COLUMBUS – A 66-length race couldn’t have been any closer.
After the first 500 yards of the 1,650-yard freestyle, Michigan junior Emily Brunemann led North Carolina’s Whitney Sprague by two-hundredths of a second. After jumping off the blocks, Brunemann held a narrow lead and looked determined to cap off an undefeated season in the mile and earn her first national title at the NCAA Swimming and Diving Championships.
Swimming stroke-for-stroke, the two top milers in the country gave the crowded McCorkle Aquatic Pavilion a horserace. Sprague edged Brunemann after the 500-yard mark, but with a tight flip turn at 800 yards, Brunemann took a lead she never relinquished.
Brunemann touched the wall (15:53:69) more than four seconds ahead of Sprague to claim her first-career national title. She is the first Wolverine ever to win a distance national title and the first since 1995.
“It’s what I’ve worked for all year, and it’s been my main goal,” Brunemann said. “It came down to gut, and it’s always good to have someone there to race and especially Whitney because I’ve raced against her so many times. She’s such a great competitor.”
After pumping her fist in celebration and smiling from ear to ear, Brunemann reached over the lane divider to congratulate Sprague. The two embraced as Brunemann gave Sprague a tap on her Tar Heel-blue swim cap.
“She is everything that you want in a national champion,” Michigan coach Jim Richardson said. “Incredible work ethic, and she brings her best everyday in the pool and out of the pool.”
With the win, Brunemann picked up her third All-American accolade of the three-day Championships.
Her performances were central to No. 11 Michigan’s ninth-place team finish. The Wolverines compiled 130 points with Arizona (484) winning the meet.
The Championships featured fast times across the board for the Wolverines.
Sophomore Margaret Kelly picked up All-American honors with her seventh-place finish in the 200-yard individual medley. She recorded the second-fastest event time (1:57.27) in Michigan history, missing her own record by less than half a second. The extremely tight and fast final narrowly missed the NCAA record by .03 seconds and just over two seconds separated second and eighth place.
Fifth-year senior Melissa Jaeger joined Kelly in the consolation 100-yard butterfly. Jaeger and Kelly dominated the race, finishing first and fourth in the heat and ninth and 13th overall.
“I couldn’t have been happier with that race,” Jaeger said. “I was just so glad that Margaret was in that heat with me. That makes things so much easier, when you have a teammate next to you.”
In her first and last NCAA Championships, Jaeger claimed six honorable mention All-American honors. As a transfer student, Jaeger wasn’t allowed to compete until this season, but her performance was well worth the wait. She swam solidly in her two individual events and four relays.
The Wolverines’ ninth-place showing marks their second top-ten finish since 1999. At the beginning of the season, Michigan was not considered a top contender. Depth was a question, but the Wolverines found the answers as the season progressed.
After finishing second at the Big Ten Championships last month, Michigan led all Big Ten squads in the final team standings.
“We weren’t really focusing on (the team finish), we were focusing on swimming well,” Richardson said. “That was the byproduct.”