For a senior class who came to a Michigan women’s swimming and diving program that didn’t even finish in the top 25 four years ago, this week’s NCAA Championships in Columbus was a fitting end to a gradual climb for greatness.
The Wolverines finished fourth in the meet with 267 points, a mark that represents Michigan’s third highest point total ever at the NCAA Championships. As a result, the Wolverines finished the season as the highest-ranked Big Ten team at the meet, a title Indiana has held each of the last three seasons.
As Michigan head coach Mike Bottom noted the senior class, most notably G Ryan, Clara Smiddy and Gabby Deloof, has helped him instill a culture that focuses on the swimmers as both individuals and as a unit, rather than being completely results oriented.
“It starts when you walk through the door,” Bottom said. “When you get out of bed, when you make decisions on what to eat, when you talk to your teammates, when you study. Scoring points for Michigan is a lot wider than just walking into Michigan, touching your hand to the wall and seeing what your place and score is.”
The secret there, though, is that the culture around the team breeds results too, without being 100-percent focused on it. Ryan and Smiddy placed on the podium for the 1,650-yard freestyle and the 200-yard backstroke, respectively.
“I definitely think that kind of culture is what we are trying to build here,” Smiddy said. “I wouldn't want to be at a school or a program that doesn't try to do that. In life, you can’t just get on alone, they have to support you all the way through. Michigan has taught me a lot to hold onto the experiences around me, and that starts with the people.”
Two noticeable beneficiaries of the senior class’ trickle-down effect are the Wolverines’ two freshman divers- Christy Cutshaw and Nikki Canale. They've been the best performers this season, and their experience at this early point of their career should help the two build on the culture laid in place by the seniors and coaching staff. Cutshaw herself finished 10th this weekend.
That’s not to say, that the road for the seniors to get to this point has been a simple ascent to a top-five team in the country. The road to this point has been long, especially for Smiddy.
Before this week, the captain had dealt with nagging knee injuries throughout her career. But through everything, she has remained a constant locker room presence for her fellow swimmers.
“She’s been through a lot of pain in order to stay on this team,” Bottom said. “Producing like she has as this point, for all that she’s been through is amazing. But more than that, she’s a leader, and she’s compassionate to every person around her.”
While being speedy in the water can help Michigan do well, it’s the little things like Smiddy's perserverance that give the Wolverines a chance to keep ascending to the top of the swimming and diving world.