For senior Anna Kalandadze, a trip to Tennessee to compete in the NCAA Division I Women's Swimming and Diving National Championships was well worth it, as the senior finished tenth nationally in the 1650-yard freestyle, good enough for second-team All-American honors.
It is a crowning achievement for Kalandadze, who has already earned Penn's program record, the Ivy League record, and an Ivy League title during her time at Penn. In addition to the 1650 free, she also placed 25th in the 500-yard free, an event won by her former teammate Lia Thomas last year.
In both events Kalandadze's time showed significant improvement from her appearance in last year's competition. In the 1650 free, she shaved off nearly 40 seconds to finish at 15:55.60 and jumped from 42nd in 2022 to 10th. For the 500 free, her time of 4:41.58 was over five seconds faster than last year's performance where she placed 49th.
“My approach to the sport definitely changed this year,” said Kalandadze. “I started looking at it as more of a fun thing to do instead of putting all this pressure on myself to do really well all the time.”
While for some on the outside, the dramatic improvement in just a year might come as a surprise, for coach Mike Schnur, these results were a long time coming.
“This doesn’t come out of nowhere,” he said. “When you go that fast at the end of the year, you see it as a coach from day one.”
With Matt Fallon of the men's team unable to compete due to an undisclosed injury, Kalandadze was the only member of Penn swimming and diving who went to NCAA Championships this year. With the rest of the team done for the season, she trained alone yet was still able to achieve success against a high level of competition.
Kalandadze competed against not only the top collegiate competition, but also some of the top swimmers from around the world. Her final heat included Erica Sullivan, an Olympic silver medalist in 1500 free, Paige McKenna, the defending national champion in the 1650 free, and Kensey McMahon who has two national titles to her name.
Kalandadze added that having experience at nationals last year helped her to block out any noise.
“I definitely learned how to keep my nerves in check this time around," she said. "It’s pretty intimidating swimming against the best swimmers in the world.”
Schnur was impressed not only by her performance, but also her ability to overcome any fears associated with swimming alongside such impressive competition.
According to Kalandadze, “When you’re there, you just have to remember to have fun and enjoy the experience because just getting there is a great accomplishment in itself.”
After her performance in Tennessee, some might consider her in that elite group of best swimmers in the world, but for Kalandadze, that was never a goal of hers — she just swims because she loves it.
As she looks towards next year, Kalandadze has her eyes set on climbing the podium into the top eight, which would mean a spot as a first team All-American. However, for Schnur, his hopes for Kalandadze are far loftier.
“The goal is to get first,” he said.