Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Mining For Gold

There have been a number of terrific female swimmers who have proudly represented the Orange and Black since the program began during the 1971-72 academic year. One of its original stars was Cathy Corcione, a former Olympian and 1974 graduate who set two national records while winning two Eastern Women's Swimming League titles. (The Ivy League didn't crown its first champion until 1977)

Since then, there has been the likes of 10-time All-America Charlotte Tiedemann '82, NCAA qualifier and Olympic consolation finalist Natalie Wunderlich '93, EWSL Swimmer of the Year and multiple-time All-America Carwai Seto '95 and, more recently, 2005 Ivy Championships Swimmer of the Meet Stephanie Hsiao '05. And there have been plenty more, all of whom have helped Princeton to its 18 Ivy League titles in the last 33 years.

None of those afore-mentioned names have ever won an NCAA championship. One name, who is en route to being at least among the best - if not THE best - swimmer in program history will take another shot at an NCAA title this weekend. Actually, she'll take three shots.

Alicia Aemisegger's resumé speaks for itself already, and she hasn't completed her junior season. She has competed in nine individual finals at the Ivy League Championships, and her biggest opponent has been the meet record each time. She won all nine titles and set Ivy League records more times than not. She is a seven-time All-America honoree and has placed in the championship final (top 8) in five of her six individual events. She was the seventh-fastest American woman last year in the 400 IM -- not in college, not in her age range... in America.

Aemisegger doesn't need an NCAA title to validate her career. That was signed, sealed and delivered a long time ago. But she has a chance this weekend to become only the second woman in Ivy League history (Columbia's Cristina Teuscher, a former Olympic champion) to win an NCAA title when she competes in the 500 free (Thursday), the 400 IM (Friday) and the 1650 free (Saturday). Her veteran head coach, the incredibly successful Susan Teeter, felt great about Aemisegger before they boarded a plane to College Station, Texas, for NCAAs. She felt the weight that she might have felt last year with Olympic Trials on the horizon is off her shoulders, and she thinks Aemisegger could be headed into the weekend of her life.

So what is her best chance? The 400 IM would seem like the natural choice. It's her best event, the one she reached the Olympic Trials finals in 2008, and it's been her best NCAA finish during her career (second, 2007). She will be rested for the first time this weekend, so she shouldn't have any trouble topping her Ivy Championships time of 4:06.15, which is currently sixth-best in the country.

The problem in that event could be Stanford's Julia Smit, the reigning NCAA champion in the event. Aemisegger topped Smit in the 2007 final, but lost to Auburn's Ava Ohlgren (whom she will also undoubtedly see in this final). Smit also topped Aemisegger in the Olympic Trial final and, at the 2009 Pac-Ten Championships, she broke the NCAA record by going 4:01.56.

Is it possible for Aemisegger to win this event? Sure. The Princeton junior is a world-class swimmer, but she is in a ridiculously deep field.

As for the 500 and 1650, both seem like realistic possibilities. Teeter thought the 1650 could be the slightly more likely scenario; Aemisegger is fitter, stronger and more experienced than she's been in the past, and she is seeded sixth in the field right now. The top performer, as she is in the 500, is Georgia freshman Wendy Trott; beyond Trott, the field is pretty grouped from second to tenth, so a rested and pushed Aemisegger could provide the biggest challenge to Trott.

NCAAs work like the Ivy League Championships -- there will be a preliminary session in the morning and a championship session at night. Thus, Aemisegger's first goal each day is to have one of the eight fastest times in her events; the only exception is the 1650, where she is guaranteed to be one of the eight finalists based on her seeded time.

If she can make the championship final in each event, and TigerBlog predicts she will, anything is possible.

One more thing. While Aemisegger is seeking an NCAA championship this weekend, senior teammate and two-time Ivy League Championships Diver of the Meet Katie Giarra basically achieved her biggest goal by reaching nationals. She placed second at last weekend's Zone 'A' championship meet, which allowed her the final spot in the field. After an injury-plagued season in 2007-08, her tireless work ethic pushed her to an exclamation point-style ending to her career. Teeter and diving coach Greg Gunn were both thrilled for Giarra, but more on a personal level than for what it could do for Princeton. Giarra is a long shot to score in the NCAA field, but after watching the hours Giarra put into her craft after fighting back from last year, they couldn't have been happier to see Giarra earn that final opportunity to compete on the biggest stage.

Sometimes, that itself is the gold medal.

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