20 Years Ago This Week, USC Women's Swimming, Diving Won The NCAA Championship

    The Trojans lifting up the 1997 NCAA Championships first-place trophy, 20 years ago this week.
    March 17, 2017

    The NCAA first hosted a Division I women’s swimming and diving championships in 1982. Florida, Texas and Stanford won the first three titles and Texas and Stanford split the rest through 1996.

    But in 1997, a fourth school joined the club as USC, behind Olympians Kristine Quance Julian and Lindsay (Benko) Mintenko as well as upper classmen like Hope (Gittings) Wells, Sarah Maggio and Jean Ellis Todisco, upset Stanford for the program’s first and only NCAA championship.

    The national champion Trojans won their first-place trophy 20 years ago in Indianapolis in the same pool where the 2017 NCAAs are being held. They did so thanks to a team effort, stacking up just enough points to break through what was a deep pool of challengers.

    “Winning the 1997 title as a team is still one of my fondest achievements as a swimmer,” said Mintenko, who was a sophomore in 1997 and went on to become an Olympic and World Championships gold medalist. “It was a full team effort. I was so happy for our seniors, and those who paved the way for us prior to my arrival.”

    USC, under then-fourth-year head coach Mark Schubert, won the 1997 championship with 406 points, edging the Catherine Fox-led Stanford Cardinal by 11. SMU, behind three-time 1997 NCAA winner Martina Moravcova, was third (353.5), Arizona, led by NCAA champ Trina Jackson, was fourth (351.5) and Georgia (312) rounded out the top five. Arizona and Georgia later became NCAA champions. California is the only other school to win a title. In January of that year, Stanford flexed its muscle with another dual meet win over USC, including a 1-2-3-4 finish in the 100y free that burned into Mintenko’s memory. In February, USC finished second to Stanford at the Pac-10 Championships. But the Trojans’ focus was down the road.

    “I believe it was Lindsay who coined the phrase, "it matters in March", which we stated all season long as we prepared for NCAAs,” Wells said. “We had worked hard and were blessed by such talent on our team. We knew if we had some great swims, we had a chance to do well. My husband, Jim, who had completed his senior year on the men's team one year prior, said that we would win the meet. We went into NCAAs feeling prepared, but not overly confident, knowing the work we had before us.”

     

     

    The Trojans, who had never finished higher than third, were fifth after the first day of racing, behind the four aforementioned teams, 26 points back of Stanford in first. After a 12th in the 200y free relay to kick things off, Benko defended her NCAA title in the 500y free, posting one of six school records Troy broke that day and 11 throughout the meet. Quance was second in the 200y IM, diver Dorte Lindner was third on 1-meter and Natalya Chikina was ninth. USC also placed second in the 400y medley relay and turned in a record 200y free relay thanks in part to sprinter Karen Campbell.

    Schubert’s prophetic words after the first day were: “Our best days here are still to come, so I’m very pleased with where we are right now.”

    A big second day propelled the Trojans into second place, 15.5 points behind Stanford and 15.5 ahead of SMU. Quance won her baby, the 400y IM, for the third time in her career in school-record fashion while Maggio was fifth in the race and Todisco ninth.

    Said Quance after the race: “This is my favorite event, so I wanted to win this one the most. It was very important to me. I planned to lead wire-to-wire and that's what I did."

    The strong 400y IM finish for the Trojans put them in an unusual spot. When Quance couldn’t find USC on the leaderboard, Schubert told her, “Look at the top.”

    The day-two lead was short-lived, but the Trojans chugged along on night 2. Mintenko was second in the 200y free, Campbell took fourth in the 100y fly with a school record, Wells was fourth in the 100y back and the 200y medley and 800y free relays both pocketed fourth-place finishes while Lindner was fifth on 3-meter, Chikina scoring a point in 16th.

    USC followed with a strong final morning of racing and qualified for enough A and B final races to pull off the major upset, if the chips fell right.

    “The feeling going into the final night was a mixture of excitement and nerves.” Wells said. “It was a bit surreal. We needed smart swims and safe relay starts and exchanges. We had worked for so many years for that night and all of the pieces fell together perfectly.”

    Following the mile, Mintenko won her second title of the week, taking the 200y back, while Wells followed with a fourth in the event and Paige Francis (who swam on three All-American relays) scored in 11th. And that flipped the scoreboard, again temporarily.

    “I remember getting to watch a race with Sarah Maggio and we looked up to the scoreboard and saw USC in first,” Mintenko said. “Honestly, I think that was the first time it became real that we could do this. I also remember Mark flying in (assistant coach) Larry Leibowitz (who had been back in L.A. with the men’s team) to come to the last day so he could be a part of the celebration if we won.”

    Stanford briefly went back on top after the 100y free, but the math was against the Cardinal. Quance soon followed with a win in the 200y breast, the third of her career (and a USC-best eighth of her career), to put USC back in first. Troy bolstered the lead as Campbell and Todisco went 2-3 in the 200y fly with Emily Ayers 15th. Chikina next placed fifth in the platform with Lindner 15th, essentially clinching the title for the Trojans – as long as USC completed the final 400y free relay without being DQ’d.

    With the final relay in the water, the rest of the Trojans cheered on.
    With the final relay in the water, the rest of the Trojans cheered on.

    And complete it safely USC did, as Campbell (one of three relays she raced on), Quance, Francis and Benko swam a conservative 3:24.39 to finish seventh, a seventh that felt as good as gold.

    “I think we high-fived each other on the takeoffs,” Mintenko said. “Walking to the blocks was a blast, we were having so much fun.”

    What followed was USC’s turn to take the traditional team – and staff – plunge into the pool.

    “For 3 years, I had watched other teams jump in the pool as ‘We Are The Champions’ was played over the sound system,” Wells said. “When the points had been tallied and we just needed our final relay to finish at least eighth and not get DQ’d, I knew it was our turn.

    “That was, and always will, be the best jump into the pool of my lifetime. There we were, in our dress sweats, all in the pool together, with ‘We Are The Champions’ playing over the sound system for us! I am so blessed to have been on a team with such incredible ladies, then and now, in and out of the pool. Pure class, and what a joy it was to join them on that ride.”

    (In addition to the Trojans mentioned, others who raced for USC at the NCAAs included Allyson Giampietro, who helped USC to 12th in the first relay, Emily Peters and Jamie Johnson.)

    The Trojans after their much-awaited team jump into the pool.
    The Trojans after their much-awaited team jump into the pool.