WEST LAFAYETTE – Cardboard cutouts of the faces of members of the women’s swimming and diving team were scattered throughout the Michigan cheering section during the second day of competition at the Big Ten Championships.
It was clear the Wolverine contingent was anxious to see a pair of Wolverines reclaim individual Big Ten titles at the Boiler Aquatic Center. Fifth-year senior Emily Brunemann captured the 500-yard freestyle event title in 2008 and senior Margaret Kelly earned a victory in the 200-yard individual medley in the same year. None of the fans were more nervous about the possibility of a repeat than Brunemann’s father, James, who stood yelling throughout the duration of the race.
But even her father’s efforts couldn’t help Brunemann to a Big Ten title.
After 300 yards, Brunemann held a slight lead over Minnesota’s Ashley Steenvoorden, until Steenvoorden pulled away in the final 50 yards. Brunemann touched the wall second (4:41.66), nearly two seconds behind Steenvoorden.
“I was really happy with it for where I am in my season right now,” Brunemann said. “I just rested for this meet, I didn’t fully taper. I was really happy that I dropped from this morning because, typically in the 500, I don’t having anything at night.”
But it was Brunemann’s teammate, Kelly, who made the biggest splash. She started the 200-yard individual medley and never looked backed. The senior finished first (1:56.01) and broke her own Big Ten record in the event. Freshman Mattie Kukors placed fifth in the event, giving Michigan an additional 14 points.
During the award ceremony, “The Victors” resonated throughout the aquatic center as Michigan assistant coach Stefanie Kerska handed Kelly her second career Big Ten title in the event. The two then exchanged a warm embrace, one that was probably a year overdue.
The moment came a year after Kelly swam the fastest preliminary time in the event at the conference championships, which the Wolverines hosted at Canham Natatorium. After the race, the senior suffered chest muscle spasms, which caused breathing problems. Kelly was a favorite to defend her Big Ten title.
“It was hard to watch last year,” Kelly said. “But I just stayed and cheered for my team. I knew I had another chance this year. To go in there and swim as fast as I could tonight, it was really special for me.”
The duo’s performances lifted the Wolverines to second place after seven events. No. 10 Minnesota currently leads all teams with 204.5 points, just nine ahead of No. 16 Michigan.
Michigan coach Jim Richardson was especially pleased with the performances his swimmers turned in Thursday despite training harder leading up to the event than in previous years.
“If someone had told (me) that (Brunemann) was going to be 4:41 with the amount of training we’ve been doing coming into this meet, I would have said, ‘I’ll take it,’ ” Richardson said. “We had a plan this year to train much harder going into Big Tens than we did two years ago.”
The evening’s events started with the 200-freestyle relay, where the Wolverines got off to a fast start. Kelly led the relay in a blistering 22.57 seconds for the first 50 yards, the fastest among the field. The team fell back into the middle of the pack until junior Natasha Moodie jumped into the pool for the anchor leg. Moodie sprinted the final 50 in 21.92 seconds to give the Wolverines runner-up honors.
Michigan will continue its search for its 15th Big Ten title and its first since 2004 this weekend.
“Ultimately you only have control over one thing, and that’s yourself,” Richardson said. “At the end of the day you can’t change anybody else’s performance. You can’t go in their lane and stop them from swimming fast. You just want to race with them and hopefully get your hand on the wall first.”