SportsMonday Column: Mike Bottom's ever-growing empire
Tuesday afternoon, one day before his women’s swimming and diving team won the Big Ten Championships in its home pool, Michigan coach Mike Bottom stood on the pool deck at Canham Natatorium, watching over his empire.
Right in front of him were the qualifiers for the Big Ten meet, and the ‘B’-level qualifiers for the NCAA Championships who didn’t make the Big Ten meet. On one wall, a clock counted down until this summer’s Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, and on the other side of the pool, Club Wolverine — the Olympic hopefuls training at Canham in preparation for this summer — swam alongside the current Wolverines.
“And this is just the men’s side,” Bottom said. “And then we have the women’s side of things ready to go here.”
Bottom and his swimming dynasty are well-established. Three years ago, his men’s team reached the peak of college swimming, winning the national championship. The previous summer, he coached in his fifth Olympics, putting him among the greatest swimming coaches in the world.
That year was the culmination of his previous journey. It was also the first year of his next one.
In the 2012-13 season, Bottom took over the women’s program in addition to the men’s. That year, while the men won the national title, the women were an afterthought, finishing 36th. There, Bottom found himself in an unfamiliar position.
“It wasn’t easy,” Bottom said Tuesday. “It wasn’t easy for me, and it wasn’t easy for the rest of the coaching staff. … Every time, our gut aches, just like everybody aches when you don’t do what you want to do as a team. But that’s OK. That’s sport.”
Coaching both teams also meant twice the work, twice the time commitment and twice the number of athletes. It’s a testament to Bottom’s methods that the men’s team won the national title in the first year he led both programs. The biggest challenge now, according to Bottom, is finding time with his three daughters, ages 10, 9 and 5.
Four years ago, he was already the successful head coach of a thriving men’s program. So why did he add the women’s program to his schedule? What, after five Olympics and a national championship, did he have left to prove?
“I don’t think I have anything to prove, right?” Bottom said. “I think at this point in my life, I’ve done what I’ve done. So I don’t feel like I need to prove (anything), but I feel like it’s an opportunity.”
The Big Ten title Michigan won at Canham Natatorium on Saturday seemed like a long shot four years ago. The year before Bottom took over the women’s program, the Wolverines finished eighth in the Big Ten and hadn’t won the conference since 2004.
Bottom believed the pieces were in place to reach that level again, but he had to bring the team to believe that it could do it. That wasn’t easy, though. After the meet Saturday, senior Ali DeLoof, whose first year was also Bottom’s, admitted she never thought she’d make it.
“Twenty hours a week in this pool, it hasn’t been easy,” DeLoof said. “It’s been a process. It’s tough to keep your head up sometimes, but you’ve got the girls motivating you every day, and I’m going to miss that.”
The Wolverines made incremental improvements every year, from 36th to 30th to 22nd at the NCAA Championships, from sixth to fifth to third in the Big Ten. As Bottom’s methods paid off, his swimmers bought in more and more each year.
But the last step was the toughest. As Bottom spoke Tuesday, Indiana entered Canham Natatorium. He ran the scores before the meet and wasn’t sure his team could beat the Hoosiers. Neither was his wife.
“She said, ‘Mike, you’re going to lose by 100 points,’ ” Bottom said Saturday. “I go, ‘Come on, sweetie, you gotta help me out here! Give me some confidence!’ ”
Going into Saturday, the fourth and final day of the championships, Michigan led Indiana by 45.5 points. Still, Bottom thought the Hoosiers could catch his team if things went wrong.
Saturday morning, in the 200-yard backstroke, Marie Georger beat her seed time by 4.56 seconds to sneak into the ‘B’ finals, where she’d earn at least 11 points. In the 200-yard butterfly, Astrid Swensen did the same. It was then that Bottom knew his team could pull it off.
Senior captain Sarah Kamstra said the Wolverines went into the finals saying it was still 0-0. They did it to make sure they still fought until the end, but maybe it was also because they had never won before. Bottom spent four years building up all the belief he could in his team, but maybe just a hint of doubt remained until the victory was secure.
Around 8 p.m., with an hour still left in the meet, that moment came. Indiana had no divers left, and even if the Hoosiers won the final event — the 400-yard freestyle relay — and Michigan was disqualified, the Wolverines would still win.
Then Michigan won the relay by two seconds anyway.
So the final moments of the meet weren’t a conclusion as much as they were a coronation. The Wolverines stood on the pool deck as the conference handed out the relay awards, and then the individual awards, and then the other 12 team awards, one by one.
They wore shirts that read, “Those who stay will be champions,” because they all stayed, and they were champions. When the moment came, they ran up to the podium, giddily cheering and singing and dancing. They threw on their Big Ten Championship hats and shirts and posed for a photo. And then they dove in the pool.
“There (were) tears, and there was laughter,” Kamstra said. “And that was just something I’ll hold with me forever.”
Bottom dove in, too, just as he always does when his team wins a championship. Before he did, though, he spoke for a moment with associate coach Rick Bishop. He told Bishop to look at their swimmers’ faces.
“This has been a four-year process,” Bottom said. “Now, they can understand they’re champions. Not that they weren’t champions before this, but this solidifies it. And I said, ‘This will change their lives. They’ll have this moment in their lives forever.’ ”
That moment was what Bottom dreamed about when he took over the women’s program, no matter when it came, no matter how far it took to get there. Tuesday, on the cusp of that milestone, he was asked if he ever thought twice about it, about the early struggles or the long hours or the drain of the journey.
Just then, his 5-year-old daughter ran up to him on the pool deck and jumped into his arms, watching the swimmers along with him as he beamed with pride.
“Maybe, in a few years, I need to do something different,” he said. “But right now, the thrill of seeing these women get better, climb the ladder of success in their own lives … I get to be a part of that. That’s a thrill. That’s a thrill you can’t buy.”