- Allison Farrand/Daily
By Max Bultman, Daily Sports Writer
Published March 25, 2014
Timothy Faerber is flying through the air.
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While the rest of the Michigan men’s swimming team goes to the locker room and ices its muscles, Faerber is still flying.
One rotation, a tuck, an extension, and then Faerber enters the water.
“Over! You’re over!” shouts diving coach KZ Li from the deck, letting the sophomore know he rotated a few degrees too many. Faerber bobs back up above the water, paddling to the wall and propping himself onto the deck. He nods his head at Li, and then turns to a reporter, sitting two chairs down.
“Is it OK if I do one more?” he asks, as if he’s bound by the reporter’s schedule and not the other way around.
Faerber gets back up on the board and does another. He over-rotates again.
“One more. I’m really sorry.”
This time, he hits it clean. His rotation is fluid and his splash is minimal.
Michigan coach Mike Bottom isn’t seeing any of this. He’s wrapped up in adjusting the strokes of the women swimming laps in the middle segment of the pool.
And that’s not all that surprising. Old habits die hard, and diving hasn’t been an integral part of the season for the second-ranked Wolverines. While their swimmers grace the covers of Swim World Magazine and dominate the conversation on online swimming forums, Faerber and the dive team fly under the radar.
But that won’t always be the case. Faerber’s making sure of that.
Ten days earlier, Faerber stood 10 meters above the water, at the same pool, preparing for his final dive at the Big Ten Championships.
For once, his whole team was watching.
With 32 feet of free fall between his feet and the water, the sophomore took a deep breath before jumping.
“I’m still scared,” Faerber said later, laughing at himself. “I guess I’d be less scared if I had never messed up. But I have.”
But he knows there’s only one way down, and that’s to jump.
Understanding the natural dangers of a 32-foot fall, Faerber clears his head and takes the plunge.
On this dive, he didn’t mess up. When Faerber hit the water, the home crowd erupted instantly.
That morning, Faerber had become the first Michigan diver in 11 years to make the finals in all three diving disciplines. And with that dive, he had just placed fourth in his second consecutive event, despite qualifying eighth at each height.
That was a feat Bottom couldn’t possibly miss. In his five-year tenure — which has included four Big Ten titles and a national championship — Bottom had never had a diver perform as well as Faerber.
A year earlier, no one could have seen this coming.
For Faerber, the journey to that moment on the 10-meter platform couldn’t have had many more obstacles.
On Oct. 25, 1994, Tim Faerber was dead.
At birth, he inhaled bodily acid, which was dissolving his lungs as his umbilical cord strangled him.
“Basically, I was born with buds for lungs,” Faerber said, as if he had said it a hundred times before.
Though he was clinically dead, doctors tied off his carotid artery and hooked him up to an experimental new machine in an attempt to circulate his blood. No one before him had ever survived the procedure without complications.
People had made it, but not without limitations.
It was a miracle that he lived at all, let alone that, seven years later, he began diving competitively.
It’s clear in the way Faerber speaks about his unusual birth that it hasn’t played a serious role in his identity. He’s thought about it, sure, just like he thinks about what could or could not happen every time he stands atop the 10-meter platform. But in no way does it define him.
Still, that didn’t stop him from trying to reconnect with the man who saved his life. The doctor who invented the experimental procedure — whose name Faerber doesn’t even remember — now works at the University of Michigan Hospital.
“When I came here for a recruiting trip, I actually sent him an e-mail,” Faerber said. “I thought he would be interested in talking to me, but he never responded. I still would love to talk with him.”
When Faerber arrived at Michigan in the fall of 2012, Li saw a completely different man than the one who wowed the entire pool deck at the Big Ten Championships.
“A lot of guys, when they get to university, they think it will be easy. They don’t want to work,” Li said. “They want to have fun.”
That attitude, Li thinks, worked its way into Faerber’s mind during his freshman year.
Coming in, he had just qualified for the Olympic Trials straight out of the junior national diving circuit.
At the time, though, he didn’t have enough confidence in two of his nine dives off the 10-meter platform, leading him to skip the trials.
He chose to miss the chance to compete against the nation’s top talent.
“It was the fear thing,” Faerber said. “I’ll regret (not going) for the rest of my life.”
Once he got to Ann Arbor, he learned, the hard way, the importance of correcting his attitude — including the type of mindset that led him to skip the trials.
He struggled to keep pace with tough engineering classes and missed a few early-morning practices. He didn’t immediately find his place on the team. He misjudged the level of competition he was up against in the pool and out of it.
“I forgot about the school part,” Faerber said. “It was not a good year for me in a lot of ways. I came in thinking (diving) was going to be easy like it was in juniors. And it wasn’t. There are people in college you’ve never heard of. I thought, having gone to all the national meets, I would have already heard of everyone.”
The Big Ten’s loaded field of divers overwhelmed the still-maturing Faerber, who finished 24th, 18th and 10th in the 1-meter, 3-meter and 10-meter, respectively, at the conference meet his freshman year.
Beyond that, physical exhaustion, coupled with a tough transition period in the College of Engineering, made Faerber’s first year at Michigan arduous.
“We offered him, a few times, the chance to stop,” Li said. “We told him ‘Hey, you’ve got a real life choice.’ And every time, he said ‘No. I want to keep doing it.’ ”
And even though he persevered, the results didn’t show up right away.
Despite an improved performance from the Big Ten Championships, Faerber failed to qualify for nationals.
His team won the NCAA Championship last season, while he sat at home watching.
Like the other challenges the sophomore has faced, a change in attitude helped overcome his struggles and put him onto the right track.
“Last year, I was just focused on trying to do well for myself,” Faerber said. “I think that was a big part of why I didn’t do so well. This year, I’ve become a lot closer with the rest of the team.”
The scene he faced at Big Tens was the embodiment of that. Not a single Michigan swimmer was looking away from their teammate on the platform.
“It was awesome,” Faerber said. “I’ve never experienced anything like that.”
The fact that he narrowly missed qualifying for NCAA Championships out of the nation’s toughest zone doesn’t change that he’s the best diver the Wolverines have had in 11 years.
He broke personal bests in the 1-meter and the 3-meter events. He broke the drought of diving success at Michigan. He grew up.
Halfway through his collegiate career, Faerber is in a great position.
Next year, Faerber will be one of three returning Big Ten divers to have qualified for finals in all three events. He projects to finish top five in each discipline, and could push the top three.
At the rate he’s progressing, diving will no longer be so readily discarded from the highlights of Michigan swim meets. In a conference with powerhouses like Purdue and Indiana, Faerber has the Wolverines on their way to notoriety in the diving well.
But he doesn’t do it because he needs to win the Big Ten or dive at Olympic trials — though he very well could do both. First and foremost, he loves diving and loves doing it well.
“It’s kind of all I know,” Faerber said. “I don’t remember not diving.”
Today, Faerber is in Ann Arbor, just like he was this time last year.
The rest of his team is in Austin, Texas fighting for a national title, just like last year.
But as far as comparisons go, that’s about as similar as the two seasons have been for Faerber.
While he hopes to move into the School of Kinesiology to study movement science, Faerber has worked through his kinks transitioning to the rigorous academic life.
Through his engineering classes, Faerber has learned a thing or two about exponential growth — enough to see it taking place within himself, at least.
“My studying’s better, my time management’s better, I wake up better. Everything is better,” he said.
With a better routine and better focus, Faerber has found even more time to devote to bettering himself as a diver.
“The other day, I was at the library, and I ended up watching the European prelims for, like, an hour and a half,” Faerber said. “Stuff no one would ever watch.”
While the Wolverines do their warm-up laps in Austin, Faerber will be in the pool at Canham — or maybe, in the air. He’s probably there right now.
“He can’t get away from diving,” Li said. “I can see it. He can’t quit if he tried.”
So he does one more.