WEB UPDATE: Clark, Mills Make Waves at NCAAs

For women swimmers in the Ivy League, the NCAA Championship is a big deal. Such a big deal, that this year only three female swimmers from all eight Ivy League schools attended.

Two came from Harvard.

Finishing the year off on a high note, junior Ali Clarke and sophomore Kate Mills received invites to the 2009 NCAA Swimming and Diving Championships at Texas A&M; after solid performances at this year’s Ivy League championships.

Invited after placing first at Ivies, Mills was tapped to race in her signature event, the 200-yard freestyle. She also competed in the 200-yard butterfly event and the 500-yard freestyle event, for which she placed third at Ivies behind Clarke and Princeton’s Alicia Aemisegger. Aemisegger was the only other Ivy swimmer to compete at NCAAs.

Clarke, racing in the 500-yard freestyle, also raced in the 1650-yard freestyle, which she qualified for after placing second at Ivies—once again behind Aemisegger.

The championship, which started on Thursday, was a big change for both Crimson athletes.

“I think the biggest thing that’s different is that there are just two of us, instead of the usual 20 that we bring to every meet,” Mills said. “It’s also different because we get to compete against all of these people that we normally don’t compete against in the Ivy League.”

But both Mills and Clarke had some idea of the competition they prepared to face after having raced at NCAAs the previous year.

“We weren’t that nervous [this year],” Mills said. “We both swam our best events—the ones that we like to swim. Everyone went so fast to get [to NCAAs] that we are all among equals, if that makes any sense. In most races everything was close.”

In only the second event of NCAAs, both Clarke and Mills took to the water in the 500-yard freestyle preliminary race. Out of 64 athletes, Clarke placed 46th with a time of 4:47.47, while Mills touched the wall 47th with a time of 4:47.75. With these times, neither Clarke nor Mills advanced to the finals, where Allison Schmitt from Georgia placed first in a time of 4:35.17.

For both athletes, these times were considerably slower than their qualifying times from Ivies, where Clarke raced the 500 yards in 4:42.84 and Mills in 4:43.41.

Mills, however, was positive about the experience, since she was not even sure if she would race in NCAAs after undergoing leg surgery last year.

“I think we both did well,” Mills said. “For me, I learned some things that I really need to work on. I didn’t have quite the leg strength that I wanted to. Of course I would have loved to have gone faster, but it was a very solid, very good meet for me.”

On Friday, Clarke took the day to rest while Mills competed in the 200-yard freestyle event. Out of a field of 64 athletes, Mills tied for 37th with Texas A&M; swimmer Marissa Jasek with a time of 1:47.35, less than a second slower than her qualifying time of 1:46.39.

When the sun rose Saturday morning, Clarke stood ready on the starting block for her last race as a junior. In the 1650-yard freestyle event, out of 43 swimmers, Clarke placed 28th in a time of 16:19.17.

Watching Clarke compete, Mills prepared to attack her final race of the season. In her third event of the meet, the 200-yard butterfly, Mills received the best placing for Harvard at this year’s championships, placing 23rd out of 42 with a time of 1:56.72. While not enough to qualify for the final, Mills was only five seconds off of first place in the preliminaries and .49 seconds off of her qualifying time.

Though neither Clarke nor Mills qualified for the finals—leaving Harvard off of the team scoreboard—the two Crimson swimmers learned about the persistence and strength needed to compete with the nation’s best.

Both athletes returned home on Sunday, ready not only for spring break, but also for a chance to get back in the water and begin preparing for next year.

“We were very happy when we left,” Mills said. “We realized what we need to work on to be All-American [top 16] next year.”