Scoreboards can’t tell stories. And although a third place finish (43 points behind first-place Penn State) at the Big Ten Championships may seem ho-hum for the women’s swimming and diving team, it really is a tale of triumph for a team that has overcome a myriad of obstacles.
The four-day meet in Columbus was littered with new records, personal bests and NCAA qualifying times for the 22nd-ranked Wolverines.
Michigan’s brightest star, junior Katilyn Brady, was named the 2006 Big Ten Conference Swimmer of the Year after notching three individual and two relay wins. Brady set conference and school records in the 50-yard freestyle and 100-yard butterfly and also claimed first in the 200-yard backstroke, 400-yard medley and 200-yard freestyle relays.
“I was just happy I was able to lead and help out the team the best I could,” Brady said. “Everyone’s happy with how the team finished.”
Going into the final day of competition, the Wolverines were just two points behind the first-place Nittany Lions. By the end of the day, Michigan’s 509 points fell short of Minnesota’s 536.5 and Penn State’s 552.
“We knew that the first and second days would be really strong days for us,” Michigan coach Jim Richardson said. “But we only have two distance swimmers. Our lack of distance swimmers in the program has really hurt us. The ones we have did very well, but there’s no doubt that when you looked at the events, on the last day we were going to be in somewhat of a disadvantage. We knew that going in.”
The absence of distance swimmers stems from one of the many adversities the team has had to face this season. In January, junior distance swimmer Susan Gilliam’s father passed away. Gilliam then left the team to be with her mother.
“Losing one of the top distance swimmers in the United States was a difficult thing, but in no way did it compare to the loss of her father,” Richardson said. “That hit all of us hard.”
In that same month, former Michigan swimmer and assistant men’s coach Eric Namesnik died from injuries sustained in a serious car accident – a loss that struck a chord with every Michigan swimmer and coach.
“For about two weeks there, we just kind of put one foot in front of the other,” Richardson said. “A lot of the excitement and the anticipation and the focus were lost there. But I think in the long run, it caused all of us to reevaluate our priorities and to value the opportunities we do have while we’re here. I think that they’ve matured in so many ways as a result of those things this year.”
That maturity shone in the success of the Wolverine relay teams at the Big Ten Championships. After a second-place finish in the 200-yard medley relay (senior Carolina Sierra, sophomore Valeria Silva, Brady and senior Abby Seskevics) the first day of competition, things got even better. On day two of the meet, the 200-yard freestyle relay team (Brady, freshman Hannah Smith, junior Lindsey Smith and Seskevics) set a Big Ten record with its first-place time of 1:30.02.
Seeded third overall, the 400-yard medley relay (Brady, sophomore Justine Mueller, freshman Payton Johnson and Lindsey Smith) team also exceeded expectations by taking first with a time of 3:38.45.
“Those four got up there and just decided they were going to win it,” Richardson said. “Our little freshman, Payton Johnson, just swam a lights-out leg of the race. That was exciting.”
The 400-yard freestyle relay (Brady, Hannah Smith, Seskevics and Lindsey Smith) – the last relay of the meet – left Michigan wishing for a longer pool. Lindsey Smith’s comeback effort in the final stretch of the race came up .81 seconds short, leaving the Wolverines with a second- place finish.
“We almost came from behind on that thing,” Richardson said. “If it had been five yards longer, we would have won it. We may have been the best overall relay team there.”
While the Wolverines are third in the Big Ten, they are shooting for top-10 in the NCAA. With up to nine swimmers participating in the NCAA Championships in March, Michigan’s hopes are high.
“It has been a tough season in a lot of ways, physically and emotionally,” Brady said. “I think that in the end, everyone really stepped up at Big Tens and performed well through everything we’ve had to deal with. We’re really focusing on doing well at NCAAs this year, and so far we’ve got a good group of girls going.”