With three podium finishes in three events, junior diver Maria Polyakova was named the Diver of the Meet at the Pac-12 championship.
Polyakova was instrumental in helping the No. 21 UCLA swimming and diving team finish in fifth place at the meet, which was held in Federal Way, Washington, from Wednesday to Saturday.
However, there was some disappointment on the first day when Polyakova narrowly missed out on defending her 1-meter title by less than three points.
Olympic semifinalist and Stanford senior Kassidy Cook came out top with a score of 338.35 , just above Polyakova’s 335.75.
But on the next day, the narrative took a different turn as results were switched in the 3-meter competition.
Polyakova won the springboard event, posting a near-school-record score of 385, leaving Cook in second place this time with a score of 367.5.
“I wasn’t looking at her and I was trying to focus on my dives,” Polyakova said of the 3-meter event. “When I found out I won first, that was pretty exciting. … Not only did she go to the Olympics, she’s the No. 1 in America.”
Polyakova also claimed third place on platform, achieving a personal best in the process.
“I think Maria was very good for the whole team to see,” senior diver Annika Lenz said. “A great role model.”
Lenz made it two Bruins on the podium when she finished third in the 3-meter event with a score of 330.9.
Diving coach Tom Stebbins was full of praise for both divers.
“Obviously Maria was fantastic all the way through the week,” Stebbins said. “Anni was so steady in the Prelim of the 3-meter and was just fantastic in her 3-meter final. She didn’t panic when she kind of got a little stood off, she stayed with her mechanics and it proved to be successful and that’s why she finished third.”
However, things did not turn out as well for sophomore Eloise Belanger. Belanger, who came in second in the platform event last year, did not manage a podium finish this time.
Belanger held the lead after the preliminary round with a score of 316.35 but only managed a seventh-place overall finish.
Stebbins said that because of television, the team got a little rushed in their warm up, which affected them in the competition.
He felt that there were, however, more positives and described Belanger’s performance at the preliminaries as outstanding.
“She was truly impressive, she averaged about 55 points per dive. It might be her best tower showing as a Bruin,” Stebbins said. “I just don’t think she got her mind settled as much as she needed to be when we got to the finals.”
Meanwhile, on the other side of the pool, the Bruins were achieving personal bests and shattering school records.
The UCLA swim team managed to have all five relays qualify for the NCAAs, shattering three school records in the 200-yard medley, 400-yard medley and 800-yard freestyle relay events in the process. Swimming coach Cyndi Gallagher said that this is crucial for the team as relays are counted as double-points in NCAAs and it would be difficult to do well if the team cannot participate in relays.
Gallagher was extremely happy with the NCAA cuts, as she said this was the first in a few years that the Bruins managed to have all relays qualify. She pointed out that the team’s placing in the competition did not reflect how fast and strong it has become.
“The first night we were having the 200 medley, we swam it really well and even thought we won,” Gallagher said. “People were just jumping up and down and screaming because it was a great relay for us even though we got fifth.”
Despite the record-breaking feats, Gallagher believes there is potential to get better times for the relays.
“We’re still kind of messing around with relays, so I think we could be faster,” Gallagher said. “We have flexibility now in the relays, whoever’s hot is going to be in the relays.”
Gallagher labelled this the best meet in her years of coaching. She expressed satisfaction with how the team competed, whether they were seniors or freshmen, referring to the high number of personal bests achieved and school records broken.
“From the top to the bottom, the seniors that were swimming their last swim ever,” said Gallagher. “A lot of them were scoring for the first time and swimming their best times.”
Senior swimmer Linnea Mack stood out as she smashed school records in each of her three individual events. She finished third, fourth and fifth in the A-finals of the 100-yard back, 50-yard free and the 100-yard free, respectively. She achieved A times in the first two, which automatically qualify swimmers for the NCAA championships.
Mack said that said that she had swum against Stanford’s Ally Howe – who eventually won the 100-yard back race and broke the American, NCAA and Pac-12 records – since she was 11, and in her mind she treated the race as just another age-group meet.
“We’ve just been racing for so long it was kind of like just another race,” Mack said.
Mack attributed her personal best showing at the Pac-12s to the support of her teammates and family.
“A lot of it has to do with how the team was doing, they had great spirit,” said Mack. “Every time I was behind the blocks, I looked over to the parents, to the team section, and just had a big smile on my face.”
Mack said that what helped her to do well in the races was going out fast, hanging with the girls and passing people at the end.
Gallagher was not surprised that Mack had taken time off, given that she has had a great year and worked very hard. Gallagher lauded Mack’s commitment to swim every race like it was her last, motivation to continuously improve and attention to details.
“She could be one of the all-time best UCLA swimmers,” Gallagher said. “There are like 10 kids in the nation that make the A cut and she’s better than that, she made it by a lot, she’s now one of the top swimmers people are looking out for.”
Team captain and senior Madison White was extremely proud of the team’s performance.
“This year has been my favorite year, the atmosphere was really positive,” White said. “Everyone was behind each other a 100 percent. It was just really fun to go out and compete.”
White finished seventh in the A-final of the 200 back. Her 1:53.39 in the preliminary round broke her own school-record time, previously set in 2014.
“Being more disciplined in my 50-splits within the race, being faster with those and working on little details within those 50s helped,” said White. “This being my last year also pushed me to be faster.”
The Bruins will be looking forward to more bests and records at the NCAA Zone E Diving Championships that will run March 6 to 8.