The Blue Devil women’s historic season came to a close Saturday when seven swimmers gave their encore postseason performances on the national stage.
Duke entered its largest roster to date at the four-day NCAA championships at Georgia Tech’s McAuley Aquatic Center in Atlanta, sending at least three representatives up to the blocks for each of the preliminary sessions. Sophomores Verity Abel, Leah Goldman and Isa Paez and junior Maddie Rusch competed in a combined 11 individual events, and freshman Maddie Hess, junior Jessie Sutherland and senior Chelsea Ye rounded out the relay contingents.
The Blue Devils were hoping to make a splash by placing higher than they were seeded and getting up on the scoreboard, but did not see the time drops they were looking for. All four individual qualifiers were just off their career-bests in every contested event, and the freestyle relays earned combined times less than a second off of the program’s top marks.
“We were a bit disappointed—we didn’t come in and do what we had hoped to accomplish,” Duke head coach Dan Colella said. “But when you look at the body of work this year, they have made some really great progress, and we are extremely proud of the fact that we had seven girls here.”
Abel—who earned her ticket to Atlanta after two days of waiting as the meet’s first alternate—raced in all three longer freestyle events, kicking off her first NCAA championship experience with a time of 4:49.73 in the 500 yards Thursday and finishing 64th overall. The distance specialist was just off her school record of 1:47.90 in Friday’s 200-yard freestyle with a 58th-place finish in a time of 1:48.85. Abel wrapped up her weekend with her signature mile, stopping the clock at 16:24.30—good for 38th and two places better than her seed based on invitation.
National championship veterans Goldman and Paez both finished outside the top 16 morning performers in their best events, missing the opportunity to swim in the evening finals for All-America honors.
Goldman earned her highest finish of the meet in Friday’s 100-yard butterfly, clocking in at 52.68 seconds for 24th. The Burlingame, Calif., native posted the school record of 52.28 seconds in the event at the 2015 ACC championships. Goldman also tops Duke’s all-time performers list in the 200-yard individual medley with a time of 1:58.41 seconds, and she swam the event in 1:59.48 Thursday—good for 44th. The sophomore closed her individual-event slate with the 100-yard freestyle, touching the wall with a new season best and just five one-hundredths off her career best in 49.58 seconds.
Paez concluded her sophomore season with a 25th-place finish in the 200-yard butterfly in 1:56.75, moving up seven spots from her 2015 NCAA championship performance. The Medley, Fla., native claimed 46th place at the shorter distance butterfly in 53.78 seconds.
Also racing in the 100-yard butterfly, Rusch finished five one-hundredths off her career best in 53.22 seconds. The New Canaan, Conn., native also competed in the 50- and 100-yard freestyle preliminaries, placing 51st in the longer sprint in 49.66 seconds and 37th in the short sprint with a time of 22.58 seconds.
The meet marked Rusch’s first time competing on the national stage in individual events. She had helped Duke’s 200-yard medley relay earn an automatic qualification to the championships as a freshman in 2014 and also swam on the 200-yard freestyle relay that earned a provisional cut. The junior guided the Blue Devil relays back to the NCAA championships, this time with both sprint freestyle relays in place of the medley.
The quartet of Hess, Rusch, Sutherland and Goldman finished 21st in the 200-yard freestyle relay in 1:30.05. Ye tagged out Sutherland for the 400-yard freestyle relay—in which Duke also took 21st in 3:17.26—recording a lifetime best 100-yard freestyle split of 49.58 seconds in her final race as a Blue Devil.
“Chelsea absolutely loves the sport,” Colella said. “She has had a lot of things to work through physically—she’s spent a lot of time in the training room over the past three years. This is a real testament to her, that in her senior year after everything she’s gone through to finish her career with a lifetime best on the relay here.”
Ye will be Duke’s lone swimmer on its national roster lost to graduation. The remaining six will hit the water again in the fall but already have a new goal in mind for the 2016-17 campaign—bringing 10 or more women back to the national championships and putting the Blue Devils up on the scoreboard.
Without swimmers in the evening finals, Duke did not register a team score for the meet. But the ACC fared well in Atlanta as 10 schools sent at least two representatives and three finished in the top 10 for the first time in conference history. Virginia led the way with a fifth-place overall finish, Louisville took eighth and N.C. State was ninth. Kelsi Worrell of Louisville and Leah Smith of Virginia combined for four individual-event victories, two NCAA meet records and one American record—Worrell’s 100-yard butterfly.
“Each year the ACC is getting a lot more competitive,” Colella said. “We have always had some gifted athletes but we haven’t really had the depth of other conferences. But now you can match us up with just about anyone in the country.”
The men’s squad will have its turn in the national spotlight starting Wednesday when freshman diver Evan Moretti, junior Peter Kropp and the 200-yard medley relay head to Atlanta for their four-day competition.
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