Of the 16 events in a women’s collegiate swim meet, 14 of them are individual races. Swimming isn’t a team-oriented sport. It’s up to each swimmer to pull her own weight.
But what about those other two events, the relays? How do four individuals come together for a race and win?
On the surface, it seems like there is a simple formula to create a successful relay, but it goes far beyond that. No swimmer is ever competing at the same time as another in a relay. Often, the swimmer can never hear any actual words of encouragement, just some muffled noise.
But Michigan women’s swim and dive coach Mike Bottom has figured out part of the formula. This year he put senior Angie Chokran, sophomores Ali DeLoof and Zoe Mattingly and freshman Julia Fiks Salem together to make a powerhouse relay.
“We just take the fastest of what we got,” Bottom said. “We’re putting together a team that came from pretty much nowhere. And relays are the first place where you can start to make an impact.”
This season, Michigan has figured out the perfect mix of swimmers. And this season the 200-medley relay is driving the Wolverines’ success.
First leg of the race: Backstroke
DeLoof appears quiet, calm, cool and collected at first. When she speaks, she speaks with an extensive knowledge of swimming.
So far this season, DeLoof has broken five pool records and been named Big Ten Swimmer of the Week three times. Her most important contribution, though, is what she’s doing in the 200-medley relay.
“Ali performs at such a high level and doesn’t ever let anything get in her way as far as getting nervous,” Chokran said.
Added Fiks Salem: “Ali’s just pure talent. Every time (she’s) on the block, you know she’s going to touch first.”
With DeLoof leading off, the team has placed in the top five in all but one of Michigan’s meets so far this season. Of those eight meets, the 200-medley relay team has finished first in five of them.
The relay has a shot to compete at the National Championship with a ‘B’ time, but the women are working towards making themselves a lock with an ‘A’ time. Getting an ‘A’ time means that they’ll automatically qualify for the National Championship, while a ‘B’ time isn’t a guaranteed invite.
Second leg: Breaststroke
Chokran is the leader of this relay team, but not necessarily because of her age. The lone senior takes charge both in and out of the pool. Not only is she one of Michigan’s captains, but she also makes sure every silence is filled, whether it’s cheering during a meet or encouraging teammates during practice. Chokran’s been a part of the 200-medley relay since her freshman year and uses that experience to help out her underclassmen counterparts.
“She’s kind of like our guiding force,” Mattingly said. “She’s been around the block and done all of these things a lot more times than we have. So she sets the tone for being the leader.”
Aside from the relay, Chokran dominates in the individual breaststroke events. At the Winter National Championships, she finished sixth in the 100-yard breaststroke and eighth in the 200-yard breaststroke. But these accolades don’t quite compare to what she accomplishes while swimming the second leg of the medley relay.
This race serves as a major catalyst for the Wolverines. Not only do their consistent first-place finishes gain points for the team, but it’s also the first event in every meet, setting the tone for the rest of the meet. Which makes Chokran’s presence all the more important.
“I think this is an excellent way to start off the meet for our team,” Chokran said. “We’re representing our team. We’re not representing each of these individuals. This is about Michigan, and to be able to start it off for everyone that’s on the side of the pool … it gives me chills.”
Third leg: Butterfly
Mattingly has a commanding presence when she walks in a room. She’s loud, she’s funny and her smile is contagious. Whether she’s talking or not, Mattingly is hard to ignore.
“Zoe is very emotional,” Bottom said. “When things are great, she’s really pumped. When things are hard, she takes them personally. She is a good catalyst to the team because when things aren’t good, she really motivates herself and everyone else around her to go for it.”
Mattingly especially encourages her relay teammates, sometimes right before they leave the block.
“She has this sarcastic hilariousness that makes me laugh behind the blocks when normally, if I’m behind there for an individual event, it’s not always likely that I’ll be laughing,” Chokran said. “When I’m back there with Zoe, I know I’ll be having fun.”
Not only does it take four different strokes to comprise a relay, but also four different personalities as unique as the strokes themselves. Michigan has done just that and created a magical combination. The 200-medley relay was able to put the team back into this individual sport, and not just for the four swimming it, but for everyone cheering on the side of the pool.
“One of the things coach has stressed to us a lot with this relay in particular is afterwards, if we win, he wants Julia and the rest of us to just point at the team because this relay is for the team,” Mattingly said.
Fourth leg: Freestyle
Then there’s Fiks Salem — the anchor. Out of the pool the Brazilian is quiet, but in the pool, she’s feisty and dangerous — the final exclamation point to this dynamic team. She seals the deal.
“Julia’s the lone freshman,” Mattingly said. “But honestly, she doesn’t really act like it. She swims the freestyle … so she has a lot of pressure on her, but she handles it so well.”
Added Chokran: “She is one of the fastest learners I’ve ever met.”
Unlike in the other three strokes, Michigan isn’t the strongest when it comes to freestyle sprinters. Yet Fiks Salem is able to get her hand on the wall first in the 200-medley relay.
For Michigan, this relay is just a sample of what the team truly is. Not only does it showcase some of the Wolverines’ talent, but it’s also an example of the team’s overall chemistry.
“I think we’re unstoppable,” Chorkan said. “To have the chemistry that we have between the four of us, and then take it and put it in our performance, it sets the tone for the entire meet. Even when everyone’s tired, they can look at our relay and see how our chemistry has set the tone for the rest of the events.”