In late August, first-year Michigan men’s swimming and diving coach Mike Bottom sat in his new office next to the pool deck at Canham Natatorium, staring at the three team co-captains. He and assistant coach Josh White were meeting with them for the first time.
The three seniors also sat quietly, looking around and even wiggling a bit in their chairs. They had discussed among themselves what they were going to say, but didn’t seem to want to say it.
Finally, Bobby Savulich spoke up.
“Coach,” he said, looking Bottom in the eyes, “we just want you to know that we don’t swim for any coach.”
Bottom had been hired over the summer to replace former coach Bob Bowman, who left the program shortly before the Beijing Olympics.
“I was thinking, ‘Well, it’s a good thing, because your other coach just left,’ ” Bottom joked, remembering the meeting.
But the message Savulich was sending their new coaching staff wasn’t a joke, and Bottom was glad to hear his captains had the right attitude.
“They were saying to me that they don’t swim for me or for Josh,” Bottom said. “They swim for Michigan and for the Blue and that’s why they’re here. That was the beginning of the meeting and we went on from there, but both Josh and my reaction was, ‘That’s awesome.’ ”
The meeting sums up what Savulich and his co-captains, Jamie Martone and Matt Patton, are all about. All three say they are honored to be captains and feel an incredible responsibility to uphold the team’s traditions and build on its history of success.
The captains may have been blunt with Bottom during their first meeting, but he says that since then, all of them are sensitive individuals who never lead their team with a “thumping.”
When speaking about their responsibilities as captains, Martone, Patton and Savulich are practical, organized and thorough. But while they take their work as captains seriously, they don’t always take themselves seriously. Just ask them about their different leadership styles.
“I don’t really say much,” Patton said. “I’m probably the one that talks the least.”
“I probably talk way too much,” Martone added.
“I probably just scare them,” Savulich said, laughing.
The truth is, there’s no need for the captains to be yelling and screaming at their teammates. They’ve been working hard to unite the team since long before this season even started.
Last April, when Bowman announced he was leaving the program in July to take another position at a club in Maryland, he split the team into groups and allowed only the top members of the men’s collegiate team to continue training with him over the summer. Those chosen swam with Club Wolverine to prepare for the U.S. Olympic Trials. The captains for this season had already been selected, but a new coach had yet to be hired. Martone said dividing up the team created a very “individualized atmosphere” and along with the support of former Michigan coaches Jon Urbanchek and Fernando Canales, it became the captains’ burden to keep everyone focused.
“Bob put a lot of pressure on us, not purposefully, when he split up the men’s team over the summer and said, ‘You can train with me and you can’t train with me,’” Patton said. “So the hardest time for us as captains was over the summer when everyone was doing their own thing and we had to keep the team focused and moving in one direction.”
One of the biggest responsibilities the captains have is helping to recruit. Deciding what visiting recruits will do on their trip and selling the Michigan program are part of their duties. In their last season at Michigan, convincing the hottest rising swimming stars to come to Ann Arbor next year may not directly benefit Martone, Patton and Savulich. But recognizing that winning the NCAA title is an unlikely end to their collegiate careers, they take great pride in creating what they call the “bridge to a national championship”, which will be the foundation for a championship team to build off in the future.
It’s this future-focused thinking from Michigan captains that has helped make the program a perennial swimming powerhouse. Because the program has such rich tradition, the captains are quick to pay tribute to the leaders that have helped shape the program before them. All three men say they feel honored to have their names join the company of former Michigan captains like Davis Tarwater, Chris DeJong and Alex and Peter Vanderkaay.
“I remember one time something was going wrong on the team,” Martone said. “And Alex Vanderkaay just said, ‘Guys, I’m not going to be your friend right now. You need to stop messing up or I’m going to call you out on it.’ And no one wants to step on anyone’s toes or be Mr. Dad, but it has to be done and Al knew when it had to be done and there were no hard feelings afterward about how he handled it.”
Patton said Alex has, “the best leadership personality of anyone I’ve ever met.” But it was Tarwater who taught him the most about being a good teammate.
“Every road meet, I roomed with Davis,” Patton said. “And he pretty much put my head on straight and taught me a lot of things. I was a cocky little freshman and he showed me what it’s like to act a Michigan man.”
Just like the captains before them, Martone, Patton and Savulich are all doing their part to be that bridge to a national championship. This is their final season at Michigan, and though their own futures after graduation are somewhat uncertain, one thing is clear: these captains will continue to be part of Michigan swimming.
“Look at the past captains,” Savulich said. And look indeed. Peter and Alex Vanderkaay still swim with the team, Chris DeJong still helps at practices and Davis Tarwater checks in with a phone call about once a week. “I hope in three and four years from now, we’re still on deck doing something.”