The first stroke every competitive swimmer learns is freestyle. The movement serves as the equivalent to an intro-level course for an area of study in college. It’s one thing to be good at freestyle, but it’s another to be great at it.
Olympic gold medalist Katie Ledecky has provided the swimming world with a blueprint on how to be a great distance freestyler in the 200, 400, and 800. Her teammate from USA Swimming, Olympic gold medalist Simone Manuel, has done the same thing as a freestyle sprinter in the 50 and 100.
But the two Stanford Cardinal swimmers have a fellow American and Louisville Cardinals’ swimmer who might be the next great freestyler: 19-year-old Mallory Comerford.
For Comerford, becoming a great freestyle swimmer means to never stop learning how to get better.
“You need to be a student of the sport,” Comerford told Excelle Sports. “Asking questions, continuing to work hard, and just soaking everything in.”
[More from Excelle Sports: Louisville’s Mallory Comerford ties Katie Ledecky for 200 Free title]
Comerford’s mother swam in college and her older brother began swimming too. Needless to say, she had a direct path into the sport.
“I loved the sport growing up,” said Comerford, a native of Kalamazoo, Michigan. “I loved the competitiveness of it and a lot of my friends swam too. It’s also a stress release for me and just a lot of fun.”
From the start of her swimming career, Comerford focused primarily on freestyle, dominating those events as soon as she started her prep career. As a freshman, she won the Michigan State High School Championships in the 50 and 100-yard freestyle.
She followed it up with victories in the 200 and 500-yard freestyle as a sophomore. Comerford’s success earned her Michigan Swimmer of the Year and All-American honors in back-to-back seasons. Additionally, she is the Michigan state Division 3 record holder in the 100, 200, and 500.
Comerford decided to continue her swimming career at the University of Louisville, where she finished with a silver medal in the 200-yard freestyle at the NCAA Championships her freshman year. But it would be during her sophomore year of college when Comerford really announced her as one of the top swimmers in the world.
— UofL Swim&Dive (@UofLswim_dive) July 23, 2017
At the 2017 NCAA Championships in Indianapolis in March, Comerford was scheduled to race both Ledecky and Manuel in the 200-yard freestyle final. Going up against the two Olympic gold medalists, Comerford was an overwhelming underdog.
But on the second 100, Comerford came from behind to beat out Manuel and tie with Ledecky to win the 200-yard freestyle. She followed up her stunning victory in the 200 free with a third-place finish in the 100-yard freestyle.
Following her success at the NCAA Championships, Comerford set a U.S. Open record in the 100-meter freestyle and took gold at the U.S. Swimming Championships. No woman had swam a faster 100-meter freestyle on American soil than Comerford. As a result, she earned a spot on Team USA at this summer’s World Championships in Budapest, Hungary.
Heading into the World Championships, one of Comerford’s biggest adjustments would be competing in a meter pool rather than a yard pool. Initially, Comerford hated training in a long course pool.
“It’s definitely a little bit different,” Comerford said. “I had never really trained in long course before, and I used to dread it. But I’m starting to like it more now. It’s a challenge and I like challenges.”
Comerford didn’t swim an individual race in Budapest, but she won gold in each of the five relays she swam in at the meet. But what was most notable from her swimming performance in Budapest was setting the American record on her leg of the 4×100-meter freestyle relay, becoming the fastest ever American female swimmer in the 100.
While Manuel would break Comerford’s American record later in the meet, Comerford described the experience of setting an American record as incredible.
“It was crazy,” Comerford said. “It was unbelievable. It felt great because I went fast for my teammates.”
Comerford says the overall experience of swimming in Budapest for Team USA was awesome.
“Being a part of this team with these girls was such an honor and blessing,” Comerford said. “It’s so hard to put in words the feeling of winning gold and standing next to the girls on stage. As a little girl, it’s what you always dream of. It’s one of my proudest moments as a swimmer and it’s so motivating going forward.”
Comerford admitted that swimming on the international level was very different from collegiate swimming.
“During training, we tried to practice and think about how Budapest is and will be,” Comerford said. “When I got to the pool at worlds, I just had to trust the training. I had to focus on swimming my own race and not let it overwhelm me. Leaning on your coaches and teammates was so important.”
But Comerford said that having swimmers with Olympic experience like Ledecky, Manuel, and Lilly King on the team was extremely valuable.
“It’s a really good feeling to look around and see all these Olympians,” Comerford said. “It was awesome having these people to ask questions. They’re elite swimmers who push me to be a better athlete. It was also really fun getting to know them on another level as friends.”
[More from Excelle Sports: How double cheeseburgers and heated rivalries fueled Lilly King to become the fastest breaststroker in the world]
Heading back to Louisville for her junior year at the end of August, Comerford isn’t worried about things changing for her at school.
“It will be the same as before,” Comerford said. “The community is so supportive and helpful towards the athletes.”
Comerford says that practices, which will consist of training both in and out of the pool, will begin when she returns to campus. In the meantime, she’s spending her free time hanging out with family and friends and running or hiking in Michigan.
For the upcoming season, Comerford says her goals are more simple than setting records and winning races.
“I want to focus on the smaller details this year,” Comerford said. “That includes eating healthier and properly fueling my body. I’m just going to continue taking advantage of opportunities in front of me and I’m really excited to get back with the team.”