In 2015, the Duke men and women sent a combined seven swimmers to the NCAA championships.
This year that number has doubled as seven women are set to compete on the national stage.
Sophomores Verity Abel, Leah Goldman and Isa Paez, junior Maddie Rusch and the 200- and 400-yard freestyle relays will represent the Blue Devils at the four-day NCAA championships at Georgia Tech’s McAuley Aquatic Center in Atlanta, starting Wednesday.
Five members of the squad are no strangers to the country’s fastest annual meet—Goldman and Paez qualified individually last year and Rusch, Jessica Sutherland and Chelsea Ye competed on relays in 2014.
“Every year we seem to get more and more folks qualified individually. To have a group of seven going is absolutely everything that we want to be doing in terms of moving forward as a program,” Duke head coach Dan Colella said. “It’s exciting to have several veterans with us. This meet can be overwhelming your first time, so having this group returning is really going to help everybody swim at the highest level possible.”
But the Blue Devils did not get their national championship roster qualified without a little drama after invitations were first announced Feb. 29. Abel found herself as the first alternate for the meet after 322 athletes were invited to compete, and Duke could not send its relays without a fourth individual swimmer.
The distance specialist had been unable to swim her signature mile event at the conference championships Feb. 20 due to illness, but raced in the Bulldog Last Chance meet a week later with hopes that she could post a time fast enough to advance to the national championships by invitation. Finishing in a lifetime-best of 16:17.89, Abel was just a quarter of a second slower than the 39th and final time that secured an invitation to the NCAA championships.
“I was a little let down the day that the psych sheet actually came out,” Abel said. “It was nerve-wracking and confusing, especially after the emotional rollercoaster of getting sick at ACCs and doing it at the Last Chance meet a week later and coming so close. The next two days of waiting felt like two weeks.”
Two days after the championship field was announced, one of the invited swimmers withdrew from the meet, and Abel and the relays were given their official invitation.
Abel will swim both the 1,650- and 500-yard freestyles. She will also compete in the shorter 200-yard freestyle, in which she holds the school record of 1:47.90 from the lead leg of the 800-yard freestyle from the opening day of the conference championships. Abel is seeded 40th in the mile, 63rd in the 500 and 69th in the 200.
“I feel so blessed to be going to this meet in the first place after it has been such a long ride this season,” Abel said. “I will still be really grateful with whatever happens, but I still feel like I have the potential to drop more time. I was happy to have gone a best time in the 500 free at ACCs, but I was sick through the whole meet.”
Duke’s sprint relays will race Thursday and Saturday mornings, aiming to earn spots in the evening finals.
The Blue Devils will step up to the blocks for their first race of the meet with the 200-yard freestyle relay. Duke’s fastest time of the season stands at a school record of 1:29.75, set by the quartet of freshman Maddie Hess, Rusch, Goldman and Sutherland at the Nike Cup Invitational in November. The Blue Devils will have to finish in the top 16 Thursday morning to make it back at night and are seeded 21st.
The 400-yard freestyle squad of Hess, Rusch, Ye and Goldman posted a season-best and Duke-record time of 3:16.37 at the same meet—good for the 18th seed in Saturday’s preliminaries and just half a second off the 16th-best mark in the field.
“One of our goals in the recruiting process over the last couple years was to get sprinters, and that has provided us with a great 200- and 400 free relay,” Colella said. “Those relays are capable of getting back at night—they are going to be really competitive. “
For the first time in her career, Rusch will not just compete in the relays. The New Canaan, Conn., native will more than double her 2014 event slate with opportunities to swim in the 50- and 100-yard freestyles and 100-yard butterfly. The junior secured her spot at the meet with the 20th fastest time in the nation in the 50-yard event with a school record of 22.14 seconds from the Nike Cup Invitational and is seeded 19th.
Rusch is seeded 65th in the longer sprint freestyle at 49.55 seconds and 42nd in the short butterfly at 53.17 seconds. She will be joined in both events by Goldman, who earned her second straight invitation to the national championships with her performance in the butterfly at the ACC championships in February.
The Burlingame, Calif., finished fourth in the 100-yard butterfly at the conference meet in 52.32 seconds—just off her own Duke program-best of 52.28 seconds—and is seeded 23rd for Friday’s preliminaries. Goldman will also swim the 200-yard individual medley and the 100-yard freestyle, in which she is seeded 49th and 66th, respectively.
Paez will also make a repeat appearance in her signature 200-yard butterfly Saturday. The Medley, Fla., native is seeded 23rd, courtesy of her school-record-breaking mark of 1:56.04 for fourth at the ACC championships. She is also slated to round out Duke’s trio of shorter distance butterfliers as the 44th seed at 53.21 seconds.
“We are absolutely in a position where we could put a lot of people back at night.” Colella said. “Leah, Isa and Maddie [Rusch]—all of them are in striking position… We are ready to unleash here at NCAAs. We have been training all year for this.”
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