Coming off school-record-breaking and medal-winning performances at the Pac-12 championship, there were high expectations for senior swimmer Linnea Mack and junior diver Maria Polyakova at the NCAA championship.
However, the pressure proved too much for Mack as she failed to make the finals in the 100-yard backstroke and 50-yard freestyle events. Her time of 52.13 seconds at the former event was far off her personal best of 50.56 set at the Pac-12 championship. On the other hand, while Polyakova managed a third-place finish in the 1-meter springboard event, she fell short of winning both the 1-meter and 3-meter titles, which she had done at the NCAA Zone E championship over defending champion Nevada’s Sharae Zheng.
Stress and wear proved to be the two huge stumbling blocks for the No. 21 UCLA swim and dive team at the NCAA championship in Indianapolis, which ran from Wednesday to Saturday. The Bruins finished 20th overall at the meet.
The team obtained school records in the 800-yard freestyle relay Wednesday and the 400-yard freestyle relay Saturday. The Bruins started off strong as the 800-yard relay quartet of Mack, freshman Kenisha Liu, junior Katie Grover and senior Madison White posted a time of 7:04.59, achieving 18th place and breaking a school record in the process. However, swimming coach Cyndi Gallagher said they struggled after that.
Gallagher said she felt sophomore Emma Schanz could have been better in her three individual events, the 400-yard and 200-yard individual medleys and the 200-yard butterfly race. Grover was similarly unable to improve on the personal best of 51.95 in the 100-yard butterfly she set at the Pac-12 championship and finished just outside the finals of both the 100-yard and 200-yard butterfly events. White’s 53.68 in the 100-yard backstroke was also short of her personal best of 52.67. In the 200 medley relay, UCLA was called for an early takeoff on the fourth leg.
“The expectation and pressure got the best of them, and we thought we were prepared,” Gallagher said. “We never ever had any real adversity, … only little ones like losing to Washington State.”
More significantly, while Gallagher said she previously anticipated Mack to finish in the top three in the 100-yard backstroke, the swimmer could not reach these expectations.
“You could always count on her, but she just freaked out like a lot of athletes do,” Gallagher said. “The pressure I put on her, she put on herself, for the team, for the family – that’s a lot for a senior.”
However, things turned around by the end of the meet as the 400-yard relay team that included Mack posted a school-record time of 3:15.09 in the preliminary round of the final relay event of NCAAs. Grover swam her fastest-ever 100-yard leg in the finals of this relay, clocking a time of 48.83.
On the other side of the pool, the divers had problems combating fatigue throughout the competition. Diving coach Tom Stebbins said it was apparent the intense competition wore on the athletes. He said the first day of the event was incredibly long with management problems and breakdowns at the table and the computer system, which set the timeline back.
“There is an added element of mental effort – it is hard to fight through that and still be sharp when you need to be sharp,” Stebbins said. “I thought by the night on Friday, Maria looked tired; she wasn’t as crisp. It was just the reality over the last few days, accumulation of wear over the last few weeks and even months.”
Stebbins said he had thought it was possible for Polyakova to win both springboard events given her form at the NCAA E Zone and the Pac-12 championship. He said tiny mistakes in two dives, the back 1 1/2 somersault pike and the back 2 1/2 somersault pike in the 1-meter and 3-meter events, respectively, cost her the wins. Both dives resulted in her finishing seventh in those rounds.
“For this week, it was uncommon for her to make those errors,” Stebbins said. “She did really good dives, just not great dives.”
However, Stebbins said he was pleased with how Polyakova managed to battle her way up to third place in the 1-meter event.
“I was just focusing on one dive at a time, not thinking about the previous dives,” Polyakova said.
Polyakova said despite the emotional exhaustion throughout and feeling she could have done better in the 3-meter event, she was happy with her overall performance.
Polyakova placed third in the 1-meter event Thursday with a score of 325.80, just 0.7 points behind the second-placed Minnesota freshman Sarah Bacon. She then scored 351.80 in the 3-meter event Friday to finish fifth, with Minnesota senior Yu Zhou claiming the top spot.
Last year, sophomore Eloise Belanger achieved the runner-up position and placed 10th overall in the 1-meter and 3-meter events and 15th on platform. This time, she finished 11th and 10th in the B finals of the 1-meter and platform events respectively.
“When you’re seeing good kids for the first time and you’re not really aware of them, judges get really loud, maybe scoring up a little bit,” Stebbins said. When they expect you to be really good and you make a small mistake, they tend to be a little bit tougher. I think she kind of fell victim to that this year.”
Senior Annika Lenz, who participated in all three events, did not manage to qualify for the finals. Stebbins said Lenz was incredibly disappointed with her performance.
“I had higher expectations for Anni,” Stebbins said. “My heart really goes out to her.”
Stebbins said he was proud of the members of his team as a whole, especially in regard to the exceptional effort they put in.
“When you go to the end, and you’re trying to get things to go perfectly, it doesn’t always go that way,” Stebbins said.