Before the last day of the meet began, the Michigan men’s swimming team gathered together as it always has. Team meetings weren’t uncommon, but after three days of adversity and underwhelming results, there was more weight to this one.
Instead of sulking in the negativity that came easily following a 17th-place result after the third day, the Wolverines chose to focus on something else — better days. The players took turns going around and talking about their two best moments from the year.
“I think everyone realized how tough we had practiced,” said junior Felix Auböck. “And how fast we had gone all year, and we can’t be really confident in our performance, and we just have to let our expectations go and focus on the present.”
With clearer minds and down-to-earth expectations, Michigan turned around its performance on the final day, jumping four spots to end the NCAA Championships in 13th place.
“It was definitely a difficult race since the results of the previous days didn’t go down as we expected,” Auböck said. “So in the last day, I think the team brought it around really well.”
Auböck was a large contributor to the Wolverines’ change in fortune. Previously, the junior missed winning the 1,650-yard freestyle by seconds. He spent the last two years finishing as the runner-up each time. This year, he looked to change that.
His path to first had more obstacles than just in the water, however. One of the restaurants the team had gone to left a bad taste in the players’ mouths — and stomach. Auböck was one of the multiple swimmers affected by food poisoning. Despite not being in peak condition, he took to the water.
“What a great swim by Felix,” said Michigan coach Mike Bottom. “Again, he overcame at the beginning of the meet, that we seemed to run into at one of the local restaurants, but he came through it and he won in flying colors which is pretty amazing.”
Auböck finished with a time of 14:23.09, a second from breaking the NCAA record for the 1,650-yard freestyle. He did so by playing it smart. A lot of the competitors in the lanes across from him shared similar personal records, and so he gameplanned around that.
For roughly the first 500 yards, he wanted to be within striking distance relative to the other swimmers. After he judged his position there, he took off, getting inspiration from his preliminary runs.
“I knew I had to stay with the pack the first third of the race,” Auböck said. “And then after, I do my own thing.”
Another swimmer to add to Michigan’s short list of achievements from the weekend was Miles Smachlo.
Smachlo sat out for six months of the season due to surgery on his legs. He couldn’t even practice until just before the Big Ten Championships at the beginning of March. With less than a month to return to form, Smachlo made the most of his opportunities.
“Just amazing to see Miles getting third (place),” Auböck said. “He then gets thrown into NCAA, and that was just amazing, I think that was a big turnaround for us during the meet.”
On a day that little went right — day three — one of the highlights was Smachlo’s 100-yard butterfly. Finishing third with a time of 44.84, he tried to rally the Wolverines to not give in after a disappointing day.
“Again, he battled, he battled back from surgery, he got the coolest scars on deck on his legs, but he looks mean anyways when he stands up,” Bottom said. “And that’s an exciting place to be and to do it for the team when we needed a turnaround last night, and if you look at the video on the race, how he tried to put all the swim back onto the team and really encouraged them to keep moving forward.”
Juniors Charlie Swanson and Tommy Cope added to Michigan’s stronger performance Saturday, placing 10th and 11th, respectively, in the 200-yard breaststroke. Cope narrowly missed the cutoff for the finals with a time of 1:52.91, a mere .01 seconds off qualifying. Sophomore Richard Vargas added to the three All-American finishes the Wolverines had, finishing fourth in the 500-yard freestyle with a time of 4:12.21.
“We started not that well at all,” Auböck said. “We definitely wanted to be somewhere else after the first two days, but then like this meet is a four-day meet so we need to go there and give us enough opportunity to score. And I think everybody took those opportunities those last two days and we turned it around, and I think we ended up with a pretty decent result.”