Katie McLaughlin tied the final bows on her college swimming career this spring. She made sure to have a handful of going-away gifts for herself and lots of special memorabilia for her young teammates to bring back to the University of California.
McLaughlin, a senior at Cal who led Santa Margarita to four consecutive CIF-SS Division I team titles while setting three Orange County records, guided the Golden Bears to a second-place finish at the NCAA Championships March 20-23 in Austin, Texas.
Like she did at Santa Margarita, McLaughlin left her mark in a number ways at Cal.
Most notably, she swam legs on 200- and 400-yard freestyle relay teams, which set NCAA and American records.
Individually, McLaughlin broke 50 seconds for the first time and the school record in the 100 butterfly, finishing third to provide more valuable points for her team.
“We’ve just really been feeding off each other’s energy, like one heat after another,” McLaughlin told reporters after the meet. “We know everyone is laying it out on the line and doing their best.”
Hard to believe these moments almost never happened because of a scary injury that occurred to McLaughlin midway through her freshman year at Cal.
McLaughlin was in Hawaii training with her teammates when she dove headfirst into the ocean and fractured two vertebrae in her neck. The injury could have been much, much worse, but it forced McLaughlin to miss most of her freshman season and set back her lifelong pursuit of a berth on the 2016 Olympic team.
McLaughlin has since fully recovered, and came into the NCAA Championships swimming faster than ever.
McLaughlin began her schedule by swimming the fastest leg on the meet-opening 800-yard freestyle relay, which finished second to Stanford, the eventual team champion.
She came back the next day and delivered a 21.37-second split over 50 yards on the 200 free relay, helping the Golden Bears finish first in 1:24.55 and topple the NCAA and American record of 1:25.43 set by Stanford at the same meet the year before.
“We love relays,” McLaughlin said. “Just because we all get to get up for each other and do our best for each other.”
Her only individual events were the 100 butterfly and 200 freestyle events, which are held back-to-back on the third day.
She finished third in the 100 butterfly in 49.97 seconds, which broke the school record of 50.01 set by 12-time Olympic medalist Natalie Coughlin at the 2002 NCAA Championships.
When she finished the race, McLaughlin looked up at the scoreboard and saw the sub-50-second time in her lane. She said it took a couple seconds to realize the time belonged to her, and was even more excited to see where she placed.
“49 (seconds) was really exciting, but getting into third and getting those points was really the coolest thing,”
McLaughlin came right back and finished seventh in the 200 freestyle (1:43.53), earning a total of 28 points in her two individual races.
McLaughlin then rejoined her teammates for the meet-ending 400 free relay. They had broke the NCAA record (3:07.41) earlier in the month at the Pac-12 championship, but aimed to go even lower.
Swimming the second leg, McLaughlin helped the Golden Bears finish in 3:06.96 and set another NCAA and American record.