The women’s 400-yard freestyle relay at the 2022 North Carolina State Championships: one last race, the final chapter of a historic high school career.
With just over 100 yards to go, Myers Park leads the way; the hosts, Cardinal Gibbons, trail in fourth.
Their teammates charging into the wall below, the teams’ “anchor” leg swimmers launch one by one from their starting blocks, arrows loosed from a quivering bow.
Five seconds have passed since Myers Park began its last leg — time enough for Claire Curzan, poised at the end of Cardinal Gibbons’ lane, to take stock before she too vanishes below the surface.
A flurry of underwater kicks later and there she is, stroke by stroke gaining inch by inch.
50 yards in, the deficit is halved. Don’t look away now (though rival fans may want to), or you’ll miss what happens next.
A gaze up at the scoreboard will tell you all you need to know; a blistering 46.76 seconds after leaping from the blocks, Curzan was finished, and Cardinal Gibbons had won its first state relay title in program history.
The margin of victory: 0.18 seconds.
Blink, and you really would have missed it.
Earlier that weekend, Curzan, a Cary, N.C. native, also shattered the 100-yard butterfly American record —no small feat, especially for a high schooler.
But of course by the time this smiley young racer, who started out just “trying to beat [her] big older brother,” stepped up with a school’s hopes on her shoulders, she was no stranger to the pressure or stakes of a big race.
Already the holder of multiple world junior records, Curzan’s cache of international medals, including an Olympic silver won just after her 17th birthday, reached well into the double digits. The American flag emblazoned on her cap, she had raced across the world from Budapest to Tokyo to Abu Dhabi since arriving on the international scene in 2019 at age 15.
Several months after that momentous relay in the familiar setting of North Carolina, Curzan returned home from a second outing in Budapest to the tune of five more international medals. In Melbourne last December, she grabbed seven medals and led off Team USA’s world record-breaking 4x100m medley relay at her fourth World Championships.
Still, when reminiscing on a career that, while young, is already etched in a nation’s storied history in the sport, that final weekend of racing in North Carolina plays on the mind of both Curzan and her father Mark, who called it “one of those tear-jerk, proud dad moments.”
From one Cardinal to another
A year on from her state championship-winning relay endeavors, Curzan — now an 18-year-old college freshman — is gearing up for a new challenge.
This time, in mid-March, the not-quite-so far-off land of Knoxville, Tenn. will be the stage as the nation’s No. 1-ranked recruit dives into her first national championship with the Stanford Cardinal.
“It’s a really cool honor [to qualify for NCAAs], and it’s fun how that goal inspires a lot of competition in everyone,” Curzan said.
Billed by leading swim publication “SwimSwam” as “one of the top NCAA recruits of all-time,” the Cardinal Gibbons alumna and TAC Titans club swimmer had her pick of the bunch when the nation’s top college programs came calling.
Time spent in Tokyo the previous summer with former Stanford stars Simone Manuel ʼ18 and Katie Ledecky ʼ21, as well as Stanford women’s and then-US Olympic head coach Greg Meehan, served to solidify her decision — but for Curzan, in the end the choice was a “no-brainer.”
“Iron sharpens iron,” Curzan said, pointing to both the Cardinal’s history as the winningest team in NCAA history and the caliber of its current roster in pushing her to achieve new heights.
Plus, she added with a laugh, you can get tanned in the outdoor pools, “which is the best part!”
By fall 2022 Curzan was bound for the Farm, alongside TAC Titans teammate (and the 2022 class’s No. 2 recruit) Charlotte Hook.
Her new coach was, understandably, pleased by that choice.
“Claire’s very thorough and analytical,” Meehan said. “It’s what makes her truly great as an athlete.
“She’s an incredible racer, super versatile,” he continued. “As great as she is on individual events, she’s almost better on relays because she just rises to that challenge.”
“Versatile” is an adjective that certainly fits Curzan.
Competitive from the 50m to 200m distance in butterfly, backstroke and freestyle, with a particular knack for the former two, the sprinter has evolved into somewhat of a cross between two of her childhood idols in the sport: butterfly legend Dana Vollmer, and backstroke great Missy Franklin.
While navigating the whirlwind journey that is one’s first year at college, Curzan (and the rest of the team’s all-star recruits) boosted the Cardinal to an undefeated regular season, winning each of the eight dual meets contested.
“I look forward to practice every day and just being with the girls, and I’m super lucky to have such a tight-knit group of women,” Curzan said.
On dry land, Curzan, who is currently considering majoring in Management Science and Engineering, said she values having more freedom in class choices and schedules at college.
One favorite so far was a ballroom dancing class in the fall; growing up, dance was one of a myriad of other sports Curzan entertained before her passion in the pool prevailed.
In a schedule stacked with classes and training, Curzan also finds time to read whenever possible. Most recently, recommendations from Stanford teammates for the long trip to Australia (for December’s World Championships) drove her to Sarah J. Maas’ “Throne of Glass” series.
One championship down…
On the road to the NCAAs this postseason, Curzan and her teammates did have other business to take care of first.
A few weeks ago, the versatile freshman dropped multiple lifetime bests and championship records to help the Cardinal retain their Pac-12 conference crown in Federal Way, Wash.
“It was such a cool meet environment with the stands being very rowdy, and I had a lot of fun finally being able to race in a tech [racing] suit,” Curzan said of her first college championship meet.
After clocking the fastest time achieved in the 200-yard backstroke since former Cardinal Regan Smith’s American Record in 2019, Curzan enters the national championships in Knoxville holding the country’s quickest time in that event this season by over a second — and within striking distance of the Pac-12, NCAA and American records.
She also ranks in the top five entries in her other two individual events, the 100-yard butterfly (fifth) and the 100-yard backstroke (third).
Having already achieved her national championship qualifying standards earlier this season, Curzan was one of a group of Stanford swimmers who were not fully rested before Pac-12s. That means that beginning Wednesday, there’s every chance the freshman phenom could be even faster at what she expects will be an “awesome” NCAAs.