kropp, David Armstrong and James Peek earned their second automatic qualification to the NCAA championships in as many years with a new program-best swim of 1:25.00 at the conference championships Friday. The record was one of six set during the four-day meet en route to No. 19 Duke’s eighth-place team finish.
By breaking their previous record of 1:25.03 that earned them the silver in 2015, Takabayashi, Kropp, Armstrong and Peek exceeded the automatic qualifying time by three-tenths of a second. But they also missed third by the same amount—North Carolina claimed the bronze in 1:24.70.
“They always want more,” Duke head coach Dan Colella said. “I think what they were probably upset about was there were some real things that occurred during the race, that if we clean them up, we’ll be a lot faster. The great news is we made NCAAs and broke the school record and we know we can be a lot faster come Atlanta. They’re all pumped.”
Peek carried that energy into the second day of competition, providing the highlight swims of both the preliminaries and finals sessions by breaking the 50-yard freestyle program record set by Nick Garvey in 2011 in the morning and resetting his new mark in the evening. The Forest Row, Sussex, England, native touched in 19.57 seconds—a tenth of a second faster than Garvey’s mark—to earn the fourth spot in the championship final. Dropping his time to 19.54 seconds in the evening, Peek finished fifth overall. His time stands just two one-hundredths off of the last time that earned an invitation to the national championships last year.
“That’s the first time I’ve been in the championship final, and to get there and come in fifth—I’m pretty excited,” Peek said. “It’s going to be an exciting wait to see if I make it to NCAAs.”
The Blue Devils were ninth in the team standings with 227 points, but the junior sprinter’s success gave them the push they needed to make a move up the scoreboard. Duke qualified 12 swimmers for Friday’s finals from the morning swims, including five in the 100-yard breaststroke.
Kropp and fellow junior Mike Seaberg claimed spots in the A-final, Dylan Payne and Judd Howard in the B-final and Victor Chen in the C-final. Seaberg earned a new personal best of 53.50 seconds, knocking nearly two seconds off of his previous best from the 2015 ACC championships—good for eighth. Payne shaved 0.11 a second off his personal best to move up to fifth on Duke’s all time list, winning the consolation final for ninth overall in 53.34 seconds. Kropp finished seventh in the A-final in 53.47 seconds.
Freshman Max St. George and Takabayashi both broke Takabayashi’s 47.46-second record in the 100-yard backstroke in the morning preliminaries. St. George clocked in at 47.43 seconds, but less than two minutes later, Takabayashi reclaimed his program best in 47.23. The junior nearly matched the mark to finish in 47.37 seconds for eighth in the evening session.
““I didn’t really realize [I got the record] at first and then everyone told me,” St. George said. “Having Kaz as a training partner is really good. He helps me out with certain stuff and that actually helps my racing a lot, so it’s pretty cool. It’s really nice to have someone to race with that’s that fast.”
In the 100-yard butterfly, Takabayashi finished 20th in 48.11 seconds, and Armstrong took 15th in 47.87.
By the break before the 400-yard medley relay, Duke had jumped up to seventh.
Then the Blue Devils made a change to their usual medley relay lineup—Payne replaced the unshaved and not tapered Kropp on the breaststroke leg.
“Dylan’s swimming very hot and Peter, we kind of made a decision coming into this meet … He didn’t shave here,” Colella said. “We sort of anticipated there was a chance that one of the other breaststrokers could be in that position.... We’re fortunate to have such depth in the breaststroke that we could go with a number of different guys. We chose to go with Dylan tonight and he did a great job.”
The modified squad finished eighth in 3:12.45.
The fourth and final day of the meet featured the resetting of three Duke records, but the Blue Devils were unable to hold off Notre Dame, dropping back to eighth.
Sophomore Matt Johnson and freshman Riley Hickman both swam faster than Johnson’s school-record time of 15:77.88 seconds in the mile in the early heats Saturday. The pair swam in the same heat, just a few lanes apart. Hickman led at the 1,000-yard mark, but Johnson chased him down to win the heat in 15:08.84, with the freshman next to touch the wall in 15:09.94. After the final heat raced in the evening, the pair’s times stood for fourth and sixth.
“That was amazing. I saw [Hickman] pretty much the whole race. I guess he didn’t see me until the last 150,” Johnson said. “But just finishing and seeing that we took one-two in the heat was major. Our times were obviously competitive to be in the top eight. Coming into finals [Friday], we were so hyped to see where we would be, and fourth and sixth was so incredible for the both of us. I’m so hyped for him and I know he’s so proud of me. We train together, and it’s just been awesome.”
Two more records fell in Saturday evening. St. George claimed a new program-best in the 200-yard backstroke, clocking in at 1:44.17 in the morning. Junior Michael Miller bested his own record mark in the 200-yard butterfly in the evening, winning the C-final in 1:44.61 for 17th overall.
Duke outscored last year’s championship total of 435 by more than 200 points, finishing with 643.
“We feel really good about the progress we’ve made. We’ve moved up just one spot but we scored over 200 more points than last year,” Colella said. “I think it’s a real testament to all the work they’ve put in over the year, and we’re looking forward to next year, even though this year’s not over yet.”
The 200-yard medley relay squad will have a couple of weeks’ rest before heading to the NCAA championships. Kropp stands in good position to earn an invitation to compete individually based on his 52.13-second swim against Pittsburgh Oct. 3—the seventh-fastest time in the nation this season.