Men’s & Women’s Swimming and Diving Season Preview Part 2: The Cardinal Women
Over the offseason, Stanford’s women — like adding the cherry on top of an ice-cream sundae, or the finishing edits to a soon-to-be bestselling novel — have slotted potentially one of the best freshmen recruiting classes in history into an existing squad that (save for a few summer departures) comfortably achieved a team podium finish at the 2021-22 NCAA Championships.
As the rest of Stanford’s population gears up for the academic year ahead, these swimmers – some of the nation’s finest – have already, for weeks, been buckled down into their intense training regime that sets programs of Stanford’s caliber apart. This season, the pride of the Avery Aquatic Center will aim to topple reigning champions Virginia and ascend to the national title that has evaded them since their ‘three-peat’ prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Building on a legacy that is already cemented amongst the all-time great collegiate swimming programs, Stanford’s women’s swimming – with Paul A. Violich Director of Women’s Swimming and 2020 U.S. Olympic Women’s Swimming Head Coach Greg Meehan, at the helm – blew the rest of the Pac-12 out of the water at their 2021-22 conference championship meet. The Cardinal women amassed 1,671.5 points, winning all five relays along with seven individual titles en-route to a fifth conference championship since 2017.
Stanford’s stellar women also continued their unmatched, 100% streak of top-10 finishes at national championships with their NCAA Championships performance last season. Redshirt senior Taylor Ruck (200-yard freestyle champion, 1:41.12), Regan Smith (200-yard backstroke champion, 1:47.76) and the 800-yard freestyle relay team of sophomore Torri Huske, Ruck, Smith and Brooke Forde ‘22 (6:48.30) emerged from NCAAs as gold medal-winners and powered the Cardinal to a NCAA Championships third place finish with 399.5 points. Smith (third), Forde (t-seventh) and Huske (ninth) were also all amongst the top points scoring swimmers, with Stanford trailing only NCAA champions Virginia for the most swimmers inside the top-10 individual points scorers.
Full of praise for his squad’s performances, when pushed to choose a favorite moment from the 2021-22 season Meehan landed on Taylor Ruck’s 200-yard freestyle victory.
“It [Taylor Ruck winning the ‘2 free’] was a pretty cool moment at the NCAA Championships – that one really stood out. It was her first time as an individual champion, and after taking a two-year break from Stanford” – Ruck, a Canadian international swimmer, was forced to turn a one-year hiatus into two as she remained in Canada during the COVID-19 pandemic, focusing on preparing for the Canadian Olympic Trials and eventually representing Canada at the Tokyo Olympic Games. “For her to come back, especially after a challenging two-year period back in Toronto, to improve little by little over the course of the year and then see her win that 200 free at NCAAs, that was a really awesome moment for our team,” Meehan explained proudly. “Everyone was aware of what Taylor had to go through to get to that moment, so that was something I’ll remember for sure.”
Now entering his 11th season with Stanford, the three-time NCAA Swimming Coach of the Year maintained that year upon year, his and his swimmers’ sights are unwavering, their common goal unchanged: to be slugging it out with the sport’s other heavyweights in contention for the NCAA championship.
“Our goals are always the same – to put ourselves in a position to compete for a national championship,” Meehan said. “I think a successful season for us is when we’re in the mix… when it’s the middle of the NCAA championships and you’re still in it, that’s always something that we strive for – doing all the things that we can from now until then to put ourselves in a position to compete.”
The makings of an all-star team
With a roster like the Stanford program continues to construct, that goal of an NCAA title is certainly within reach. Bringing in, for the third year running, the nation’s number one ranked recruiting class, Stanford will aim to replace the loss of reigning NCAA champion Regan Smith (who turned professional this summer, foregoing her NCAA eligibility). This will be no easy feat, but Meehan has full confidence that his stacked incoming freshmen class — who, along with the Cardinal’s returning sophomores, make up the majority of the team’s roster — have the talent to carry the future of this great program on their shoulders, and boost a squad that finished a mere 6.5 points back from second-placed Texas at last season’s NCAA’s.
“It’s always fun to see our freshmen compete for the first time,” said Meehan, looking ahead to Stanford’s first dual meet of the season when they host Utah on Thursday Oct. 13 at 2 p.m. PT. “There’s a lot of talent there, across an array of events. You sit and watch them train, and you realize why they’re the number one class [of recruits in the country] – they’ve been training very well. I’m looking forward to seeing them manage those nerves; we know it means a lot to race and dive for the first time wearing that Stanford cap.”
SwimSwam and Coach Meehan’s ratings and projections of these recruits certainly seem set to be validated. Headlined by versatile US Olympian Claire Curzan, who tops the freshman personal best rankings in seven different events, the Cardinal has also added three other top 10 recruits in Curzan’s club teammate and No. 2 ranked recruit Charlotte Hook (IM/Butterfly), freestyle specialist Kayla Wilson and butterflyer Lucy Bell. Sprint freestylers Kirsti McEnroe and Gigi Johnson, backstroker Natalie Mannion and individual medley swimmer Sophie Duncan join Olympic Trials qualifier and US Junior Nationals finalist diver Emilie Moore as the rest of Stanford’s 2022 recruiting class, who will look to push the Cardinal back to the NCAA summit. That versatility exhibited by Curzan and several of the other new recruits is, in Meehan’s view, a key aspect in his program’s success:
“I think one of our common themes over the years is that our best athletes have always been pretty versatile – that fits this particular class to a T, they’re very good at a lot of events” he said. Meehan continued, “top to bottom across the event profile we’re pretty strong, and we’ve got good relays,” highlighting the level of roster depth that Stanford’s strong acquisitions have allowed them to develop. Especially critical for these relay events, the 2022 recruiting class brings a breadth of new sprinting talent with six women sub-23 seconds in the 50, and five with best times below 49 seconds in the 100-yard freestyle.
Coach Meehan went on to lay out his team’s schedule for the upcoming season. “Because of the quarter system, we start a little bit later with our training [than many other schools’ programs, who start in mid-August],” Meehan explained. By the time the season opener against Utah rolls around, the Cardinal will have only been back in the water for a little over a month.
Stanford’s women start off light in terms of dual meets in the fall, with a focus on prioritizing ‘the grind’, putting in the hard work to get better and building a solid foundation for the grueling season ahead – a necessity in a sport as “physically and emotionally demanding” as swimming.
Speaking on their early-season showdown with Utah, Meehan said “it’s a great way to kick off the season and shake the dust off. It’s one of three dual meets we have this fall before Greensboro, NC [for the NC State Invitational] for our swimmers and Austin, TX [for the Texas Diving Invitational] for our divers.”
For Meehan and his swimmers, the first half of the season is all about learning and improving. “We take everything in our stride, and we want to learn from each one of those competitions to get a little checkpoint on how we’re doing in certain areas in training – knowing our best is still yet to come,” he explained, adding “it’s that time period from January to March that’s really fun, where they get that opportunity to really go and compete with the ‘S’ on their caps.”
As the season progresses, the competition schedule ramps up and the focus switches to fine tuning and refining – with one eye always on the championship meets in the spring, as the team aims to peak at just the right time. “There’s a natural build of excitement from weekend to weekend each time we compete, this heightened sense of ‘we need to be better now, and then better again. It’s fun to see that evolve,” Meehan enthused.
Arizona and Arizona State, UCLA and USC await in consecutive weekends in late January, before a home showdown against powerhouse and key rival Cal on Feb. 11. Then, all that remains are the Pac-12 (Feb. 22-25) and NCAA Championships (March 6-8 for diving, March 15-18 for swimming) – where Meehan and his star-studded squad will be aiming to replicate their reigning conference title-winning efforts before adding the cherry on top with NCAA glory.