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USA College Challenge between Pac-12 and Team USA headlines weekend in swimming

The college swimming season is just getting underway here in the month of October, but the biggest meet this upcoming weekend will feature some of the best swimmers in the world going head-to-head in the pool. No, it’s not the Olympics or World Championships, but it sure is going to feel like the U.S. Nationals. It’s the USA College Challenge, and it pits the best Pac-12 Conference swimmers up against a roster of top American swimmers in a dual meet in Los Angeles.

With three schools ranked in the top 10 in the CSCAA preseason coaches poll, including the two best teams in the country in Stanford and Cal, the Pac-12 is arguably the best conference in collegiate swimming. Of the 25 women selected to the Pac-12 roster, 15 come from Stanford, Cal, or USC. Along with former college stars, Team USA will also feature future college stars who could someday be swimming in the Pac-12.

With well-known Olympians representing both squads this weekend, this meet is a must-see for swimming fans eager to see the best American swimmers in the pool. Take a look at the key swimmers and events to watch this weekend:

[More from Excelle Sports: How double cheeseburgers and heated rivalries fueled Lilly King to become the fastest breaststroker in the world]

USA College Challenge

Saturday at 9:00 p.m. and Sunday at 1:30 p.m., Pac-12 Network

Swimmers to Watch

Pac-12:

Katie Ledecky, Sophomore, Stanford: The five-time Olympic gold medalist and world record holder has solidified herself as the top American swimmer right now. Ledecky won gold in the 200-meter, 400-meter, and 800-meter freestyle at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, including two world records in the 400 and 800. This past summer, she captured gold again in the 400 and 800 at the World Championships in Budapest. She also added a gold in the non-Olympic 1,500m free too. During her freshman year at Stanford, Ledecky won the NCAA titles in the 200-yard, 500-yard, and 1650-yard free, setting meet and pool records in the latter two races. If it’s a distance freestyle event, make sure to keep an eye out for Ledecky this weekend.

Simone Manuel, Senior, Stanford: While Ledecky has a lock on the distance events, her Stanford and Olympic teammate Simone Manuel rules the sprints. Manuel captured gold in the 100m freestyle in both Rio de Janeiro and Budapest, as well as in the 4×100-meter medley relay swimming the freestyle leg. Manuel also took home the silver in the 50m freestyle in Rio. Last season, Manuel set meet and pool records in winning the NCAA title in the 50 and 100 free. She also placed third at the NCAA Championships in the 200 free. Right now, there’s arguably no better sprinter in swimming than Manuel.

Kathleen Baker, Junior, Cal: Stanford’s Bay Area rival has a great team too, and it’s headlined by Olympian Kathleen Baker. The backstroke specialist nabbed silver in the 100m back and gold in the 4x100m medley relay in both Rio and Budapest, as she swam the backstroke leg on the relay in both races. Baker also captured the bronze medal in the 200-meter backstroke this past summer at Worlds. At the NCAA Championships last season, Baker won the 200-meter individual medley with a pool record time, as well as victories in the 100 and 200-meter backstroke too. With her backstroke prowess and ability to swim every stroke, Baker may be the most versatile American swimmer today.

Abbey Weitzeil, Sophomore, Cal: Baker’s Cal Bear teammate Abbey Weitzeil is one of the best sprinters in the country, but she’s coming off an underwhelming freshman campaign. Weitzeil earned a silver medal as part of the 4x100m free relay in Rio alongside Manuel and Ledecky. But as a second-year swimmer, the Bears will be expecting Weitzeil to step up this season if they are going to overtake Stanford. While she and Manuel will likely swim against each other in the same events, there is sure to be some heated competition between the two despite being on the same team this weekend.

Team USA:

Madisyn Cox, Longhorn Aquatics: A graduate of Texas, Cox is one of the most versatile American swimmers right now. This past summer at Worlds, Cox won the bronze medal in the 200m individual medley (IM). Make sure to keep an eye out for Cox in the 200-yard IM this weekend in what should be one of the marquee races of the meet.

Melanie Margalis, St. Petersburg Aquatics: Also one of the best all-around American female swimmers today, Margalis is a graduate of Georgia. Margalis was a member of the gold medal-winning 4×200-meter freestyle relay in both Rio and Margalis. She also swims the 200 IM, so expect to see Margalis competing in that race as well this weekend against some of the best in the world.

Lia Neal, Stanford Aquatics: For Lia Neal, this meet is going to feel weird. Instead of swimming alongside her fellow Cardinal teammates, the recent Stanford grad (who continues to train at the school) will be going up against them for Team USA. Like her former Stanford teammates Ledecky and Manuel, Neal is a freestyle specialist. She helped the women capture the silver medal in the 4x100m free relay in Rio and the gold medal in the same event in Budapest. But this weekend, Neal will have to leave her friendship with her former teammates on the pool deck.

Regan Smith, Riptide: Smith hasn’t even swum a collegiate meet yet and she already has a gold medal on the world stage. This past summer, the 15-year-old collected junior world titles in the 100 and 200 backstroke. Maybe someday soon we’ll be seeing her suit up for Stanford, Cal, or another Pac-12 school. This weekend will give us a great glimpse into a rising American swimming star.

Events to Watch

200 Individual Medley: It’s no question that this might be the most highly anticipated race on the women’s side of the meet. Baker is the reigning NCAA champion in the 200 IM, but she’ll have to contend with  fellow Pac-12 team member Ella Eastin of Stanford. Eastin, a junior, was runner-up to Baker this past season after winning the NCAA title herself in 2016. On Team USA, Cox and Margalis will be the ones to watch. Cox finished third in the 200m IM at Worlds this past summer and is a force to be reckoned with as well. And Margalis finished second in the event at the 2014 NCAA Championships and fourth in the 200m IM in Rio.

200 Freestyle: While Ledecky and Manuel are on the same team, this race gives us an opportunity to see both stars go head-to-head in the pool. Ledecky tied for the NCAA title in the event last year with Louisville’s Mallory Comerford, while Manuel finished third. Ledecky is the likely favorite, but don’t count out Manuel in a race that is sure to be dominated by this Stanford duet and the two brightest stars in American women’s swimming right now.

100 Freestyle: This is Manuel’s signature event and she will be the heavy favorite to take the title. But she will get some competition from a former teammate and a Pac-12 rival in the race. Neal is expected to take part in the 100 free, along Weitzeil. But this will all be about watching the Olympic gold medalist Manuel show everyone why she’s the best female sprinter in the world right now.

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