With a mix of first-time debutantes and serious medal contenders, the No. 21 UCLA swimming and diving team is determined to perform its best at the NCAA championships.
The 2017 Division I Women’s Swimming and Diving NCAA Championship will be held at the Indiana University Natatorium in Indianapolis from Wednesday to Saturday.
Among those who are making their first appearances at the meet are sophomore swimmer and 1650-yard freestyle specialist Sandra Soe, freshman swimmer Kenisha Liu, who will be competing in three individual events, and junior diver Ciara Monahan, who will dive on 1-meter and 3-meter springboards.
“I’m really excited, this was my goal at the start of the season,” Monahan said.
Diving coach Tom Stebbins said he was elated to have Monahan join the team at the NCAA championships for the first time. He believes that this is a catalyst for her understanding as to how far she has come as an athlete. He also said that he was happy to have her in a group that has gone through the experience before and can guide her along.
However, all attention will be on Monahan’s teammate junior diver Maria Polyakova. Polyakova attained podium finishes in all three events at the Pac-12 championships and moved on to win both the 1-meter and 3-meter events at the NCAA Zone E Championships.
Stebbins firmly believes that Polyakova, who was named Pac-12 Diver of the Month for February has not reached her peak performance yet.
“I don’t think she was at her very best,” Stebbins said. “I thought her inward could be better and her full out could be a little better.”
Last year, Polyakova finished fourth and fifth in the 3-meter and 1-meter events, respectively. Polyakova poses a bigger threat this time, as she comes fresh off beating Nevada’s Sharae Zheng, winner of both springboard titles at the 2016 NCAA championships.
Sophomore Eloise Belanger also carries huge expectations of reaching the podium. Previous season, Belanger achieved the runner-up position and placed 10th overall in the 1-meter and 3-meter events, respectively.
Rounding out the diving squad will be senior Annika Lenz, who will be representing the Bruins in all three diving events. Lenz secured third place in the 3-meter event at the Pac-12 championships.
“They look comfortable and confident,” Stebbins said. “I don’t think we’ve ever looked better as a group.”
In the pool, senior swimmer Linnea Mack will also be a strong medal hopeful.
Mack finished third in the A-final of the 100-yard backstroke event at the Pac-12 championships and is seeded fourth in the same event this meet. The race will feature the Pac-12 champion, NCAA- and American-record holder and Stanford swimmer Ally Howe as well as Olympic silver medalist and California sophomore Kathleen Baker.
Despite the tough competition, swimming coach Cyndi Gallagher is optimistic about Mack’s chances of breaking the top three.
“I think that she’ll go faster than she did at Pac-12s,” Gallagher said. “And if she goes faster, I think there’s good opportunity she would end up on podium.”
However, Gallagher emphasized that the swim team’s primary focus is on the relays. The Bruins managed to have all five relays qualify for the NCAAs.
Both Gallagher and junior Katie Grover, who will be participating in all the relays, specifically mentioned their excitement for the 800-yard freestyle relay. The team will see Mack swimming a leg in this race for the first time this season.
“It’s one that we haven’t focused a lot on the past few years,” Grover said. “We are going to put together a better team than the Pac-12s and we hope to improve the timing and pick up some records.”
Personally, Grover aims to make it to the finals of the 200-yard butterfly event, something that she has not done in the past two years. She finished sixth in the 200 butterfly at the Pac-12 championships this year.
Grover also said that she hopes to snatch a couple of records at NCAAs, after she came close to doing so at the Pac-12 championships. Grover expressed her optimism over her current form as she is no longer dealing with injuries like she did over the past year.
“I was a little bit more healthy than I was last year so I feel more confident,” Grover said.