If you are reading this, then you’re likely at least somewhat familiar with Kelsi Worrell, the former UofL swimmer who won multiple national titles and brought a gold medal back from last summer’s Olympic Games in Brazil. Worrell wrapped up her monster 2016 in December by becoming the first American woman to break 25 seconds in the 50-meter butterfly.
You likely aren’t as familiar with the name Mallory Comerford. You should be, but that’s OK. You are far from alone.
Swimming is a strange sport in that it goes from being one of the primary focuses of the American sports world for a few months every four years, to way off the national radar in the many months in between. Louisville fans were familiar with Worrell before 2016, but the added fact that she would be swimming for the red, white and blue and not just the red and black gave rise to an entirely fresh faction of supporters.
The phenomenon is unfortunate timing for Comerford, who is having a breakout sophomore season the likes of which only Lamar Jackson can compare with on Floyd Street.
The peak of Comerford’s sparkling 2016-17 came at the NCAA championships in March. If you missed it, again, that’s OK. Basketball is sort of a big deal around here during that time.
The 200 freestyle final had been, understandably, billed as a showdown between Olympians Simone Manuel and Katie Ledecky. Ledecky, of course, had become an Olympic icon over the summer after winning four gold medals and making the rest of the world’s best swimmers look silly in the process.
The woman who had posted the third-fastest seed time in the 200 freestyle had been Comerford. Her 1:41.70 swim at the ACC Championships had been eye-opening to many across the country. Still, no one expected her to do what she did in March, which was beat Manuel and tie Ledecky with a time of 1:40.36. That time was the third-fastest in history behind the 1:39.10 and 1:40.31 efforts of five-time gold medalist Missy Franklin. Well, maybe no one expected it besides her head coach at Louisville, Arthur Albiero.
“We believed,” Albiero told Swimming World Magazine. “We never set out a limit. There was nothing surprising about her race to be honest with you. That was the plan – keep it close, make your move and let’s see what you got.”
The swimmer herself was less stoic when she met with the media after the race.
“When I saw the board, it was just kind of unreal,” Comerford said. “It’s still kind of unreal. I don’t really know what to think. It’s really cool and it’s such an honor. All my teammates were crying, but I didn’t cry until someone filmed the reaction. That was really cool and something I’ll never forget, seeing them and how proud they were of me.”
Comerford’s breakout moment allowed her to become the fourth Cardinal to earn a sign on the National Champion’s Wall inside the Ralph Wright Natatorium. Unlike the other three names on the wall – Worrell, Joao De Lucca and Carlos Almeida – Comerford didn’t arrive at Louisville as an established national name. She didn’t have much experience in Olympic-sized pools, a fact that naturally worked against her at last summer’s Olympic trials, where she failed to qualify for the finals in both the 200 free and 100 free.
The setback only provided more motivation for Comerford, whose rapid progression has suddenly made her one of the hottest names in American swimming. It’s also made her a much bigger deal around Louisville’s campus.
“People in my classes knew all along I was part of the swim team, but after the national championships, they certainly talked to me about swimming more,” Comerford recently told ESPN. “They were like, ‘Aren’t you that girl who tied Katie Ledecky? Wow, we didn’t know you were that good.’ … The attention actually made the accomplishment seem more real, but there are times when I still can’t believe it happened.”
Earlier this month, Comerford threw out the first pitch for Louisville’s home baseball game against Kentucky. As she took the mound, video of her national championship swim played on the big screen behind her for the record crowd at Jim Patterson Stadium to see.
Just more people learning a name they should have already known. VT