March 30, 2016
By Annie Grevers, Swimming World Staff Writer
Stanford freshman Ella Eastin walked into the NCAA media room comfortably and took her seat before the cameras. Stanford head coach Greg Meehan pulled up a chair beside her. Unlike many freshmen at a media table for the first time, Eastin was at ease. She answered questions articulately and without pause.
Eastin set the American record last night in the 200 IM (1:51.65). “Did you expect to break an American record?” Well, yes, eventually, Eastin said in so many words.
After what Meehan called “a sloppy win” at PAC 12s in the event (1:52.77), he told Eastin that if she could swim a beautiful race, while staying in her own lane, she could set an American record in the event. The seed was planted and quickly took root.
The second night of NCAAs might have opened triumphantly for Stanford in the 200 free relay but after an agonizing few minutes, officials declared a false start. Stanford’s anchor leg had jumped…five one-hundredths of a second early. A relay disqualification at NCAAs is not an easy rebound. Forty points were lost. Many teams would feel a 40-point loss as a slug to the gut; immediate cause for deflation. But the Cardinal stood strong.
“Whether you like it or not, the next event is going to start,” Meehan said of the session’s bumpy beginning. “These things happen. We keep fighting for each other. Our team area couldn’t crumble– we wouldn’t allow ourselves to do that. That’s not how we were going to be defined.”
Stanford’s next swim would be Eastin’s 200 IM. No matter how stoic the team may have stayed, a pick-me-up race was going to be appreciated. And that’s precisely what Eastin produced.
The gifted freshman was situated between fellow California freshmen Kathleen Baker (Cal) and Kirsten Vose (USC) in the final. Baker had a slight edge at the halfway mark, but the second 100 belonged to Eastin. In a remarkable display of all-stroke prowess, Eastin stormed to the finish, sneaking a tenth of a second below Caitlin Leverenz‘s 2012 American record of 1:51.77.
“I knew I was going to be improving really quickly, but I didn’t expect it in the 200 IM,” Eastin said. The 400 IM is more her “baby.” She’s the only one entered in the meet who has dipped below four minutes in the testing 16-lapper. “This goes to show I’m being trained really well. We show up everyday, don’t talk too much, and everyone puts their head down and works hard for each other,” Eastin said of their team culture.
The college experience has provided moments of ecstasy and misery for Eastin to share with her teammates. Staying up late to finish impossible loads of homework and rising early to make strides toward the big dance have tightened the bond between the talented gang of girls. “It’s so rewarding to celebrate this with all of my best friends,” Eastin said.
This is Eastin’s first NCAA Championships. She was told it would be “unlike any other meet you’ve ever experienced,” but the hype has been put to rest. “It hasn’t felt as different as I had expected,” she said. She is, after all, racing the same girls she raced in high school and in dual meets all season long. “It’s relieving to step up to the blocks with familiar faces.”
After Eastin’s invigorating swim, the Cardinal confidence returned (if it had even strayed). Stanford’s 400 medley relay squad of Ally Howe, Sarah Haase, Janet Hu, and Lia Neal put together four sensational splits (51.89, 57.02, 50.65, 46.58) to seize the NCAA title for the third consecutive year (also breaking the American record for the third consecutive year).
Meehan discussed cycling through swimmers in the medley relays as seniors close their careers. “People are always stepping up,” Meehan said. And Eastin is stepping up in a big way for the Cardinal. This morning she cruised to a 4:03.28 to be top seed tonight in the 400 IM. Looking like she has a lot left in the tank, tonight could be a jaw-dropper.
Eastin was thrown into yesterday 400 medley relay in prelims, anchoring with a respectable 47.94. She laughed at the initial prospect of being plopped in such an awkward place. But we have a feeling Meehan will be looking for Eastin to step into seemingly unfitting roles; the girl can do it all. One role that seems entirely too fitting for the confident, collected, driven Eastin is that of leader.