NCAA Swimming is great. One of the reasons it's great is that the short course format magnifies a different skill set from the long course swimming we see in the Olympics. Because of this, some of the world's best swimmers face hard races at the NCAA level.
Mallory Comerford did just that to the best swimmer in the world, Katie Ledecky, when she tied her in the 200 free. The Louisville sophomore went toe to toe with not only Ledecky but one of the hottest swimmers of the meet, Simone Manuel. How did she do it? Let's take a look:
Comerford is barely mentioned by commentator Rowdy Gaines off the top, even though she was fairly well known in college swimming circles. With the focus on Manuel and Ledecky, don't miss what Comerford (third from the top) is doing early on to set herself up to tie Ledecky in this race.
Comerford is very efficient in the underwater portions of her race. She actually has a poor start in relation to the rest of the field, jumping too far up instead of out, resulting in a slow entry into the water and landing too deep.
She makes up for it immediately with a compact and controlled kick. Look at how still her upper body is when she is kicking- this shows great control. By managing the size of her kick, she comes far underwater without spending too much oxygen, this is a 200 free after all and she will need it at the end of the race.
Comerford repeats this process for each wall. Off the first turn she puts her feet on the wall almost simultaneous to Ledecky but breaks out ahead, and the next wall flips behind but pulls even again.
Because Comerford is able to do such efficient work underwater, she can actually relax more during the swimming portion relative to Ledecky, who in this race had to stress to maintain contact with Manuel and push her lead on Comerford.
Rather than guess at the psychology of who was "swimming their own race" in an NCAA final, let's take a look at something quantifiable. Comerford swam a better paced race than either Ledecky or Manuel.
Here are Comerford's splits:
Compare these to Ledecky's
Ledecky's splits reveal that she went out too fast, as she jumped significantly in time from the 2nd to 3rd 50., Comerford's splits almost appear as if she swam in isolation, trying to hit a strong first 50, and then three splits within about 1.5 seconds of that pace.
Changing kick speed
Take another look at the above video, with particular attention to Comerford's kick in the first 100 yards. She looks as if she is barely kicking, and if you had never seen her swim before you might guess that she is not a strong kicker.
Then watch the second 100, where she appears to change speeds (even though she is just maintaining speed) by engaging her kick. This is such a smart strategy because kicking in a 200 is like taking out a high interest loan. You will get a big reward immediately but pay it back down the line a lot. Fortunately for Comerford, by waiting to fully engage her kick to the second 100, she only had to pay back her loan in the warmdown pool.
Mallory Comerford may have stunned many with her victory, but probably not her coaches, who no doubt worked on all of the above throughout the season. These are changes that even beginning swimmers can make to the way they approach a 200 freestyle that can make a big difference.
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