On Thursday night, two relatively unknown freshmen from the No. 7 Michigan men’s swimming and diving team received All-American honors on the first night of competition at the NCAA Swimming and Diving Championships in Minneapolis.
On Friday, one of the freshmen went toe-to-toe with the nation’s best swimmers in the 400-yard individual medley final, looking to run the streak of wins in that event to five for the Wolverines.
On Saturday, Michigan’s senior leader swam in the final relay of his collegiate swimming career, looking for an elusive All-American honor that had been his goal for the past four years.
For the first time since 2004, there were no individual or team relay national champions for the Wolverines this weekend. But with solid swims across the three days of the championships, the team finished ninth in the nation — marking the 11th-consecutive top-10 finish for the program.
“We’re pretty happy with how our guys did this weekend,” Michigan coach Mike Bottom said Saturday night. “Our goal coming in was a top-10 finish and being the number one Big Ten finisher … and we accomplished both of those.”
Sean Ryan and Kyle Whitaker — Michigan’s two freshmen swimmers — started off the championship meet on Thursday with top-10 finishes in the 500-yard freestyle and 200-yard individual medley, respectively. The performances ensured point-scoring swims at NCAAs and All-American status for the Wolverines, a rare feat for rookie swimmers.
“(Garnering an All-American honor) has been a goal for me since I started swimming here,” Whitaker said. “I looked to help the team anyway I could, swim for top-10 finishes, and just compete.”
Whitaker continued his strong NCAA performance on Friday in the 400-yard individual medley, an event the Wolverines dominated over the past four championships.
For the first 300 yards, Whitaker and a University of North Carolina swimmer were in a battle for first before Georgia’s Bill Cregar made his move in the far lane, narrowly edging out Whitaker in the last 100 yards.
“I just didn’t see (Cregar) coming down,” Whitaker said. “I’m happy with the swim and getting national runner-up, so we’ll definitely work from there going into next season.”
Having won four straight 400 IM events in a row, one could expect a small level of disappointment in the second-place result. But for this Michigan team, Whitaker’s national runner-up performance was everything the Wolverines could’ve asked for.
“Having a freshman get national runner-up is huge,” Bottom said. “Kyle showed us stuff at Big Tens, worked hard training for NCAAs and got a great result out of it. We’re pretty excited with the result.”
Junior Dan Madwed made Michigan’s second day that much better with a third-place finish in the 100-yard butterfly, earning him a trip to the podium and an All-American honor. On Saturday, Madwed finished off his stellar junior campaign with a sixth-place finish — and an All-American honor — in the 200-yard butterfly. It was Madwed’s second All-America in the 200-yard fly, as he placed fifth in the event at the 2010 championships.
Saturday was also the final chance for senior captain Neal Kennedy to receive an All-American honor in his collegiate career. And in the 400-yard freestyle relay — the final event of the championships — his teammates didn’t let him down.
“I told (Madwed) that we didn’t have to push the start and we would still be top-Big Ten team at the meet,” Bottom said after the race. “But he said, ‘No, I want to get (the All-America) for Neal.’ That’s the kind of team we had this year.”
With this being Kennedy’s final meet of his collegiate career, the honor was special. The way he started the season made the honor that much more meaningful.
“This season didn’t really start off the way I thought it would with the injuries and all, but as it progressed, it really got better and better,” Kennedy said. “I just thanked (Madwed, and sophomores Sean Fletcher and Miguel Ortiz) after the race for helping me get (the All-American honor). What I’m feeling right now is indescribable.”
Having lost Tyler Clary, one of Michigan’s winningest individual swimmers, and a strong senior class, the team could be content with its performance. But the key word for Bottom and the Wolverines is “could.”
“No one is satisfied, no one is content, but we are okay … with the step,” Bottom said. “It’s a step we had to take. (This season) was an incredibly fast rebuilding year. We are rebuilt and we are ready to go again.”