As Olivia Carter stood on the podium being recognized for her victory, her teammates emptied out of the stands, rushing up to shower her with hugs. The sophomore hadn’t just won the 200-yard butterfly, she’d set a new Big Ten record. Michigan swimmers had placed first, second and fifth in the event, claiming the three best times in program history.
They did all this after they’d already lost the meet.
The No. 5 Michigan women’s swimming and diving team came into the Big Ten Championships as the prohibitive favorite. But something happened no swim team can prepare for — No. 19 Ohio State had the meet of its life to take the Big Ten title with 1503.5 points, as the Wolverines finished second with 1306.5 points in Iowa City this weekend.
For the second year in a row, Michigan went undefeated in dual meets, ascended through the rankings and came into the championships as the team to beat.
For the second year in a row, a team the Wolverines had previously beaten pulled off the upset.
But shortly after the meet concluded, Michigan coach Mike Bottom was upbeat. He has the benefit of hindsight: Last year’s team that lost at Big Tens ended up finishing third at NCAA Championships, avenging its conference loss to Indiana.
This year’s team scored more points at Big Tens than that one. And more importantly, it finished strong, winning three individual championships on the last day, including Carter’s record-setting performance and the final event of the meet — the 400-yard freestyle relay.
“The truth is, Ohio State had won the meet by (Saturday) morning. They had won it, we knew it, and the way we handled that situation was pretty amazing,” Bottom said. “It showed the strength of our team. No one let down. No one let down.
“We had if not the best day of our meet, it was close. And winning that last relay just showed the class of that team. They didn’t let down. So even though the goal … was to win, and the disappointment was there, even the last day the team swam their heart out.”
Overall, the Wolverines won eight individual championships. Sophomore Maggie MacNeil was named Swimmer of the Championships with victories in the 100-yard butterfly as well as the 50- and 100-yard freestyle — the latter of which set a Big Ten record. She was also on all three winning relay teams: the 200-yard and 400-yard freestyle relays and the 200-yard medley relay. Fifth-year senior Miranda Tucker rounded out the conference titles with her victory in the 100-yard breaststroke.
Meanwhile, Kaitlynn Sims was named Big Ten Freshman of the Year after finishing third in the mile and fourth in the 500-yard freestyle.
When asked what he saw from his title-winners, Bottom had two words: “Fast swimming.”
In diving, a historical weakness, Michigan had the third-highest score overall. After a disappointing finish in diving last year, the Wolverines changed their training plan to be more challenging and held goal conferences where they discussed the mental aspect of the sport. From there, a contingent of upperclassmen was able to lead the way thanks to prior experience at Big Tens.
Junior Nikki Canale stepped up as a leader. Her composure and aggressiveness on the springboard after struggling at this meet in years past injected confidence into the rest of the team. Canale highlighted Michigan’s diving results with a fourth-place finish in the 3-meter springboard and sixth in the 1-meter springboard.
“Finishing this meet, it was exciting and shows that Michigan diving is up and coming and we’ve always been up and coming but they really proved it this meet,” diving coach Mike Hilde said. “So it’s just excitement. … I’m very proud of them and I think that as a team overall, it just shows that Michigan is a swimming and diving team, not just a swimming team.”
In addition to its eight victories, the Wolverines landed five swimmers on the All-Big Ten first team and three on the second team as well as earning 12 career bests, 10 automatic NCAA qualifiers and two Big Ten records.
Objectively, it was a good meet for Michigan. But this is a team that strives for a conference title every year, and once again the Wolverines walked away without meeting their ultimate goal.
“We’re pretty proud of this team even though we did not win the championship,” Bottom said. “And that stings a little bit. We were hoping for that and we were gunning for that and we did not reach it, so that stings, but we lost to a great team.”