Daily Sports Writer
When Michigan swimming co-captain Jeff Hopwood emerged from the pool after the championship final heat of the 200-yard breaststroke, a huge smile was etched on his face.
Two hours later, that smile was still there.
“I can’t describe the feeling I have right now,” Hopwood said. “It’s everything we’ve been working for the whole year. It’s just the best feeling you could possibly have.”
While it is true that every victory, every point scored was essential to the Wolverines’ victory at the Big Ten Swimming and Diving Championships, there was one win that was just a little bit sweeter than the rest.
Hopwood is a three-time NCAA All-American in the 200-yard breaststroke. He was the Big Ten champion in the event as a freshman and runner-up last season.
This season, he has been fighting an uphill battle with a nagging injury that redshirted him his junior year. His best time so far this year was a little more than five seconds off his personal best time from the NCAA Championship last year, which in the world of swimming, is a lifetime.
So, despite his excellent performance in the preliminary round of competition, and his position as third seed going into finals, Hopwood was not necessarily expected to beat the two Golden Gophers seeded ahead of him. Or get an NCAA automatic qualifying time. Or set a Canham Natatorium record.
But he did.
Hopwood climbed out of the pool after his last race in Ann Arbor, having achieved what no one really believed would happen, but all would agree it’s an appropriate end to an inarguably phenomenal run in the Matt Mann pool. He cut about five seconds off of his season best time for a personal record of 1:56.31.
At practices this year, Hopwood and co-captain Heath Novak led the team in a brief cheer that summed up the team’s main objective for the season. The swimmers huddled up, put their hands in the middle of the circle and shouted “Redemption” in unison.
Although this was a reference to Michigan’s goal of bringing the Big Ten Championship trophy to Ann Arbor, after a two-year stay in Minnesota, it became a fitting allusion to Hopwood’s comeback.
“This was my last race ever at this pool, and that made the victory all the sweeter,” Hopwood said. “It caps an incredible comeback for me personally, and a great year for the team.”
Michigan coach Jon Urbanchek was pleased with the accomplishment of this intrepid athlete.
“I think the biggest pleasant surprise, other than obviously winning, was Jeff Hopwood,” he said. “He’s co-captain, and this was his last swim meet at Michigan. He is a fifth-year senior, and he went out and swam his best time.”
Next on the agenda for Hopwood is the NCAA Championships from March 27-29 in Austin, Texas, where he will pit his time against the best in the nation.
And no one will be surprised if he comes out smiling again.