CRAWFORD | Champion! Louisville's Comerford swims down Ledecky to share NCAA 200 free title
Louisville sophomore Mallory Comerford shocked the swimming world Friday by chasing down Stanford's Katie Ledecky to tie for a share of the 200 freestyle NCAA championship.
INDIANAPOLIS (WDRB) -- If you follow women’s swimming -- and even if you don’t -- you’ve heard of Katie Ledecky. She emerged from the Rio Olympics last year as the most dominant female swimmer, perhaps ever, and in the conversation for greatest woman athlete in the world.
You may even have heard of her Stanford University teammate, Simone Manuel, who became the first African-American ever to win a swimming medal for the United States when she won gold at the Rio Olympics.
They were supposed to be 1-2 in the 200 freestyle finals in the 2017 Women’s NCAA Championships at IUPUI’s Natatorium Friday.
You may not have heard of Mallory Comerford. We’re going to fix that right now. The University of Louisville is going to hang another NCAA Championship banner. And Comerford’s name will be on it.
On Friday, in the final leg of the 200 free, the sophomore from Kalamazoo, Mich., passed Manuel, and chased down Ladecky to tie for the NCAA individual title, swimming the second-fastest time in the event in NCAA history.
It wasn’t so much a stunner to Louisville swim coach Arthur Albiero and her Cardinal teammates, but it sent waves through the swim community. They reverberated all the way to the press room at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, where the NCAA men’s basketball tournament was being played, when Pat Forde of Yahoo! Sports watched the event’s live stream, and was almost in disbelief. “She caught Ladecky,” he said.
“You’ve got to understand, to keep it in perspective, Katie Ladecky has not been touched, by anybody in the world, in the past six years,” Albiero said. “And the fact that there was a tie tonight, everybody was just stunned. Everybody was working on the supposition that she was going to annihilate the whole field.”
Albiero, however, said he wasn’t one of those people.
“She swam the race that she has been training to swim, to be honest with you,” Albiero said of Comerford, who came into the event the No. 3 seed. “That was the goal, certainly, to be close. . . . She knew she was going to have a chance. But what an incredible opportunity to be in this field and have this moment.”
It’s always nice to have good things happen when the boss comes to watch. After Louisville’s basketball team beat Jacksonville State to advance to the second round of the NCAA Tournament downtown, Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich and his wife Terrilyn hustled to the natatorium, where they got to witness some history.
“I had invited him to come, and I’m so glad he chose tonight,” Albiero said. “He was sitting front row. He lived it. He felt it. It was incredible.”
It was an emotional scene as the board flashed the first-place tie.
“When I saw the board, it was just kind of unreal,” Comerford told Swimming World Magazine. “It’s still kind of unreal. I don’t really know what to think. It’s really cool, and it’s such an honor. All my teammates were crying, but I didn’t cry until someone filmed the reaction. That was really cool and something I’ll never forget, seeing them and how proud they were of me.”
The winning time of 1:40.36 was second only to Missy Franklin’s NCAA- and American-record time of 1:39.10 set in 2015.
That’s more than seven seconds better than the time she brought from Plainwell High School two years ago, and more than a second better than her previous best at Louisville.
But her work ethic has led to that improvement, as has the influence of Louisville national champion Kelsi Worrell, the Olympic Gold Medalist who has mentored Comerford since she arrived on campus.
“She is a competitor, the epitome of the humble and hungry type, that’s Mallory,” Albiero said. “And she had a great mentor in Kelsi. She’s been watching Kelsi, learning from Kelsi, and Kelsi has taken Mal under her wing a little bit, helping with her development. . . . And we’ve created this culture, it’s a cool thing to win a national title, you know.”
That culture is growing. Louisville now has had an individual NCAA champion in six straight seasons. The program hangs banners for its champions in its Ralph Wright Natatorium, and Comerford’s will be No. 11. There’s also a banner hanging that says, “Reserved for our next National Champion.”
“When we first did that, I thought it was a little cheesy,” Albiero said. “But I think it’s just a reality that keeps people are constantly thinking about it, and working for that opportunity to put your name up there. . . . Somebody told me tonight, only three or four other programs in the country can say they’ve had individual national champions in each of the past six years. The usual suspects -- Stanford and Georgia and Cal. So it’s a great honor and been an exciting journey, and tonight was just another big, big step for us. We love kids coming in and making their dreams come true.”
Louisville finished Friday in sixth place in the NCAA championships, with more events to come on Saturday. In the 100-breaststroke, Senior Andrea Cottrell finished fifth spot in a time of 58.39. Louisville’s 200-medley relay team of Alina Kendzior, Cottrell and Grace Oglesby finished 10th in a time of 1:36.03.
Tomorrow Louisville will in the final day of the championships. The list of events includes: 1650-free, 200-back, 100-free, 200-breast, 200-fly, 400-free, and platform diving.
Stanford leads the competition with 374.5 points, followed by California (255), Texas A&M (209), Georgia (170), Texas (168), Louisville (141.5), Minnesota (134), Indiana (125), and NC State and Southern California both at 117 points.
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