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Most years, the Michigan swim and dive team enters the Big Ten Championship as frontrunners. This year, they will enter the meets with a new and unfamiliar distinction: underdogs.

Usually, Michigan coach Mike Bottom asks the Wolverines to give more than their best. This year, he knows that’s not a reasonable request.

“We’re chasing,” Bottom said. “And the truth is, it’s a lot more fun to chase.”

Michigan’s two-week athletics pause halted the team’s preparations. In the heat of the season, the Wolverines could only watch as other teams swam past them in the standings.

Normally when Michigan enters the postseason, the roles are reversed. It doesn’t have to compete from behind. It’s seen as a sort of guaranteed contender. In the world of COVID-19, however, guarantees don’t exist.

While they would like to be seen as contenders, the Wolverines aren’t discouraged by their underdog status. Their goals didn’t change when the pause was lifted, as athletes prepared for the meets with intensity.

“People are throwing down some really great times in practice,” senior distance swimmer Sierra Schmidt said. “We’re really excited to see how that’s going to translate to the meet.”

However, the casualties of the pause extend past what Michigan can compensate for. The Wolverines lost a key scouting opportunity when they were forced to cancel their dual meets with Ohio State.

Almost every indication labels the Buckeyes as one of the favorites in this year’s men and women’s championship meets. Returning 216 freshman points from last year’s men’s team and defending a women’s championship, the No. 21 men and No. 23 women look the part of a squad that could go all the way.

Alongside Ohio State, the No. 8 Indiana men enter the postseason undefeated. The No. 21 women only lost to Michigan in the first meet of the season.

It seems like the Wolverines will need to bring more than their A-game to end the two-team narrative. While they’re underdogs, they still believe they can make a splash and catch the rest of the Big Ten by surprise.

An unexpected path to get there arose from threats to the season. These served as a reality check for many athletes.

“We’re spending the same amount of time in the pool as we do in normal years, but at the same time, we’re taking so much more advantage of it,” senior freestyler Gus Borges said. “Guys have been getting there the earliest that I’ve ever seen in my four years.”

Energy could make the difference in close races. Scoring could also benefit the Wolverines. With points awarded to the top-25 finishers, Michigan can utilize its depth to make the events a three-school affair.

The Wolverines aren’t just a deep team, though. They’ve also got top talent. Junior swimmer Maggie MacNeil has earned 14 All-America honors, while Schmidt holds the nation’s fastest mile time heading into the meet.

Taking advantage of strengths could also help the Wolverines climb the standings. The women’s team dominated freestyles all season, while the men were lights-out in relays. Repeating that success despite the hurdles in their way will help Michigan make its run.

The narrative of an Ohio State-Indiana showdown doesn’t discourage the Wolverines. Its difficulty seems to have placed a chip on their shoulder. That mentality could also be encouraged by unpredictable first-year performances.

“I think there’s going to be a lot of surprises, not just from Michigan but for everyone,” Schmidt said. “I’m actually really excited to see who are the surprises, because I think that’s one of the exciting parts of being in the sport that we’re in.”

Just because the season proved to be far tougher than anyone could have predicted, the Wolverines don’t look the part of a discouraged team ready to quit. Whether the rest of the Big Ten is ready for them or not, they will be at those championships and have an opportunity to do some damage. 

They may be underdogs, but Michigan still has plenty of bite.

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