Let’s be honest: Northwestern men’s swimming and diving did not have a good 2022-23 season.
The Wildcats scored zero points at the 2023 NCAA Championships and had been on track to finish in last place at Big Tens until the final four events of the meet pushed them ahead of Penn State for seventh place. At Big Tens, they also placed last in four out of five relay competitions. After the season ended, Ben Miller, the Northwestern swimmer closest to scoring at NCAAs, opted not to take a fifth year.
However, the biggest news coming out of the team was the departure of arguably the most internationally well-known athlete on campus: reigning Olympic bronze medalist Federico Burdisso, who abruptly entered the transfer portal and left the program midway through his senior season.
In addition, Katie Robinson, the team’s head coach for the last three seasons, left Evanston to take a job as Stanford’s associate head coach. In her place will be Rachel-Stratton Mills, who used to be an associate head coach for a Bob Bowman-led (former head coach of Michael Phelps) Arizona State team.
Despite their misfortunes, the Wildcats can still be considered a rising team. Even after almost finishing last in the Big Ten, the team’s class of 2027 is arguably the best domestic swim recruiting class in the conference.
2022-23 Season Reflection
While Jasmine Nocentini stole the show on the women’s side, the men’s side of NU S&D was relatively quiet. The first few meets played out in expected fashion—a win against mid-major UIC, a bad loss against a ranked Michigan squad and a third-place finish behind Purdue and Louisville at the Purdue Invitational Nobody posted any eye-popping times, but there was nothing to be concerned with either. Well, until the Burdisso news dropped.
Burdisso, the first active Northwestern student to win an Olympic medal in over 50 years, appeared in the transfer portal around December 2022, according to SwimSwam.com. He told SwimSwam that he “couldn’t remain in a program that was falling apart and had no leadership.”
“I would like to keep my options open. I am no longer part of Northwestern and will not be racing for them at Big Tens, NCAAs, or any other meet for that matter,” Burdisso said. “I just want to shine some light on the issue and hopefully the athletic department will make the changes the team needs.”
Meanwhile, a representative from the Northwestern athletic department issued this statement regarding Burdisso:
“Federico Burdisso is no longer a competitive member of the Wildcats swimming and diving team, but maintains the full support of the department in the final stretch of his pursuit of a Northwestern degree. Our staff remains focused on our student-athletes who continue to invest each day in the foundation of a culture built on respect, inclusion and excellence.”
At the time, Burdisso said he was unsure of whether he’d compete in college again (he has one more year of eligibility). As of September 2023, he is not listed on any NCAA roster.
Two months later, the Wildcats competed at Big Tens, where they scored 618 points—41 points ahead of last-place finishers Penn State. Leading the team in individual points were Tyler Lu (42 points), Ben Miller (39), Marcus Mok (37), and Tonahauc Zinn (34). Miller and Kevin Houseman recorded the Wildcats’ highest finishes of the meet, with Miller placing fourth in the 200-yard butterfly (1:41.43), and Houseman getting the same result in the 100 breaststroke (51.90).
The ‘Cats qualified two swimmers, Miller and Houseman, for the 2023 NCAA Championships. Houseman finished 28th in the 100 breast (52.23), while Miller finished 18th in the 200 fly (1:42.35) and 40th in the 100 fly (46.98), just missing scoring in the former event.
Key Additions/Athletes To Watch
Considering that two-time defending Big Ten Champions Indiana will get Tunisia’s Ahmed Hafnaoui, a literal World Champion and Olympic gold medalist, on its roster this season (in addition to other top international recruits and divers), it’s safe to say that they have hands-down the best recruiting class in the conference. However, when it comes to domestic recruiting classes in the United States, Northwestern comes on top.
The additions of Cade Duncan, Diego Nosack and Aaron Baltaytis to the Wildcats’ squad are big ones, as all three swimmers have times that are faster than any other returning swimmer on their team. In addition, all three swimmers were mentioned in SwimSwam’s class of 2023 rankings, with Duncan being ranked No. 18, Nosack being named an “honorable mention”, and Baltaytis being named a “best of the rest” recruit. Notably, no other Big Ten team had three or more recruits mentioned on this list (Indiana was the only other school with a top 20 recruit), which only accounts for U.S.-based swimmers.
Duncan, who specializes in sprint freestyle, holds personal best times in the 50 free (19.59), 100 free (42.85) and 200 free (1:36.36) that are faster than any other swimmer at Northwestern, as well as a 100 fly time (47.15) faster than everyone but Baltaytis. In fact, he’s closing in on Olympic gold medalist Matt Grevers’ (who is arguably the greatest Northwestern swimmer of all time) team record times of 19.35 and 42.33 from 2005 and 2007 respectively. Also, in the 100 free, Duncan is ranked third amongst all incoming freshmen in the United States.
While Duncan is closing in on team records, Nosack won’t even need to see improvement to take down a team record. His best time of 3:44.56 in the 400 individual medley is faster than NCAA Champion Mike Alexanderov’s 3:45.57 team record time of 3:45.57, while his 200 fly (1:44.61) and 200 IM (1:45.56) times are faster than anyone on the Northwestern roster except for Zinn’s.
Baltaytis is a versatile swimmer who can help contribute to the team in butterfly, backstroke, and freestyle. His best times in the 100 fly (46.81) and 100 back (46.78) make him the fastest swimmer on the team in both events, but he’ll likely be swimming butterfly on relays to fill the void that Miller left after he opted not to take a fifth year. Baltaytis also has decent times in the 50 (20.26) and 100 free (43.93), with his 100 free time being faster than any other swimmer on the team except for Duncan.
Another interesting freshman prospect is Stuart Seymour, who would be one of the team’s top swimmers in the 100 back (47.77), 200 back (1:45.92) and 100 fly (47.62). Although he’s not as fast as fellow sprinter classmates Baltaytis and Duncan, he will provide the team with much-needed backstroke and butterfly depth that it didn’t really have last year.
Incoming recruits might provide prowess in backstroke, freestyle, butterfly, and IM, but what they don’t have is a breaststroker. There’s no need to worry about that, as Houseman is coming back for a fifth year.
Houseman, a member of the 2021-22 U.S. National Team, was a 2022 second-team All-American in the 100 breaststroke back. He’s also the only swimmer on Northwestern’s roster who has ever scored points at NCAAs, finishing 10th in the 100 breast in 2022. In 2023, he was a second off his best and finished 18th in the same event, but his personal best of 51.23 from 2022 Big Tens would have been 11th. His experience on the big stage will be vital for a team dominated by younger swimmers, and it would be a big boost if he returned to NCAA scoring territory.
With three-time 100-breast Big Ten and NCAA Champion Max McHugh of Minnesota graduating, it’s fair to say the title race at 2024 Big Tens will be wide-open and Houseman has a shot at winning. While Indiana junior Josh Matheny, who is coming off of a massive streak of momentum from making the 2023 U.S. World Championships team, is the prohibitive favorite, it’s worth noting that Houseman’s personal best is just 0.24 seconds slower than Matheny’s, meaning that he very well has a shot at upsetting the Hoosier. This is significant, as the Northwestern men have not won a Big Ten championship race since 2015.
Lu, last season’s leading scorer at Big Tens, comes into his junior season in an interesting situation. He’s still by far the team’s best backstroker and one of a handful of returning swimmers capable of finishing among the top eight in the Big Ten, with his personal best of 1:41.79 from 2022 being just over a second off the 2023 NCAA invite time of 1:40.62 (that being said, his 2022-23 season-best was 1:42.83). He should also remain the team’s backstroker on medley relays with Baltaytis swimming butterfly, but there’s a chance that he could be replaced by Seymour if the freshman beats his best 100 back time (47.33).
Zinn will also continue to be a big contributor on a conference level. Zinn, who had a successful freshman campaign last season from setting personal best times in all his primary events, remains the team’s top swimmer in the 200 fly (1:44.46), as well as the second-fastest swimmer in the 200 IM (1:45.59) and 400 IM (3:49.29).
“New” will be the word defining the Northwestern men’s swimming and diving team this upcoming season. Most of the team’s top swimmers are freshmen inexperienced with the NCAA season format, and they will be led by a new head coaching staff. This makes the Wildcats’ 2023-24 season trajectory an unpredictable one—especially considering how erratic the development of male college-aged swimmers can be.
This season, it will not be the results that matter, but the improvements. Just hitting personal best times this season would be a great start. It is rare for a school that finished seventh in the Big Ten to have the best domestic recruiting class in the conference (with only the two-time defending champions gaining better recruits internationally), so the Wildcats must take advantage of this opportunity.
That being said, if Northwestern’s freshmen develop, the Wildcats could be in for a much better season than last. Sprinters like Baltaytis, Duncan and Seymour will be a big boost to NU relays—if the Wildcats can put together relay times that qualify for NCAAs (which did not happen last season), swimmers will be able to gain NCAA Championships experience even without making it individually.
Houseman is one swimmer who should be expected to qualify for NCAAs individually and maybe even score, but the freshmen could get there with big drops in time (which are very common in a swimmer’s freshman season).
NU is capable of a fifth-place finish—two spots better than last season. Even if none of the freshmen improve, top names like Duncan, Nosack, Baltaytis and Seymour should all be capable of scoring at least 40-50 points (and this doesn’t even include how much they will help Northwestern relays), which should account for the 167-point gap that fifth-place Minnesota had over the Wildcats.
This season will be an experimental one for the men’s team, but Northwestern is graced with lots of potential.
Both the Northwestern men and women begin their season on Oct. 13 in an away meet against Cincinnati.