The 200-yard backstroke is an event that lacks the explosivity of shorter sprints, the intrigue of conquering long distance or the visual magnificence of diving. But at the McCorkle Aquatic Pavilion last Saturday, it was the battleground of the meet’s most defining moments.
The No. 3 Michigan women’s swim and dive team (5-0 overall, 3-0 Big Ten) continued a second-half resurgence which propelled it to a 165-135 win over No. 20 Ohio State (6-2, 1-1) thanks to a first-place finish in that event.
The No. 3 men’s team (5-1, 3-1), however, lost the 200-yard backstroke, snapping a streak of eight straight swimming events that concluded in victory for the Wolverines. It was a minor setback on the way to beating the No. 25 Buckeyes (4-3, 1-1), 190-110.
Senior Jacqui Shafer led a trio of Michigan swimmers in the top five, a point-grabbing performance critical to the Wolverines‘ narrow team triumph.
“It was pretty close at halftime, and so I think the whole team felt like it was hammer time, and time to get going,” Shafer said. “The first sprint after the break was the 100 free, and we won that, and it was great to continue that with the 200 back with (senior) Chloe (Hicks) and (freshman) Mariella (Venter) and (sophomore) Katie (Minnich).”
With just one dual meet standing between Michigan and the Big Ten, Shafer’s heroics bode well.
“It’s awesome to see that type of leadership from a senior captain,” associate head coach Rick Bishop said, “who just, as they say, grabs the bull by the horns and gets it done.”
The Wolverines managed a strong start to the meet, notching a second-and-a-half win in the opening 200-yard medley relay. Sophomore Maggie Macneil’s opening leg, the backstroke, gave the remainder of her quartet an advantage of nearly a second, a lead which her teammates continued to grow.
Macneil demonstrated her versatility during wins in the 100-yard backstroke, freestyle and butterfly, earning NCAA ‘B’ cuts in each. If she earns an ‘A’ cut or receives an invitation to compete at the NCAA championships, she will also be eligible to swim in events in which she owns a ‘B’ cut.
Sophomore Olivia Carter, just weeks removed from her transfer from Georgia, added a win in the 200-yard butterfly and was the runner-up to Macneil in the 100-butterfly.
“She’s a great teammate, and she’s embraced the culture of Michigan, she’s embraced the culture of the team,” Bishop said. “And it’s one of these things where obviously we’re better because of her performances in the pool, but we’re just better because she’s a great contributing athlete and a great Michigan woman, someone who’s fitting in right away.”
While the Wolverines may not have placed first in the men’s rendition of the 200-yard backstroke, sophomore Jared Daigle and senior Rob Zofchak filled out the other podium positions. It was a result indicative of a thorough team win over Ohio State.
A fat margin of victory was nearly a foregone conclusion given the team’s trust in junior freestyler Gus Borges.
“Gus is the anchor of our sprint crew,” associate head coach Josh White said. “Having great freestyle sprinters and great relays is such an important thing, an area we can improve upon from last year, (and) Gus is really the anchor behind that. We always know he’s going to step up and perform, and we can always count on him to get it done.”
Last Saturday, Borges was the anchor in more ways than one. In the 200-yard medley relay, the meet’s opening event, Borges sealed the Wolverines’ win with a 19.38 second freestyle split. He also won the 50-and 100-yard freestyles, earning NCAA ‘B’ cuts in each.
“My freshman year, I wasn’t that guy. I was watching Paul Powers be that guy, and I knew that if I wanted to be that person I would have to work really hard and develop,” Borges said. “So coming back to their pool two years later, and being able to be that guy that people rely on, to be on the relay and win sprints, I’m really excited that it gets to be me. It’s an honor, so I’m just happy to do it for the team.”
The Wolverines excelled in every other area Saturday. Michigan swept the podium in the 500-and 1000-yard freestyles, led by senior Felix Auböck and junior Ricardo Vargas, respectively.
“This is really a time when we’re focused on learning how to perform,” White said. “And we want to continue that push — performing under circumstances, whether they’re good or bad … and (refining) some of the details of performance, whether that’s the pacing of the swim, or the technique of it. Performance is rolling that in with also having that toughness and grit of putting your head down and getting your hand on the wall.”
In the 200-backstroke, only Shafer got her hand on the wall. As the calendar turns to February and the competition only grows in strength, every Wolverine will be trying to do the same.