With the competition fierce as ever at this year’s NCAA Championships, the Michigan women’s swimming and diving team had one goal going into the meet: to get better.
The performances that followed matched those expectations.
The Wolverines (6-1 overall, 2-1 Big Ten) competed Wednesday through Saturday at the National Championship in Atlanta, fighting through the grueling prelims/finals structure to finish seventh with 184.5 points. Even though the Wolverines finished sixth at last season’s NCAA Championships, they were still proud of the finish.
“We had to battle and overcome a lot of things,” Michigan coach Mike Bottom said. “Getting seventh was pretty exciting.”
The Wolverines came out firing from the very first event on Wednesday. The 200-yard medley relay team of senior Maggie MacNeil, freshman Letitia Sim, senior Olivia Carter and freshman Lindsay Flynn finished sixth with a time of 1:34.53, better than their No. 8 seed. The half senior, half freshman relay composition made for a special dynamic.
“We love our underclassmen,” Carter said. “They are phenomenal. They fought really hard and gave it their everything.”
Being a part of a powerhouse swimming and diving program such as Michigan can be daunting, but the seniors emphasized the inclusive atmosphere they promote. While the seniors bring experience, the underclassmen add crucial depth — which became prevalent during the relays.
“We brought three (underclassman) swimmers as relay alternates, not necessarily to swim on the relays but to be here to experience this, because there is no meet like it,” Bottom said.
But in the 800-yard freestyle relay that followed, the results did not trend in Michigan’s favor. The team of junior Megan Glass, sophomore Kathryn Ackerman, senior Victoria Kwan and Carter swam a time of 7:02.07 and placed 17th, narrowly missing out on scoring points. This positioned the Wolverines in 11th place overall after the first day of competition.
That left Michigan needing to make up some ground.
The 50-yard freestyle was the only individual event Thursday where the Wolverines made it to finals. Flynn and Sophomore Claire Newman — underclassmen who greatly contributed on relays throughout the meet — narrowly missed the scoring heats.
MacNeil came back for finals to swim a time of 21.38 and finish third. The senior was the first individual to score points for the Michigan team loaded with underclassmen.
“Only the very tip of the iceberg is going to score points,” Bottom said. “It was a great learning experience for a young team.”
Flynn and Newman bounced back during the 200-yard freestyle relay, where the team of Flynn, MacNeil, Newman and Carter rounded out the day with a seventh place finish and time of 1:27.04. Thursday’s extra effort paid off; the Wolverines moved up two places to sit at ninth overall.
Michigan’s senior strength shined through during the 100-yard butterfly with both Carter and MacNeil advancing to finals. MacNeil, who won gold for the 100-yard butterfly at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, swam a time of 49.18 to place third. With a ninth place finish, Carter won the consolation final with a time of 50.82.
“I’m happy with the best time,” Carter said. “But I wanted to go a little bit faster, so it still gives me room to improve.”
Carter’s mentality and dedication began to trickle down to the underclassmen. In the 100-yard breaststroke final, Sim improved her 16th place finish in prelims to get tenth with a best time of 58.34. The 400-yard medley relay team of MacNeil, Sim, Carter, and Flynn finished the session strong with a time of 3:27.20 for fifth place. Despite the impressive performances from the seniors and a standout freshman on Friday, the Wolverines were still ninth overall with one day left to compete.
In one final push, the Wolverines attacked the last session with determination. Sim just missed the B final with an 18th place finish in the 200-yard breaststroke.
And junior Lucy Hogan finished the diving in 24th place with 251.10 points for the platform dive. Her place was the Wolverines’ strongest diving performance, providing hope for next season.
In the 100-yard freestyle consolation final, MacNeil placed tenth with a time of 47.42 and Flynn swam a time of 47.67 to finish 11th. Competing in the same finals heat as MacNeil provides Flynn with a mentorship that is second to none.
For her final event of the meet, Carter raced the 200-yard butterfly to a thrilling tie for second place with Tokyo Olympian Regan Smith. She swam a best time of 1:51.19 and improved on her fourth place finish in prelims. Despite the successful swim, Carter was not fully satisfied.
“I can go to sleep tonight feeling okay about it but still wake up in the morning with a lot more fire,” Carter said.
The 400-yard freestyle relay team of Flynn, Newman, MacNeil and Carter concluded the national championships, placing fourth with a time of 3:09.95. The solid final day races moved Michigan up two spots into seventh place overall to conclude the 2021-2022 season. With another NCAA Championship completed, the Wolverines are already looking forward to next season, and the seniors have ensured their teammates are ready to step up.
“I hope that we can do the same thing we did this year,” Bottom said. “If we can crack into the top five, that would be even better.”
After a national championship performance that exceeded expectations, the Wolverines remain hungry for next season, and after the seniors helped the freshmen through the ups and downs, they have the potential to reach new goals.