It's not just another: Michigan wins fifth straight Big Ten title

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By Ted Janes, Daily Sports Writer
Published March 1, 2015

Senior captain Richard Funk corralled his men. A regime of championship-caliber swimmers had everything to lose. As the tense, quiet locker room waited to hear their leader’s orders before going out for battle on the last day, assistant coach Josh White stepped in.

“The prelims are the new finals,” White said. “Put it all on the line this morning.”

It was the dawn of the final day at the Big Ten Swimming and Diving Championships in Iowa City, and the Michigan men’s swimming and diving team held an 81-point lead over their nearest challenger, Ohio State, but the margin was too close for comfort.

After three long days, the title was just a few events away, but the fifth-ranked Wolverines (5-0 Big Ten, 9-0 overall) couldn’t let up.

All in all, the job got done. After senior Bruno Ortiz touched the wall in the 400-yard freestyle relay, the last race of the meet, an elated head coach Mike Bottom jumped into the pool alongside his staff to celebrate a fifth consecutive Big Ten Championship, a streak that began in 2011.

One of Michigan’s strongest components in the pool all season has been the relays, and it showed in Iowa, as the Wolverines won all five.

Wednesday, freshman Aaron Whitaker hurried off the block to begin the week for Michigan. Along with the help of Ortiz, junior Jeremy Raisky and freshman Paul Powers, the butterfly swimmer led the way for the team’s first victory in the 200-yard medley relay.

Later that night, a team comprised of the fastest Wolverine freestylers sprinted the 800-yard relay in a blistering 6:12.20, setting a pool record in the process.

“I waited two years to be on a relay,” said junior Dylan Bosch, who swam the closing leg of the 800-yard relay. “The first night was awesome, I mean, we won. Then I got a chance again, and being a part of that team in those two races, that’s a big highlight for me.”

Bosch alluded to the 400-yard medley relay where he, Whitaker, Funk and Ortiz claimed first in addition to setting a Big Ten Championships record.

The other two relays, the 200-yard freestyle and the 400-yard freestyle, capped off a perfect relay sweep.

***

Funk had been through this three times before.

Since 2012, the Canadian captain has been scooping up Big Ten rings. A winner of six different Big Ten Championship races coming into this meet, Funk had also been named to the All-Big Ten first team each year.

While Funk’s first-place results haven’t changed, his role has.

“As a freshman you come in and you’re kind of just trying to do whatever you can do for the team,” Funk said. “As a sophomore, there’s more expected of you. As a junior, even more. And finally as a senior, and a captain, there’s a lot of pressure on you. You have to lead the team emotionally, and you have to lead the team spiritually. When things aren’t going well, when you have an off morning, you have to know what to say to the guys. You can’t waiver in your team’s conditions.”

Despite a tiresome, exhausting three days leading up to the event, Funk powered through and gave a speech that proved to Bottom and his cohorts why this meet was different. It would be Funk’s fourth, but it would mean more than just another win in a long list of them.

“(Saturday) morning, when Richard gave a speech to the team right before the meet started, I could see that, even with the tears coming in through their eyes, the team understood what they were fighting for,” Bottom said. “We live for the ideals of Michigan, and those ideals came back to their roots in Richard’s speech.

“When I saw the look in that guy’s eye, I knew we were going to win it. There was a lot of fighting, a lot disappointment, victories and emotions, but when you get to the end of a fight like that, there’s also a lot more reward.”

Bottom wasn’t the only one to recognize the passion and drive Funk displayed throughout the weekend. At the awards ceremony after the meet, Funk was named a Sportsmanship Award honoree.

***

When it comes to sheer talent, Bosch and Ortiz shined above the rest. Bosch earned the Swimmer of the Championships award as a record setter and champion in five different events.

Ortiz brought in the highest number of gold medals over the four days by tallying six first-place finishes.

Bosch placed first in the 200-yard butterfly in a time of 1:40.75. Right behind him was freshman Evan White, who was named Big Ten Co-Freshman of the Year after a solid, consistent year behind Bosch.

Bosch also won the 200-yard individual medley, and White was right behind him, just as he was before.

The freshman impact was monumental for the Wolverines. Even with 12 new additions that had never swum in a Big Ten Championship before, youth and inexperience was never a worry for Bottom.

In fact, Bottom was so confident in Whitaker that he placed him in the 200-yard backstroke, an event he had not competed in all year. Michigan needed to get points on the board and couldn’t afford to opt out of the race.

“We needed to find another event for him,” Bottom said. “We needed inspiration and he needed to step up. Even though we didn’t win the event, (Whitaker) was the first swimmer in the water, and he took it great.”

***

The biggest threat to the Wolverines came from the eighth-ranked Buckeyes. In the diving well, where Michigan has struggled this season, Ohio State soared. With the opponent earning about 45 points for their team with each dive, Bottom had reason to worry that an 81-point margin going into the final day would not suffice.

“(Saturday), Ohio State was ready to win it,” Bottom said. “They were ready to catch us, and they came in with fire in their eyes, ready to take it. We knew we had to fight back.”

Fifth-year senior Thomas Jahnke had his best performance on the one-meter springboard, obtaining a score of 304.30, good for a 14th-place finish and a qualifying score for the NCAA Diving Championships. Senior Kevin Bain had his best outing on the platforms, taking 22nd place.

“(Ohio State) had some really good diving and our diving is on its way up,” Bosch said. “We’re not there yet, but we’ll be competing in the diving arena soon. We wanted to put a sense of urgency on (the swimmers). If we screwed up in some way, it could have been catastrophic.”

***

For some, five consecutive Big Ten titles could feel repetitive. For Bottom and the rest of the Wolverines, it was the opposite.

“As far as my emotions go as the head coach, this is one of the sweetest victories of my Big Ten career,” Bottom said. “Because of the way the team worked together, the way the team grew together from our coaching staff to our support staff and the captain’s leadership, it was a great victory.”

Belting out “The Victors” while treading water with his team, Bottom knew that it was because of the seniors that this championship felt so different.

This year’s senior class of Glanda, Funk and Ortiz has won the Big Ten Championship in each of its four years, and each one felt a little sweeter than the previous win.

Contributing to a legacy that included never losing a single regular-season dual meet over four years became second nature for the trio, and when it mattered most this weekend, they stepped up again to make sure all stayed in line.

***

Back in the locker room Saturday morning, Funk finally spoke, but the words weren’t his own.

“Swim with your heart and with your soul. Swim with the spirit of Michigan,” Funk said, transitioning into Fielding H. Yost’s famous retirement speech.

“But do let me reiterate the spirit of Michigan. It is based on a deathless loyalty to Michigan and all her ways. An enthusiasm that makes it second nature for Michigan men to spread the gospel of their university to the world’s distant outposts. And a conviction that nowhere is there a better university, in any way, than this Michigan of ours.”

He doubted that he even knew all the words, but in the heat of the moment, for just that one moment, exalting in camaraderie, Funk declared that this year, again, would be Michigan’s.