Under the lights of Allan Jones Aquatic Center at the University of Tennessee, the Rice University women’s swimming team competed in the Conference USA championships Feb. 18-21. Aiming for their third straight title victory, the Owls fell short to Florida International University, who won their first C-USA title. Florida International finished with 765 points, followed by Rice with 661.5. Western Kentucky University placed third with 645, followed by Marshall University, North Texas University, Florida Atlantic University and Old Dominion University. 

Rice Head Coach Seth Huston said his team improved from last year’s championship, but simply could not keep up with FIU’s team this year.

“Florida International really had a great team this year,” Huston said. “They just had a lot of firepower. I thought we swam awesome, and in a lot of ways better than last year, but it just wasn’t good enough.”

In the 200 medley relay, the first event of the meet, Rice began with a first place finish and new school record in 1:38.11, only .61 seconds faster than the second-place Western Kentucky relay. The next morning, after Thursday’s prelims session, the relay swam a time trial to attempt to get an NCAA “A Cut” and automatically qualify for the National Championship Meet. The same group of four broke the same record they had set the night before, and clocked in at 1:37.04. The relay qualified for the first time since 2001.

Huston said the victory was significant for Rice’s swimming legacy.

“We’ve had some individuals go [to NCAAs] over the years, but not relays,” Huston said. “For a small or mid-major school, it is pretty hard to have four high-end swimmers get together and qualify for NCAAs. Not too many schools this size achieve that.”

Individually, several Owls swam career bests. Senior Casey Clark broke her own school record to win her third straight individual title, swimming the 100-yard butterfly in 51.93 seconds. The time automatically qualified her for the NCAA Championship meet. Her fellow senior teammate, Erin Flanigan, also won her third consecutive individual title. Flanigan won the mile, or 1650, freestyle.

Huston said senior Madison Livingston performed better than ever before. She finished sixth in the 400-yard individual medley (4:21.27), fifth in the 100-yard breaststroke (1:02.92) and seventh in the 200-yard breaststroke (2:16.72)

“I was really happy with Madison Livingston,” Huston said. “She had the best meet of her career.”

Several underclassmen also contributed to the Owls’ second-place finish. Freshmen Alicia Caldwell and Kiley Beall highlighted the strong performance of the freshman class in the meet. Caldwell’s highest finish was second in the 100 backstroke (53.48). She was also fourth in the 100 freestyle (50.07) and sixth in the 50 freestyle (23.06). Beall also reached the finals in all three of her events, including a school record in the 200 backstroke (1:57.39). 

According to Huston, Caldwell and Beall deserved special recognition.

“Alicia Caldwell was just really good,” Huston said. “Every time [Beall] got in the water, she seemed to get faster.”

This year, the Owls performed well in a group of relays — especially the 200- and 400-yard medley relays, which consist of all four strokes. Alicia Caldwell swam the backstroke leadoff leg; Rachel Moody then swam the second breaststroke leg followed by Casey Clark swimming butterfly. Marissa Konicke anchored the relays with her freestyle swim. 

The 400 medley relay was disqualified due to an early start in the backstroke-to-breaststroke transition. By diving in .07 seconds early, Conference USA automatically disqualified the relay and the Owls lost 40 points.

Huston said the 40-point loss was unfortunate, but did not take away from the Owls’ performance.

“From an emotional standpoint, it was definitely a bummer, but I think we moved on real quick,” Huston said. “You can’t take away how absolutely incredible they swam, and we weren’t going to let a 0.07 of a second early departure ruin what was otherwise one of our best sessions. So the next day we came back and were just as good or better.”

The Owls also competed without a diving team, which cost the team points. Florida International accumulated 79 points from the diving competition.

The Owls plan to continue swimming in postseason meets. Much of the team will be swimming next weekend in a time trial meet to attempt to make qualifying cuts for meets such as the NCAA Championships. Usually, the top 36 swimmers in the country make the NCAA Championships in individual events. Swimmers such as Moody and Flanigan are looking to swim well next week to join Clark in the individual events.

Following the NCAA Championships and the CSCAA National Invitational Meets, both of which will be held in late March, the team will look to rebuild after losing its senior class. However, the freshman class, which scored approximately a third of the Owls’ points at the meet, looks to continue Rice’s recent history of success. Huston said the loss of seniors will hurt the team, but the future is in good hands. 

“We graduate almost half of our points,” Huston said. “Even though we have our work cut out for us, I feel really good about the swimmers coming back and the passionate commitment that they bring. I’m

not worried.”