Duke swimming and diving falls to North Carolina, shatters records against Texas

Duke swimming and diving races against Texas.
Duke swimming and diving races against Texas.

A rival one day and Olympians the next, Blue Devil swimmers and divers had their hands full this weekend as they hosted back-to-back home meets in Taishoff Aquatics Center. Duke battled closely with North Carolina and Texas, trading tight finishes with the Tar Heels and Longhorns before ultimately losing to both by slim margins.

Against North Carolina, it all came down to the last event. The Blue Devil women headed into the 400-yard freestyle relay with a lead of only four points, leaving the outcome of the night entirely dependent on the relay’s winner. Fans in both shades of blue leapt to their feet as both teams dove into the water. Amid deafening cheers, Ali Pfaff, Yixuan Chang, Tatum Wall and Sarah Foley engaged the Tar Heels in a dead-even race. But Duke fell behind in the final moments, finishing in second by a margin of 0.67 seconds and falling to North Carolina 152.5-147.5 overall.

The entire meet against North Carolina was just as contentious as its final event. From the first beep of the starter, the Tar Heels forced the Blue Devils into close race after close race. 

The first half of the 200-yard medley relay, for example, saw the North Carolina women mere milliseconds ahead of Duke. Then Aleyna Ozkan pulled slightly forward in the butterfly leg, sparking thunderous applause. In a possible foreshadowing of their fatal race, the Blue Devils couldn’t manage to stay ahead in the final moments. They touched just behind the visitors to start out the meet with a second-place finish.

The women’s 200-yard freestyle was another close race, with Foley and Chang battling the Tar Heels down to the end. Foley outswam North Carolina’s Madeline Smith by just over half a second to secure the winning time of 1:48.99, while Chang narrowly snuck into third by a margin of 0.02 seconds. Blake Johnson put up a similar fight in the men’s 200-yard freestyle and managed to fend off the Tar Heels’ Louis Dramm until the final seconds. His time of 1:39.05, a mere 0.53 slower than Dramm’s, delivered a solid second-place finish for the men’s team.

Pfaff made it her business to deliver a women’s victory in the 100-yard backstroke. Her final time of 53.26 — fastest by only 0.97 seconds — was Duke’s most comfortable margin of victory of the meet so far. Michael Jiang and David Chang fought valiantly for similar success in the men’s 100-yard backstroke, but came in second and third behind North Carolina’s Walker Davis. All three men touched the wall within a mere 0.67 seconds of one another. 

There were other notable finishes Friday as well. Martina Peroni took the 200-yard butterfly out fast, securing a comfortable lead within the first 100 yards. From there, she cruised to victory with a final time of 1:55.97 — almost a full four seconds ahead of the next-fastest finisher from North Carolina. In the women’s 1000-yard freestyle, Audrey Portello dropped nearly three-and-a-half seconds off of her season-best time to earn a second-place finish for the Blue Devils.

The women’s 50-yard freestyle had fans on their feet before the starter even sounded, with Wall and Kyanh Truong digging deep to deliver Duke  first- and third-place finishes. While the men fought hard for similar results, the Tar Heels managed to keep them off the podium in both events.

In the words of head coach Brian Barnes, the highlight of the afternoon was the team’s “fight” and “resilience.” Despite trading victories with the Tar Heels almost the entire meet, the Duke swimmers’ times continued to display impressive determination. Barnes added that the “senior class was a big part of [the] very successful day,” with multiple points coming from seasoned veterans such as Foley, Ozkan and Daniel Chang.

But though their grit and heart shone throughout the entire meet, the Blue Devils couldn’t keep up with the Tar Heels in the end. The women ended on the short side of 152.5-147.5, while the men fell 219-80.

The next morning, Duke returned to Taishoff to face off against Texas, the highest-ranked opponent on its schedule and by far the fastest competition yet. Barnes commented that Saturday’s meet “asked the team to get organized in the morning against a very good program. It [was] absolutely a challenge.”

But if it was a challenge, the Blue Devils stepped up. Sophomore Kaelyn Gridley broke her own school record in the 200-yard breaststroke, clocking in a time of 2:07.91 as she raced against the Longhorns. Then Martina Peroni broke her own pool record in the 200-yard butterfly with a time of 1:54.01, three seconds ahead of the next-fastest swimmer. 

There were quieter highlights as well. Senior Emily Lenihan recorded her first best time in the 100 backstroke since her freshman year, in what Barnes called “a huge compliment to her and the coaching staff.” Catherine Belyakov swam personal bests in the 100-yard butterfly and 100-yard freestyle. Junior Margo O’Meara brought home the weekend’s sole victory in the diving well as she flipped to a first-place finish in the 1-meter.

The meet was also filled with tight races. The women’s 200-yard breaststroke was arguably the most exciting to watch, with Texas’ Lydia Jacoby and Anna Elendt (both medal-winners Olympic and NCAA podiums) engaging Gridley in a deadlocked race. It wasn’t until the last 50 yards that Gridley inched ahead, edging them both out with her record-breaking time of 2:07.91 seconds. In the men’s race, Longhorn Jake Foster cruised to victory and shattered Taishoff’s pool record with a time of 1:53.05. Texas’s Will Scholtz finished second, and Duke’s Kalen Anbar nabbed third.

Peroni’s 200-yard butterfly race was closer than the previous afternoon, and she fought to stay ahead of Texas's Campbell Stroll for much of the event. But the competition seemed to give her an extra boost of speed, and she managed to finish first and secure a record-breaking time.

Pfaff and Molly Donlan made signature appearances in the 200-yard backstroke, facing stiff competition from Texas’s Olivia Bray, Emma Kern and Alicia Wilson. The five swimmers stayed nearly dead even until Donlan inched ahead in the last 50, clinging to a slim lead and finishing first with a time of 1:55.38. Pfaff placed second with a time of 1:55.79, barely inching out Bray’s finish of 1:55.84. On the men’s side of the same event, Jiang finished first with a time of 1:44.81, two full seconds ahead of the second-place finisher from Texas.

Other events were dominated by the Blue Devils. Ozkan sailed ahead early in the women’s 100-yard butterfly, with teammates Peroni and Yixuan Chang not far behind. The women swept the event with times of 53.00, 53.07 and 54.53 respectively. In the men’s 100-yard backstroke, Jack Christian and David Chang secured first and second place with times of 48.63 and 49.32, respectively. 

In the women’s 200-yard freestyle, Wall took an early lead and secured first place ahead of teammate Yixuan Chang. In the 100-yard breaststroke, Gridley sailed to a first-place finish with a lightning time of 59.48. She dropped almost a second from her race the previous day, while Sarah Foley finished second with a time of 1:01.24. In the men’s 500-yard freestyle, Johnson quickly cruised to a comfortable lead and finished first with a time of 4:28.14, more than three seconds ahead of second-place Texas’s Sasha Lyabavskiy. 

But the Longhorns managed to pull ahead in the relays and most other events, leaving the Blue Devil women on the unhappy side of 154.5–134 and the men behind 197–90.

Duke will return to Taishoff Friday for the final regular (and home) meet of the season. The Blue Devils will certainly look for a comeback as they host Queens and celebrate senior day.


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