Duke swimming and diving women smash school records at NCAA Championships for best-ever finish

The Duke women broke three program relay records at NCAA championships.
The Duke women broke three program relay records at NCAA championships.

Two school records fell on the first night of the women’s NCAA swimming and diving Championships. Then, over the next four days, Duke repeated the feat — and topped it all off with the highest finish at the meet in program history.

The women’s 400-yard medley relay Friday was arguably the highlight of the weekend. Despite a flatter swim in the morning that left them seeded 15th, the team of Ali Pfaff, Kaelyn Gridley, Aleyna Ozkan and Sarah Foley brought the fire during finals to win their heat and place seventh overall. Their lightning-fast time of 3:28.71 was 2.33 seconds faster than prelims, toppling Duke’s school record in the event and earning them a First Team All-American title.

“You’re looking for four women to come together all at the same time and perform,” said head coach Brian Barnes. “And they all did that…. It’s a good reflection of their determination and their perseverance to bounce back from an okay preliminary session right into a school record by three seconds.”

That race, though perhaps the most exciting, was only one of three relay records to fall over the course of the weekend. The 200-yard medley relay team of Pfaff, Gridley, Ozkan and Tatum Wall bested the previous school record by 0.77 seconds when they delivered a time of 1:35.16 and out-touched North Carolina for a ninth-place finish. Then the team of Foley, Yixuan Chang, Wall and Catherine Purnell swam a 7:04.50 in the 800-yard freestyle relay, demolishing last season’s best of 7:05.18 and rewriting yet another record.

Barnes noted that it was special to have so many seniors on the relay teams. “It’s just a huge indication of their motivation and their passion and their commitment to Duke,” he said. “To go out and finish that way.”

On the other end of the experience spectrum, freshman Pfaff made waves by breaking Duke’s 100-yard backstroke record in Friday’s prelims with a time of 51.65 seconds. After just one year at Duke, she now holds the school record in both the 100- and 200-yard backstroke events. Her swim in the latter at NCAA Championships also earned her a Second Team All-American title.

“What’s great about this sport is you get exactly what you deserve,” noted Barnes. “Ali worked her butt off this year. And a lot of this was me finding out what she can do.” 

But according to Barnes, the most impressive takeaway of the meet was that “it came from everywhere.”

“There wasn’t a swimmer that competed who wasn’t either getting a best time or part of a school record,” he said. “It came from swimming and diving. It came from relays, it came from individuals. Our success this year wasn’t shouldered by one or two people. Everybody who went down there had an impact.”

Catherine Belyakov, for example, was a late addition to Duke’s NCAA team, qualifying only after Virginia dropped swimmer Ella Bathurst from its roster. But in Thursday's prelims, she won her heat of the 200 IM to finish 24th overall. Her swim of 1:56.53 was nearly half a second faster than her previous best. Foley made finals in the same event with a time of 1:55.18, then crushed her morning prelims performance to finish thirteenth overall with a 1:54.70. She was named a Second Team All-American following the race.

Thursday also saw Margo O’Meara qualify for the A final in the 1-meter event. Her final score of 266.80 ultimately earned her an eighth-place finish and First Team All-American honors.

By Friday night, the Blue Devils’ score of 57 points was already the most ever scored by Duke in the women’s NCAA Championship. But they still had more to deliver on the final day of competition.

Sophomore Kaelyn Gridley narrowly missed a bronze medal Saturday, instead finishing fourth in the 200-yard breaststroke. She touched in with a time of 2:04.94, 1.16 seconds faster than her seed and only 0.14 seconds behind Virginia’s Ella Nelson. Her finish in the event became Duke’s highest individual finish of the meet.

Graduate diver Ali Watson posted a score of 282.60 in the platform dive to finish 10th in the event, locking down a Second Team All-American spot. Then the 400-yard freestyle relay team of Wall, Belyakov, Pfaff and Foley finished 18th with a time of 3:13.48 to wrap up the meet for the Blue Devils.

The team’s final point total of 80 resulted in a 16th place finish, the highest ever in Duke program history.

“The hard work comes out in a variety of ways,” Barnes said of the record finish. “To back it up with desire and determination right into the last race was just awesome.”


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