COLUMBUS — Though its chances at winning a third straight title had long been dashed and a second-place finish was nearly in the books, when the final event ended at the Big Ten swimming and diving championships on Saturday, no team jumped higher, nor screamed louder than Michigan.
The Wolverines entered the last race of the day, the 400-yard freestyle relay, with a time over a second slower than Minnesota, the event’s top team.
Junior Tyler Clary, who was named the Swimmer of the Championships and Big Ten Swimmer of the Year on the final day, led off the relay for Michigan and had the fastest first 50-yards of any team. At the end of the first leg, the Golden Gophers had taken the lead and held it through the final length of the race.
Trailing by over half second when he jumped in, Michigan’s last swimmer, sophomore Dan Madwed erased Minnesota’s lead and was neck-and-neck with the Golden Gophers with less than 10 yards remaining in the race. The two teams splashed and dashed to the wall and when everyone turned to see the result, Madwed had won the race by 0.03 seconds.
“On my third length I was breathing to the side, I could see Minnesota and I thought, “I know I got this guy,’ ” Madwed said. “I was riding his wake, and when I touched the wall, I immediately knew I got him just because of the incredible applause. People were going crazy and when I saw the team, I just went nuts.”
But it was too little, too late for the Wolverines.
The excitement of relay finish was quickly subdued with the announcement of the final results of the four-day meet, hosted by Ohio State. The Buckeyes won the conference championship with 860.5 points, ending their own 54-year title drought and Michigan’s two-year rein as the Big Ten’s best on the same night. Michigan finished second with 715.5 points, while Minnesota was a distant third. And as the disappointed Wolverines walked back to their bus, the Buckeyes were the ones jumping and screaming, doing backflips off the diving board in their new Big Ten championship t-shirts and hats.
Most frustrating for the Wolverines was that the defeat came despite nearly ever swimmer posting times that were personal bests, or close to them.
“We swam well and they swam better,” Michigan coach Mike Bottom said. “I look at Ohio State’s guys, I look at the points, I look at the times our team had and we had a great meet.”
The meet began much like the way it ended for Michigan. During the first two days of competition, Michigan had four of the top-eight finishes in the 500-yard freestyle, and Clary defended his championship title in the 200-yard individual medley, with senior co-captain André Schultz and junior Neal Kennedy finishing second and third, respectively.
During that time the Wolverines also won the 200- and 400- yard medley relays and the 800-yard freestyle relay team of Madwed, Clary, Schultz and senior Charlie Houchin broke the pool and Big Ten championship meet records. Overall, Michigan won four of the five relays.
But despite their hot start in the swimming pool, the most glaring advantage Ohio State had over Michigan was in the diving well and the depth of its senior class, 14 in total. And though Michigan’s success in the swimming pool initially offset the Buckeye’s gains in diving, over the last two days of the meet, the Wolverines were forced to watch their lead slip away.
Ohio State had three divers score points while Michigan’s one diver was unable to break into the top-16 for scoring position. Ohio State scored 101 points in three diving events, accounting for a large percentage of the 145 points the Buckeye’s eventually beat Michigan with for the championship.
“I’m not making excuses, they have a great team, but I’m sure they had an opportunity to academically redshirt people to make sure they were going to be here,” Bottom said. “They have been shooting for this for years, this was no mistake.”
As usual, Clary provided several highlights for Michigan by winning all his individual events. His victory in the 400-yard individual medley and the 200-yard backstroke earned him the nickname “Charles Woodson” from Bottom for his versatility. On the final day, he was named the Swimmer of the Championships and Big Ten Swimmer of the Year. Madwed was the only other Wolverine to win multiple events, taking the 200-yard freestyle and butterfly.
Senior co-captain Chris Brady won the 100-yard butterfly while also swimming the fastest preliminary time in the 100-yard freestyle, but was forced to withdraw from the final session of the meet after suffering an irregular heartbeat that required a short hospital visit to correct. Though he did not swim, he returned to the pool deck to support his team and expects to resume training sometime this week.
But for all the success the Wolverines enjoyed, watching their archrival win the championship was something to learn from. Only the senior class had ever experienced losing the conference meet before. Just moments after accepting his awards, an emotional Clary stood with a focus and determined stare as the Buckeyes and their fans celebrated and walked off with the trophy that had belonged to Michigan since 2008.
“It’s hard to put into words,” he said. “I told every freshman not to take their eyes off of what was going on on that podium, because that was ours and we want to come back with a chip on our shoulders next year.”