The NCAA Division I Swimming & Diving Championships have long been a stepping stone for many of the best swimmers, not only in the United States but in the entire world, to showcase their talents before taking aim at success on the Olympic and international stage. Although short course yards is only swum in the United States, many swimmers around the globe find their way to the United States to train in the collegiate system, racing in the shorter pool to set themselves up for success on the international level.

And there is a long track record of international swimmers to have seen Olympic success after competing in the NCAA from the likes of Kirsty Coventry, Katinka Hosszu, and Maggie Mac Neil.

The team scores are the most important part in the NCAA system, with athletes swimming for something bigger than themselves. It’s the team score incentive that gives the athletes a team atmosphere as they strive for bigger goals each season, elevating themselves to unseen levels each season. The NCAA system as a whole has helped sustain the United States as one of the top nations in the world for swimming - the drive to be better has helped deepen the talent pool and given more opportunities to be successful.

The 2024 Edition

Three NCAA records fell this week at the women’s meet at the University of Georgia, as the Virginia Cavaliers won their fourth straight national title with 527.5 points. The Texas Longhorns finished second at 441 for the third straight year, while the Florida Gators finished third at 364 for their highest finish since winning in 2010. The Tennessee Volunteers returned to the top four with a fourth place finish at 277, the school’s highest finish since the team was third in 2013.

The short course season for the women is now over and the focus for many of the American swimmers shifts to the Olympic Trials in Indianapolis this June. It’s a tight turnaround but many of these swimmers have had their sights on Paris since the conclusion of Tokyo three years ago and the time is coming.

Here are some NCAA individual swimmers who had tremendous meets this weekend to look out for this summer ahead of the Paris Olympics.

Gretchen Walsh - Virginia

Image Source: Gretchen Walsh poses during the Team USA Paris 2024 Olympic Portrait Shoot at NBC Universal Studios (Harry How/Getty Images)

All conversations around this year’s NCAA season must start and end with Virginia junior Gretchen Walsh, who broke four individual NCAA records this season and won four relay titles. This past weekend, Walsh led Virginia to its fourth straight national title, and had one of the most impressive weekends any swimmer has ever had in short course yards.

In the 50 free, she broke the NCAA record with a 20.37, lowering her own record of 20.57 from earlier this season. In the 100 fly, she had the fastest time in history at 47.42, taking a full second off Kate Douglass’s 48.46 from last year. In the 100 freestyle on the last day of the meet, she became the first woman inside 45 seconds with a 44.83, lowering Simone Manuel’s 2017 record of 45.56.

The 100 butterfly may have been the most impressive swim of the meet, as Walsh became the first swimmer inside 48 seconds, winning the final by over two full seconds - an unheard of margin in the event. Earlier this season, she also broke her own NCAA record in the 100 backstroke and became the first woman to break 20 seconds in a 50 freestyle on a relay, splitting 19.9 at the ACC Championships in February.

The question now is how Walsh can translate this success to long course, something she hasn’t quite done in her career. Although she was one of the youngest competitors at the 2016 Olympic Trials at age 14, she only broke through for her first major long course team last year at the World Championships. There, she finished as high as third in the 50m butterfly and swam on the gold medal winning 4x100m medley relay team. In the 100m butterfly, she was eighth, and in the 50m freestyle, she was 11th.

Based on what we saw this past weekend from Walsh, there will be a lot of hype around what she can do in long course come the Olympic Trials and potentially Paris.  

It seems everything is going right for her right now as she could be a multiple event medal threat this summer in Paris if she can keep this momentum going.

Alex Walsh - Virginia

Image Source: USA's Alex Walsh racing in the Women's 200m Individual Medley Semifinal at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games (Amin Mohammad Jamali/Getty Images)

The older Wash sister also won three individual titles en route to a fourth straight team title for Virginia as Alex won both IM’s and the 200 breaststroke, becoming the second fastest performer in all three events. Alex has been a bit overshadowed this season by her sister and teammate Gretchen tearing apart the record books, but Alex is the defending Olympic silver medalist in the 200m IM and the 2022 World champion in that event. The United States has not won the women’s 200m IM at the Olympics since 1984 - its longest gold medal drought in any women’s swimming event and Walsh could certainly end that drought this summer.

Alex Walsh finished her four years at Virginia with eighth individual titles, including three in the 200 IM. She also swam on three winning relays for the Cavaliers and will go down as one of the key players in Virginia’s rise to national dominance under coaches Todd DeSorbo and Blaire Bachman.

This summer, she will also be a player in the 200m and 400m IM at the Olympic Trials, as well as the 200m freestyle for a relay spot. Walsh doesn’t have much of a weak stroke, as we saw when she dominated both IMs at the NCAA meet. At last year’s Worlds, she led the 200m IM final for 150 meters before she was run down by teammate Kate Douglass. Ahead of this summer, she will look to do one better in Paris and potentially take aim at the world record.

Katharine Berkoff - NC State

Image Source: Katharine Berkoff at the TYR Pro 2024 Swim Series (Alex Slitz/Getty Images)

Swimming in her fifth season for North Carolina State, Berkoff won her third NCAA title in the 100 backstroke and also finished second to Gretchen Walsh in both the 50 and 100 freestyle. In the 100 backstroke, Berkoff lowered her best time to 48.55, keeping her spot as the second fastest performer in history behind Walsh as those two are the only ones to break 49 seconds in the event.

Berkoff had a big breakout summer last year in long course meters in which she won the bronze medal in the 100 backstroke at the World Championships. With her short course career now over, she will look to make her first Olympic team this summer after finishing fourth at the 2021 Trials in the 100m backstroke. The women’s backstroke field in the United States is stacked but Berkoff beat the best collegiate swimmers this past weekend by nearly two full seconds in short course yards so she is in a good spot to make her first Olympic team for coach Braden Holloway.

She has shown to have the speed and endurance to be competitive in long course meters, and could make a run for the 4x100m freestyle team this summer as well.

Bella Sims - Florida

Image Source: Bella Sims of the United States competes in the Women’s 800m Broken Freestyle during the 2022 Duel in the Pool (Matt King/Getty Images)

Sims competed in her first year in the NCAA, winning two individual titles for the Florida Gators in the 200 and 500 freestyle, and also led off Florida’s 800 free relay title, which was the Gators’ first in that event since 1989. Sims helped Florida finish third as a team, its best finish since winning the title in 2010.

It’s hard to believe Sims is only 18, as she made her international debut three years ago on the Olympic team for Tokyo in the 4x200m freestyle. This year, she has a chance for individual spots in the 200m and 400m freestyle in Paris as she has risen to be one of the best middle distance freestylers in the United States.

Sims also finished third in the stacked 200 backstroke field this past weekend, although her best long course chances lie in freestyle as she was sixth in the 200m freestyle at last year’s Worlds and eighth in the 400m. Sims seems to just be getting started with coach Anthony Nesty as she looks to bring the 4x200m Olympic gold medal back to the United States after the team won silver in 2021. With more experience under her belt, she could drop some impressive times this summer at the Olympic Trials.

Phoebe Bacon - Wisconsin

Image Source: hoebe Bacon competes in the Women's 200 Meter IM at the Indiana University Natatorium (Sarah Stier/Getty Images)

Bacon returned to the top step of the podium in the 200 backstroke in her senior year at 1:48.23 for the Wisconsin Badgers and coach Yuri Suguiyama, taking down a talented field that included Kennedy Noble (1:48.43), Bella Sims (1:48.47), and Isabelle Stadden (1:49.19). This was Bacon’s first NCAA title since winning as a freshman in 2021 as she looks to get back to the Olympics this summer after she was fifth in Tokyo in the 200m backstroke.

Bacon has long been one of the top backstrokers in the United States, but the competitiveness of the event saw her sitting at home last year instead of fighting for medals at the World Championships in Fukuoka. Bacon has the speed to win a medal in Paris in the 200m backstroke, but she needs to get out of the Olympic Trials first. Based on how she swam this past weekend, moving to ninth all-time in the 200 yard backstroke, she is in good shape for a return trip to swimming’s biggest stage.

Mona Mc Sharry - Tennessee

Image Source: Mona Mc Sharry competing in the women's 100m breaststroke at the World Aquatics Swimming World Cup 2023 final in Budapest, Hungary (David Balogh/Getty Images)

Although she finished second in both the 100 and 200 breaststroke finals, Tennessee senior Mona Mc Sharry has been quietly building a good resume. This weekend, she helped Tennessee to a big top four finish and had the fastest breaststroke split in the 200 medley relay at 25.68.

Internationally, she became the first Irish woman to make a Worlds final last year when she finished fifth in the 100m final in Fukuoka. In February at the Doha World Championships, she was the only woman to make all three breaststroke finals, finishing fifth in both the 100m and 200m breaststroke, and eighth in the 50m.

Although Mc Sharry finished second behind two Virginia swimmers this weekend - getting beat by Jasmine Nocentini in the 100 and Alex Walsh in the 200, she seems to be getting better and better and is building for something big this summer.

Mc Sharry was the World Junior champion in the 100m in 2017 and is starting to follow that hype with success on the senior level. She has her Olympic qualification for Paris already solidified, and she could be a medal threat for Ireland this summer in the 100m breaststroke, which would be the country’s first in the swimming venue since 1996.