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California Women's Swimming (and Diving) Season in Retrospect

The spotlight was shone brightly on the Cal Women's Swimming (and Diving) all season due to the presence of one Missy Franklin. Does a mere 3rd place team finish at the NCAA makes this season a disappointment?

Having Missy Franklin on the team raised tremendously both the attention that the team received and the expectation.
Having Missy Franklin on the team raised tremendously both the attention that the team received and the expectation.
Jamie Squire

5-time (4 Golds and 1 Bronze) Olympic medalist Missy Franklin joined the California women's swimming team. Unlike other top athletes in her position who often chose to turn pro and attend a university for just their education and training (like Michael Phelps with Michigan or Allyson Felix with USC), Missy Franklin's plan is to compete collegiately for the Golden Bears for two years, forgoing millions of endorsement dollars that she could have earned in those two years. The expectation was sky-high for the Cal women's swimming (and diving) team for the 2013-14 season, coming off a 2nd place finish to Georgia in 2013 that snapped Bears' repeat titles in 2011 and 2012. With Franklin on board, there has also been a lot more written about the team this year--this post is another one to add to that count.

As you may have noticed from the lack of a gold banner "breaking news" two weekends ago, things didn't quite go according to plan. While things were far from disastrous (like the first year of Leon Powe, Ayinde Ubaka, Maquise Kately, and Dominic McGuire for Cal men's basketball), the Bears not only were unable to return to the top (winning the NCAA team title), but also somehow allowed Stanfurd Cardinal to edge them for 2nd place. In addition to only placing 3rd in the country, the Bears only managed to win two national titles (Missy Franklin in the 200 free and a win in the 800 free relay, largely thanks to Missy Franklin's come-from-behind swim as the anchor). For Cal women's swimming's lofty standard set recently, this is quite a bit of disappointment.

Ever the team player, Missy Franklin did not compete in her strongest events--backstrokes--thank to the number of great backstrokers that are already on the squad. Nevertheless, I can't help but see a parallel between Cal Women's Swimming only placing 3rd to Missy telling the story about how she got a C in a midterm (no grade inflation in Berkeley). Maybe both of these things are just the kind of challenge and humility that she seeks to relate to the rest of us regular folks.

One thing is certain. With Missy Franklin now having competed for the Golden Bears, we can forever link all of her future accomplishments back to our alma mater.

The point of this article is not ALL about Missy Franklin, of course.

Extra attention all year long:

You know that Cal Athletics are in a new territory when they had a press conference for Missy Franklin BEFORE the start of the school years.

Missy Franklin, of course, charmed all the reporters and alum by continuing to rave about her decision to swim collegiately at Cal all-year long.

Cal swimming easily set attendance records this year as more than 1500 folks showed up to Cal home duel meet. It is not clear how much more concession and merchandise the athletics department was able to sell in order to pay for the stadium upgrade. The entire team does spend hours post-meet to sign autographs to the fans (maybe that was the cause for the fatigue at NCAA's?).

Pre-NCAA performance

Despite being ranked No.1 all season long, the Bears suffered two dual-meet losses. The Bears lost to USC and arch rival Stanfurd to finish the regular season with a 72 record.

For a team that has had more NCAA titles (3) than conference titles before this year (2), the Bears did win the Pac-12 conference title this year, rather easily in fact, despite a goose egg in a relay thanks to a disqualification (DQ). This may or may not have been a great development as the team really wants to peak 3 weeks later at the NCAA's. You can definitely see that the team wanted the conference title to live up to the expectation of being the No.1 ranked team all year long.

The ultimate prize of the season is the NCAA championships, of course.

NCAA performance

The way in which the Cal men's team was able to win the NCAA title this past week is a further proof that team swimming success has much to do with high team morale. In all three nights of competition, the Golden Bears men were able to have a great first event of the evening session, whether it is winning a relay (200 free relay to open the meet on day 1 or the 200 medley relay win on day 2) or have a surprisingly fantastic result (Jeremy Bagshaw's great afternoon swim earning a 2nd place finish in 1650 free). Seeing how important that is, I don't blame Teri McKeever for using Missy Franklin to try to win the 200 free relay.

Unfortunately for the Bears, other teams being able to beat a Missy Franklin proves to be very emotional uplifting for those squads. Stanfurd's 200 free relay was able to edge Cal in the opening event. Stanfurd went on to have a great meet and claim 2nd place. While Georgia was the favorite coming into the meet thanks to the depth of that team and the fact that they have a great diver, they got a huge emotional win in the second event of the meet when the Dawgs' Brittany MacLean was just able to overtake and out-touch Missy Franklin (by 0.13 of a second) in the last 25 yards. Had Missy not been used in the previous relay race (MacLean was rested for that), she probably could have won the 500 free easily. MacLean beating Franklin turned out to be a rallying point for the Georgia Bulldogs as they ended up dominating the meet.

On day 2, the Bears did score a pair of victories, thanks to the heroics of Missy Franklin. Franklin is visibly emotional after winning her first NCAA title in 200 Free (a race where she easily dominated).

Bears also captured the 800 Free national title on Day 2, despite the day starting with yet another relay DQ.

With the national championships hope basically dashed, the Bears end up finishing day 3 behind rival Stanfurd. Head Coach Teri McKeever does acknowledge that the young Bears squad still needs to figure how to handle the bullseyes on their back, being the highest profile women's collegiate swimming team in the nation.

Issues to be resolved

Breaststroke - Cal have not had a very strong breaststroker in awhile. Even in the Olympics, the best women swimmer that is affiliated with Cal is Jessica Hardy, and she does all her breaststroke training down at USC (where one can probably compare the Cal women's dominance in backstroke to the Trojan's dominance in breaststroke).

The men's team were fortunate this year that they got a great breaststroke in transfer Chuck Katis. I don't know if the women's are expecting any transfers, but their best options in medley relays this year are their main IM threat in freshman Celina Li. Fellow freshman and Spanish Calympian Marina Garcia started out the year well but kind of faded down the line.

Celina Li's inexperience in swimming the relay was also partially responsible for the next issue.

Relay DQ's - Bears had two prominent relay DQ's this year. One at the Pac-12 championships which they were able to overcome. The second came in the NCAA that basically sunk the Bears' already slim chance to win the NCAA team title.

For the NCAA, the DQ came during the transition from breast (swam by Celina Li) to fly (swam by senior Cindy Tran). While Tran is the one that false started, one can argue that the responsibility also falls on Li. Since Garcia used to swim the breast leg of the medley relay, maybe Tran and Li just didn't practice that exchange enough.

Swimmers' role - Swimming studs Missy Franlin and Liz Pelton had been quoted early in the season talking about not really sure where Teri McKeever will use them for each and every meet. They talked about it in a positive way since it breaks the monotonous routine of training for just one or two stroke every day. Still, one get the sense that there were just way too many options for McKeever this year. Maybe there were so many options that the swimmers didn't have enough experience in doing the relay exchanges since they are used in different spots from week to week.

Underwhelming performance at the NCAA - For the Bears to triumph in 2015, Calympian Rachel Bootsma and Liz Pelton need to get back to their 2013 NCAA championships level. For whatever reason, Bootsma just didn't swim that well this past year. She was unable to defend her 100 back title and also posted poorer time in fly than the previous year.

By comparison to most people, Pelton had an okay NCAA. When you compare the 2014 Pelton to 2013 Pelton at the NCAA, however, she was merely mortal. With only a finite number of great swimmers in the program, the Bears really need to win events for those bonus points to win a NCAA title.

Being able to handle the pressure - When you want to be the best, you have got to handle the expectation of everyone. Missy Franklin as an individual has been able to do this remarkably well. The team as a whole needs to do that as well. Despite not being the two-time defending champs (that would be Georgia) entering next season, people will expect the Golden Bears to again be the best team, thanks to the star power of Missy Franklin.

Outlook next year

Given the Cal swimming (or the broader Cal Aquatic) pedigree, the Golden Bears have another solid recruiting class

You can sort of meet the class in the following video where they answered a few question about why they decided on coming to Berkeley.

(Oh yeah, diving. Cal will lose diver Kahley Rowell to graduation. She had scored at the NCAA an unprecedentedthree times for the Bears. Cal will sure miss her.)

To make things more interesting, Stanfurd got better as well, netting the top two swimmers (according to SwimSwam) of this next year's class (the 3rd best swimmer decided on Georgia, by the way). The Bears will have to earn their way back to the top next year.

Some final thoughts

I will be disappointed if the two years of Missy Franklin competing collegiately for Cal does not translate to one NCAA team title, even though Bears are in a tougher position to win the team title compared to 'Furd thanks to a more limited number of scholarships available. Maybe I am setting myself up for more false hope, but I believe Missy Franklin will lead the team to a national title in 2015. In post race interviews, Missy Franklin was talking all about the "team", she obviously want the team win really really badly. I would not be surprised if she inspire her teammates with a superhuman performance during the NCAA week.

In the mean time, the bulk of the Cal swimmers will continue their year round training. The US National Championships will take place in August at Irvine, CA. With this being an even year, there is no FINA World Championships for the long course. Instead, there is only a FINA Short Course Championships in December. Short course (25 yard) pool is the standard for the NCAA, but the Olympics is always the long course (50 yard). In odd years, there is the FINA World Championships. The reason for Missy Franklin to win the Sportswoman of the Year award was thanks to her recording breaking 6 Gold medal at the FINA World Championships in Barcelona last summer.

Comes the US National Championships, expect to see Missy Franklin, Elizabeth Pelton, Rachel Bootsma etc. to rock the gold Cal swim caps. While we might not have had the chance to celebrate a Cal team victory this year, seeing world class athlete like Missy Franklin representing the Golden Bears should inspire pride in the hearts of all Cal fans for years to come.