The No. 7 Michigan men’s swimming and diving team knew that its chances of winning the Big Ten Championships last weekend were slim to none, but that didn’t stop it from setting high expectations and keeping its eye on the prize.
And after placing a lackluster third at the meet, the Wolverines left Bloomington dissatisfied and feeling the aches and pains of the growing process.
“It’s always a disappointment not to win,” Michigan coach Bob Bowman said. “I think we could have done a little better, but we weren’t the favorites. We performed; not at our best, but we performed.”
The host, No. 11 Indiana, claimed the conference title at the Counsilman-Billingsley Aquatic Center with 760.5 points, its first since 1985. No. 9 Minnesota was runner-up with 652 points. Bowman indicated that both teams had an advantage over Michigan with their impressive depth and number of high-scoring divers.
“Indiana deserved the win,” Bowman said. “And Minnesota, while deeper than us, got more out of their freshmen than we were able to get. Our freshmen needed to step up for this meet, and I don’t think they really performed at the level where we needed them to.”
Prior to the championships, Bowman placed high expectations on his 10 freshmen. They were expected to carry the bulk of the meet and the dream of a conference title. Unfortunately, with a sub-par performance – just three claimed top-10 performances in individual events – the Wolverines were forced to realize that they were in the midst of some growing pains.
“I think (the meet) was an eye opener for (the freshmen),” senior co-captain Peter Vanderkaay said. “It’s hard to walk into the Big Ten Championships for the first time and do well. I think the meet will be part of their learning process.”
The freshmen may have faltered, but the upperclassmen exhibited their resilience with seven first-place individual finishes.
Vanderkaay led the team with three individual titles over the three-day-long meet.
On day one, the senior garnered the 500-yard freestyle title – his fourth consecutive – with a pool-record time of 4:13.02. Vanderkaay and Indiana’s Sergiy Fesenko pulled away from the pack early, and, by lap 10 in the 20-lap event, the swimmers had a solid three-second lead on the rest of their competitors. With only three laps to go, Vanderkaay made a move and hit the wall with two body lengths between them.
Vanderkaay went on to take the 200-yard freestyle in the second day with senior co-captain Chris DeJong close behind in second place.
With his final win in the 1,650-yard freestyle – his third consecutive title in the event – Vanderkaay became the first Big Ten swimmer to win all three events at the meet since Iowa’s Artur Wojdat in 1990.
Vanderkaay’s impressive performance earned him his third Big Ten Swimmer of the Year Award.
“I think winning the award was such an honor for him,” Bowman said. “It was a testament to his work ethic and his drive to win.”
The oldest Vanderkaay brother may have walked away the most decorated, but his younger brother, sophomore Alex Vanderkaay, had the breakout performance of the team.
After finishing a close second to Minnesota’s Adam Mitchell in the 200-yard individual medley on the first day, Alex mentally prepared himself to beat the defending Big Ten champion the next day in the 400-yard individual medley.
“I’m a little stronger in the 400-yard individual medley than the 200,” Alex said. “So I felt pretty confident going up against Mitchell for the second time.”
At the start of the race, Alex and Mitchell pulled away from the pack and kept within hundredths of a second of each other throughout the entire event. With just four laps of freestyle remaining, Alex knew he had to make a move.
“Going into the final 100 yards, I felt pretty strong,” Alex said. “But I didn’t realize the race was that close.”
Alex hit the wall .05 seconds ahead of Mitchell and earned his first Big Ten individual title of his career.
“When I looked up at the scoreboard and saw that I won, I was thrilled,” Alex said. “I didn’t really go into the race planning on winning, so getting the title was pretty exciting. It’s still sinking in for me.”
Peter said that he was extremely proud of his brother.
“I was ecstatic when I saw that he won,” Vanderkaay said. “He swam a great race. It was close the whole way through, and he brought it home in the last part of the race. It was pretty special to have him win that event.”
Other titles were won by senior co-captain Davis Tarwater in the 200-yard butterfly and DeJong in the 200-yard backstroke. The wins for both swimmers marked their third consecutive victories in the events.
“Our captains did what we hoped they would,” Bowman said. “They led by example.”
Even though the Wolverines didn’t perform at the level they hoped for, the team has three weeks remaining to train and make improvements for the NCAA Championships in Atlanta.