Duke swimming and diving 2023-24 season preview

The Blue Devils enter the 2023-24 season on the back of a promising 2022-23 campaign, headlined by some exciting additions.
The Blue Devils enter the 2023-24 season on the back of a promising 2022-23 campaign, headlined by some exciting additions.

Overview

Duke is poised to enter the 2023-24 swim and dive season as an aquatic powerhouse. After finishing in 21st place at the 2023 NCAA Championships last year, the women’s team opens this season ranked No. 15. While the men’s program lacks a similar rank — having graduated several of its top point contributors last year — it boasts a talented younger class that will be looking to make a splash this winter.

New head coach Brian Barnes, who joined the program in May after former head coach Dan Colella passed away from cancer in December 2022, described this year’s team as “fun, resilient and hardworking,” with its biggest strength being “Duke pride.” Despite several program changes, he said he “couldn’t have imagined [the season] going any better to start.”

Last year, the women’s team posted impressive championship races, with Kaelyn Gridley placing sixth in the 200 Y Breaststroke at NCAA Division I meet. Her teammate Sarah Foley finished close behind to grab ninth in the same event, while also touching eighth in the 200 Y IM. Both swimmers will look to improve upon those performances this year and lead the team to new success. For the divers, Margo O’Meara will hope to match her impressive freshman season and deliver additional NCAA titles. 

The men’s team lost a number of seasoned veterans, including four top-ranked seniors and double-IM record holder Cole Reznik. Looking to fill the gaps left in the roster will be the likes of Blake Johnson, Michael Volpe and Michael Jiang, as well as several talented freshmen. 

It looks to be an exciting season for the Blue Devils, who face their first test of the year Saturday afternoon against Virginia Tech. -Abby DiSalvo

New swimmer/diver to watch: Ali Pfaff

This season also brings a new class of swimmers and divers looking to make their mark on the team. While the Blue Devils have a tough schedule ahead of them, there are several new additions to the team that leave much to look forward to.

One of these additions is Ali Pfaff, a two-time Virginia state champion who went undefeated her senior year at Rockbridge County High School. Along the way, Pfaff broke two state records in the 100-yard freestyle with a time of 49.34 seconds and the 100-yard backstroke with a time of 52.85. While swimming for the club team Virginia Gators, Pfaff also qualified for the 2024 Olympic Trials. As a primarily sprint freestyle and backstroke swimmer, Pfaff’s undeniable speed will be a valuable contribution to the success of the women’s team this season. 

Barnes said that he has already begun laying down a foundation for the new freshmen by making a point “to get to know them individually.” He also said that his approach has been to “coach the person first and then ... coach the events they swim.”

As the Blue Devils begin this season with Barnes at the helm, as well as three recent assistant coach hires, look forward to watching talented freshmen like Pfaff find their way and make an impact on this high-performing team. -Emily Wang

Returning swimmer/diver to watch: Kaelyn Gridley, Bradley Sanford

Gridley brings astonishing speed to the Blue Devils. She joined Duke as a top-ranked recruit and delivered on her promise by finishing sixth in the 200-yard breaststroke at the NCAA Championships as a freshman. Gridley also broke the school record for the 100-yard breaststroke with a time of 58.76, and she will certainly be eyeing Foley’s 200-yard breaststroke record of 2:05.78 this season. Her determination combined with talent could be enough to lead the program to new heights.

On the men’s side, senior Bradley Sanford will look to fill the shoes of several graduated Blue Devils. After recording a personal best time of 1:37.13 in last year’s ACC Championships, he will enter the 2023-24 season prepared to continue improving his performance. Barnes said that as a coach, he’s “very comfortable putting this season in the hands of the senior class,” including swimmers like Sanford who “show up daily ready to go.” -DiSalvo

Most anticipated matchup: ACC Championships, Feb. 20

Duke ended the 2022-2023 season with a fifth-place finish for the women and a 10th-place finish for the men at the ACC Championships. The women’s team earned 718.5 points, exceeding its point total of 709 from the 2022 event. With several promising recruits and O’Merea still slated to compete, Duke hopes for this upward trend to continue. Additionally, the women put together an excellent 400-yard medley relay with a time of 3:31.35 that allowed them to take home the bronze medal in 2023. 

While much remains to be seen, the anticipation surrounding how the team’s performance at the ACC Championships will shape up compared to previous years is certainly not unwarranted, and an encouraging performance last year points to a possibility of further development this winter. -Wang

Best-case scenario:

The Blue Devil women have the potential to exceed expectations to finish in the NCAA top 10, with Foley and Gridley breaking additional school records and the men’s team stepping up to prove itself as a conference contender. A strong start against No. 17 Virginia Tech Saturday could give the Blue Devils the push they need to skyrocket to new success and give difficult opponents like Texas a run for their money. -DiSalvo

Worst-case scenario:

The Blue Devils face a challenging competition schedule, with dual meets against five men’s and women’s teams that finished the last season within the top 25. Especially considering recent coaching changes, starting off on the wrong foot would leave the team in a precarious position come early November with meets against No. 4 N.C. State and No. 13 Georgia.

When asked about what he hopes to see from the team this weekend, Barnes answered that he wants them to “focus on the how instead of the outcome.” If the Blue Devils are unable to make adjustments off the bat though, they could struggle for the rest of the season, finishing in the middle or lower pack of the conference. -Wang

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