While their domestic dominance has been near-unquestionable so far in this 2022-23 collegiate season, the 2022 FINA (recently renamed “World Aquatics”) Short Course World Championships served as the setting for the first major international challenge since the summertime for a handful of Stanford’s standout swimmers — a challenge that they rose to from start to finish.
Representing the Cardinal on the world stage in Melbourne, Australia, were freshman Claire Curzan, sophomore Torri Huske (both USA) and senior Taylor Ruck (Canada) — a terrific trio that, from a total of 44 races across the mid-December six-day competition, combined for multiple national, championship and world short course (25m pool) records as well as 17 medals (Curzan seven, Huske seven and Ruck three).
Sensational seven for Curzan
Seven of those medals were earned by the 18-year-old Curzan — who, despite being only midway through her first college season, is no newcomer to international swimming. Continuing to prove herself a valued member of Team USA, the freshman raced onto the podium in each of the three individual backstroke events as well as four USA relays.
First tying for third with Canada’s Ingrid Wilm in the 100m backstroke with a huge lifetime best 55.74, Curzan went on to claim silver medals in both the 50m and 200m backstroke events. Both of those latter races were also done in lifetime-best times: her American Record-setting 25.54 making her the second fastest in the event’s history, and a full two tenths of a second quicker than any other American, while 2:00.53 over 200 meters was quick enough to propel her onto the list of top-10 Americans of all time in that event.
Perhaps surprisingly, given that result, the 200m backstroke was only added to Curzan’s meet schedule days prior to the start of the meet — the freshman eagerly stepping up to fill an empty lane left when Team USA’s Rhyan White withdrew, citing illness.
“I was so excited when I was offered the opportunity,” said Curzan, who actually considers herself a more distance-oriented backstroker. “I’d never done the 200m back[stroke] at an international meet, so I couldn’t wait to change things up and try that event at an international stage next to the World Record holder [Australia’s Kaylee McKeown]”.
Along with Huske, Curzan also added two gold and two silver medals to her resume in the relays: her 51.59 third leg in the women’s 4x100m freestyle relay helped the team to second place and an American Record (3:26.29), while a 25.75 50m backstroke leading off the women’s 4x50m medley relay (1:42.41) also fired the team to a silver medal. An American and World Championship Record (1:33.89) in the 4x50m freestyle relay, meanwhile — on which Curzan took over from Huske to produce a speedy 23.30 second leg — was good for the freshman’s first relay gold medal of the week. Even with six medals and multiple personal best times already under her belt, Curzan’s 19th and final race of these World Championships really put the cherry on top. Again Team USA’s backstroker of choice, Curzan split a 56.47 100m backstroke on the first leg of the women’s 4x100m medley relay that secured another gold medal and a new World Record of 3:44.45.
“Words can’t describe how exciting that was,” Curzan said of that final relay. “I was in awe watching lots of World Records get broken throughout the meet, so to think I was able to break one of my own on my last swim, I couldn’t have asked for a better end to my meet.”
The first-year Cardinal swimmer added how thrilled to have been able to compete and achieve such a feat alongside her college teammate.
“Being able to break it alongside Torri was the best,” Curzan added. “She’s been so fun to join in the Stanford training arena, and I’m lucky to have such a great teammate and motivator that I can do really cool things with, like break World Records.”
“[Curzan, Huske and Ruck] all raced a lot, and to have some of their best performances at the end of the meet says a lot about their conditioning and preparation,” said Stanford’s Paul A. Violich Director of Women’s Swimming Greg Meehan.
“All of them came back from Thanksgiving and were awesome for the 10 days on campus prior to departure to Australia,” Meehan continued.
Showing the three-stroke versatility that has served her well so far in her swimming career, Curzan also placed 12th in the individual 50m freestyle in 24.22, and fifth in the semi-finals of the 100m butterfly with a time of 56.37. The freshman is actually the World Junior Record holder (55.39) in the latter event, having placed third at last year’s World Championships, but chose to scratch from that butterfly final amidst a busy sixth and last session of racing.
“It definitely was really hard,” Curzan said of her withdrawal from the 100m butterfly final. “I’ve raced that event at every international meet I’ve ever been to…it’s kind of ‘my baby..’”
Influenced by her strong performances in the backstroke races to that point in Australia, Curzan explained that — upon learning of the short turnaround time between her individual event finals (200m backstroke, 100m butterfly) in the meet schedule, and with relays looming after both — the decision was made to focus her efforts rather than attempt a difficult back-to-back. With a final day resulting in a silver medal, a gold medal and a World Record, that difficult decision certainly seemed to pay dividends.
Even following a breakout backstroke meet on the world stage, Curzan maintained that she is keen to continue with a diverse set of events going forward.
“I’m still going to train for all three disciplines [butterfly, backstroke, freestyle] because I want to help Stanford swimming any way I can — whether it be doing multiple individual events or being available for any relays they’ll put me on at NCAAs or the rest of the season.”
Huske tastes individual gold
The 100m butterfly final did still have a place for another Stanford swimmer, though — a position that Huske, American Record holder and reigning World Champion in the long course (50m pool) version of the event from the 2022 Long Course World Championships in June, was no stranger to.
In a showdown that will no doubt be repeated at NCAAs (possibly with Curzan in the mix as well), Huske this time took the silver medal — one of her seven total medals at these World Championships — with a new lifetime best of 54.75 that was behind only Canada’s Maggie MacNeil, who grabbed gold and a new World Record. In the 50m butterfly, meanwhile — another event in which Huske owns the long course American Record from earlier this year — the Stanford sophomore was crowned champion, clocking 24.64: another lifetime best, and one of four best times that Huske set in Melbourne.
Those other all-time performances for the 20-year-old came on the lead-off leg of two of the five USA relays she was selected for, as Huske played her role in toppling American, World Championship and a World Record en route to those two gold and two silver medals in the four relays in which she competed alongside Curzan. In the women’s 4x50m freestyle relay, a 24.08 off the start stood as Huske’s fastest-ever short course meters 50m freestyle — a similar story to her new personal best 51.73 from the women’s 4×100 freestyle relay. In the final of the individual 100m freestyle, meanwhile, Huske took fifth in 52.04.
In addition to those relay medals shared with her freshman teammate, Huske also anchored the American mixed 4x50m medley relay — charging to the wall in a 23.73 50m freestyle and stopping the clock at 1:35.15 to secure the World Championship gold in World Record time.
“It was unreal to experience a [World Record] for the first time,” Huske said of that mixed medley relay, on which she competed alongside Ryan Murphy (backstroke), Nic Fink (breaststroke) and Kate Douglass (butterfly).
“It’s definitely nerve-wracking to step up on Team USA relays because you know you have to perform and that your country is counting on you,” the sophomore admitted. “I think it’s so cool to race on the same team with people I’d normally compete against; when we are racing together, we do it for each other and that unites us in a way.” The likes of Kate Douglass, a standout so far this collegiate season for the University of Virginia, could be one of Huske’s main competitors at this year’s NCAA Championships.
“The second time (women’s 4×100 medley relay) I got to be on a relay with Claire [Curzan] was for her first [senior World Record] one, and I think that made the moment really special,” Huske added.
Ruck’s relay reliability
Finishing just 0.04 seconds behind Huske for sixth place in the 100m freestyle final, Canada’s Ruck made it two Cardinal swimmers in the top six 100m freestylers in the world. The senior notched a lifetime best of 52.08 in that final and grabbed seventh in the final of the 200m freestyle in 1:52.88 — just tenths of a second off of her personal best and Canadian Record.
In the team events, Ruck had a similarly successful showing to her American college teammates, helping blast the Canadians to four top-four relay finishes and three medals. The 22-year-old split a 23.63 50m freestyle to charge home for fourth and a Canadian Record (1:43.56) in the women’s 4x50m medley relay. Ruck then went one place better with bronze medals in each of the women’s 4x100m medley and 4x100m freestyle relays — the freestyle specialist throwing down 51.85 and 51.49 100m freestyle splits on those latter relays, respectively. But it was in the women’s 4x200m freestyle relay that the Canadian Cardinal shone brightest, in her country’s highest relay placing of the meet — the reigning NCAA 200-yard freestyle champion clocking 1:52.73 on the all-important anchor leg to bring home the silver medal, beaten only by the World Record-breaking host team, Australia.
It isn’t too common that swimmers at the elite level are competitive across as broad an event range as the 50m to 200m races, let alone becoming a relay staple at each of those distances — but Ruck certainly stands as an exception to that rule.
“I like each relay for different reasons,” the senior said. Ruck explained that with the race’s brevity there is always an abundance of energy and excitement surrounding the 4x50m relays, adding that “the crowd is all attention, and the swimmers are all energy”. Meanwhile, the 4x200m — the sport’s lengthiest relay — is at the opposite end of the spectrum: a longer race, providing ample opportunity for the race to ebb and flow, often with lead changes galore.
Looking ahead to the business end of the collegiate season, Ruck expects the relays to remain a fixture in her event lineup when NCAAs roll around in March. “With relays as a big meet focus, I’m happy to say I’ve entered my sprint era”.
The racing continues
Proudly watching on, Meehan spoke highly of his swimmers’ showings at one of the sport’s biggest competitions and their handling of competing internationally in the middle of their college season.
“All three of them did a really nice job transitioning from our midseason invite into Thanksgiving into preparation for Short Course World Championships,” the decorated head coach said. With a change in both competition format (including semifinal rounds on top of the regular prelims and finals in NCAA meets) and pool length (short course yards to meters), Meehan added that this transition was certainly one that “is easier said than done”. But with the ambitions of this Stanford squad, there’s little time to rest. The team traveled on Dec. 27 to the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo. for a 12-day, high-altitude training camp, before they will take on a series of dual meets in January and February to gear up for Pac-12s and NCAAs in late February and early March.
While inevitably physically and mentally taxing, Ruck spoke highly of this year’s training trip in particular.
“This year was nice because we were able to explore Colorado Springs more than we have in past years,” she said. “Overall, I’d say it has been the best trip yet.”