The Michigan swimming and diving team — on both the men’s and the women’s side — has a long and rich tradition of training swimmers to compete not only as a Wolverine on the collegiate level, but also at the highest level in the world: the Olympics.
Eighty-seven swimmers have gone on to the Olympics from the University of Michigan from 1900 to now. On Friday night at Canham Natatorium, former Olympians Peter Vanderkaay, Chris Thompson, Charlie Houchin, John Piersma, Sean Ryan, Melinda Harrison, Ginny Fuldner and Mike McWha returned to the pool where they swam as students and were recognized mid-meet for their exemplary accomplishments.
For Michigan coach Mike Bottom, it was a touching tribute to that inspired his swimmers.
“It gives us an idea,” he said, “of where some of these student-athletes are gonna go.”
The most decorated Olympian in attendance was Vanderkaay, a 2006 graduate. Vanderkaay won gold medals in the 4×200-meter freestyle relay in both 2004 and 2008. He also won a bronze medal in the 200-meter freestyle in 2008 and a bronze medal in the 400-meter freestyle in 2012.
“(Being back) brings back a lot of great memories,” Vanderkaay said, “I’d say most of them are from training. The bond with my teammates is what I remember the most… I talk to my classmates probably every day. We have a group chat.”
Also honored Friday night was John Piersma, who competed as part of the United States Olympic team in Atlanta in 1996. Piersma, who attended Michigan from 1993-96, spoke with a fondness in his voice as he thought back to his time as a student.
“The pool is the same, even coming back twenty years later it’s still a welcome place to come,” Piersma said. “… Great memories.”
As the seniors were also being honored that night, the past and the present were being celebrated together in a way that, of course, brought to light thoughts of the future for the swimmers competing in the pool that day.
“We always tell everybody that not everybody on the team is gonna make the Olympics, but everybody on the team is gonna help somebody make the Olympics,” Bottom said. “All of them can claim a little piece of that as a team.
“…You can bet that there are gonna be Olympians in Tokyo. We’re gonna have five or six of these individuals in the Olympics.”
It’s hard to ignore the clock counting down to the Tokyo Olympics as it stands on the wall of the natatorium. The Olympic rings are displayed on the wall on the other side of the block 'M' near the back of Canham. For many athletes that competed Friday, the Olympics are on their minds.
As the swimming and diving team made a point of celebrating the seniors leaving the program and the Olympians who left the program long ago, a sense of tradition was evident throughout the natatorium.