With all 11 swimmers who scored last year back for the 2003 championships that start on Thursday at James E. Martin Aquatics Center on the Auburn campus, the Tigers would be the favorites without any other help. However, the 2003 team is deeper and more talented and that is why the squad coached by David Marsh and Kim Brackin is a favorite to repeat as national champs.
"We are ready to compete," says Marsh. "We are fortunate that everybody on our team is healthy and swimming well. That is good because there is a tremendous field at this year's meet. It could be the fastest meet in NCAA history with the potential for a lot of records to fall." Marsh says that as many as 50 to 60 of the competitors will be competing for medals at the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Greece and the field is full of potential gold medalists. The Auburn coach says fans attending the meet can count on setting records broken.
The competition will start with the preliminaries that begin at 11 a.m. on Thursday. The finals begin at 7 p.m. on Thursday and the schedule remains the same on Friday and Saturday. The meet has been a sellout for several weeks, but standing room only will be sold for each session at the 77,629 square foot James E. Martin Aquatics Center that has been getting excellent reviews from the teams around the country who are in Auburn for the competition.
Auburn won its first NCAA women's title last season.
Two-time NCAA Swimmer of the Year, Natalie Coughlin of Cal, says the pool is fast and the full house crowds will provide the type of excitement that will help produce good times. Coughlin says she enjoyed competing in Auburn in a meet last December when she put on an impressive performance. Although her team is not one of the favorites to win the title, she is unquestionably one of the top swimmers in the world. "I had a very good conference meet and I am pretty excited coming into the this meet," she says.
Georgia coach Jack Bauerle, whose team is ranked second nationally, says Auburn's facility is fast and he looks for a lot of good times to be produced. "This is going to be a terrific meet," he predicts.
Auburn comes into the meet with the momentum of a record-setting performance at the SEC Women's Swimming and Diving Championships, which was held last month at the James E. Martin Aquatics Center where the Tigers won their first conference title. Auburn competitors won 10 SEC events and 14 individual competitors plus five relay teams qualified for nationals.
Auburn is once again led by All-American Maggie Bowen, who was named SEC Swimmer of the Year after winning three events and being the high-point scorer at the conference meet. The senior has won the 200-yard and 400-yard individual medley races at the NCAA Championships the past two seasons. Last year in Austin, Tex., she took All-America honors in all seven events she competed in including four relays.
Bowen says that she is excited to be swimming in front of family and friends for her final college competition.
Bowen says she is thrilled how she is swimming personally and how the team has performed throughout her senior season. "It is going better than we ever expected," she says. "I just can't wait to get in the pool and start swimming."
At the SEC meet where the Tigers set five new SEC records and two U.S. Open marks, the Tigers defeated the two teams that are expected to be their main competition for a national championship. The Georgia Lady Bulldogs are ranked second nationally while Florida is third with Texas and SMU fourth and fifth.
Margaret Hoelzer, a sophomore from Huntsville, is having a very strong season for the Tigers and leads the team with NCAA qualifying times in five individual events (200 freestyle, 100 backstroke, 200 backstroke, 100 butterfly, 200 butterfly). Kirsty Coventry has qualified in four events, the 100 and 200 backstroke and the 200 and 400 individual medleys. Part of the strategy of the meet for Marsh and co-head coach Kim Brackin is deciding what events to enter Hoelzer and Coventry in because a competitor can only swim in three individual events.
Auburn's 800 free and 200 medley relay squads performed brilliantly at the conference championships in breaking NCAA records held by Stanford. The Tigers started the SEC meet by winning the 200 medley relay in a time of 1:37.69, breaking the record from 1999 by .08 seconds. On the final event of the opening night at the SEC meet, the 800 freestyle relay team swam 7:01.00, more than three seconds better than the old NCAA record that had stood since 1992. Auburn has the top times this season in five relays.
Current Auburn swimmers hold 12 of Auburn's 14 school records and the team's two seniors, Bowen and Cassidy Maxwell, will finish their AU careers as the first swimmers in school history to compete for four years and never lose a dual meet.
Last year's team celebrates its NCAA title in Austin, Texas.
Bowen, Coventry, Hoelzer and Heather Kemp are first team All-SEC selections while Jenni Anderson, Eileen Coparropa, Kirsty Coventry, Magda Dyszkiewicz, Leslie Lunsmann, Ashley Rubenstein, Becky Short and Laura Swander are second team All-SEC selections.
"We expect to see some great swims during this meet," Marsh says. "There are eight to 10 people competing who could win gold medals at the next Olympics."