Junior Peter Vanderkaay and senior Dan Ketchum teamed with
Michael Phelps to help the phenom earn one of his six gold medals
in the 800-meter freestyle relay. Both of the Wolverines returned
to Ann Arbor with Olympic hardware — and Phelps.

Julie Pannuto
Current Michigan student Peter Vanderkaay (left) celebrates with likely future Michigan student Michael Phelps (center) after the U.S. 800-meter freestyle team edged out the vaunted Australian squad.

The two Michigan swimmers went to Athens as part of a six-member
relay team steeped with Michigan connections. Phelps will follow
his coach, Bob Bowman, to Michigan this fall to train for the 2008
Olympic games in Beijing. Bowman was hired to replace the outgoing
Jon Urbanchek as coach of the men’s swimming team and both
served as assistant coaches on the U.S. Olympic swimming team.

Anchoring the final leg of the 800-meter relay team was Klete
Keller, a Club Wolverine member who served as a volunteer assistant
to the team and Vanderkaay’s training partner and mentor.

Going into the preliminaries, the coaches had already tabbed
Phelps — who needed as much rest as possible due to his
ambitious schedule — and Keller for the event final. This
meant that Vanderkaay and Ketchum would swim in the preliminary
round along with Ryan Lochte and Scott Goldblatt. At the same time,
all four would be competing for the last two spots in the
final.

The team competition worked out well for the group as the United
States finished first in its qualifying heat. However, the
individual competition for the final two spots was very close for
the Wolverines, as Vanderkaay finished his leg .01 seconds ahead of
Ketchum to take the last spot.

“It was hard,” Ketchum said. “After the
morning, initially, I thought it was going to be hard to watch the
night race and watch these four guys go. But when I got there I was
really excited and all that went away.”

The coaches had made the decision to base the last two spots on
the preliminaries, but it was hard to break the news.

“It was a very tough decision with Dan, one way or the
other,” Bowman said. “It went very well, and Dan came
back and really supported the team so I think that really speaks to
his character.”

With time to reflect, Ketchum has put that part of his Olympic
experience in proper perspective.

“A lot of times you bring four guys (for two spots)
because you just don’t know who is going to be on at that
meet,” Ketchum said. “It turned out that all four of us
were on; we all had our best relay times. When all four of us are
on, (Vanderkaay and Lochte) are the better guys. And it turned out
great for us. They went out there and did their job and won a gold
medal. I got one too, so it was pretty sweet.”

Even after qualifying for the final, the Americans were heavy
underdogs in the race. Ian Thorpe, the best 200-meter freestyle
swimmer ever, anchored the Australian team, and it was as if the
Australians had already been handed the gold before they even got
into the pool.

“We swam almost a textbook relay. It was exactly the way
the coaches wanted us to swim it,” Vanderkaay said. “We
owe a lot of the credit to the coaches because they came up with a
great strategy — leading off with Michael and getting ahead
of the Australians and maintaining that lead so that Klete could
have a chance against Ian (Thorpe) at the end.”

The strategy worked as Phelps gave the American team a
body-length lead after the first leg.

Lochte extended the lead in the second leg, as did Vanderkaay in
the third. Together they built the lead to one-and-a-half
body-lengths for Keller.

“What we wanted (Vanderkaay) to do was swim a race that
was evenly split with the second hundred meters the same as the
first,” Bowman said. “And he really did an excellent
job. Everybody did their job and swam the race the correct way, and
that’s what they had to do to win. They pretty much had to
swim a perfect relay to win and that’s what they
did.”

The American coaches had anticipated the race perfectly,
predicting correctly that it would come down to Keller holding off
Thorpe in the final leg. Thorpe was able to catch Keller quickly,
but was unable to stay with him for the last 100 meters. The result
of the team effort and excellent strategy could be considered the
biggest upset in the pool at these games.

“It was pretty exciting, and there were a lot of emotions
going around so it was easy to try and go out fast and just hold
on; but we swam smart,” Vanderkaay said. “We held
ourselves back a little so that we could finish hard, and I think
the Australians didn’t do that so well. I know that was a
factor for them. In that last leg, Ian caught Klete within the
first 25 meters, but he never really gained on him. I think he paid
the price for going out too hard.”

Winning the gold medal was the high point for Vanderkaay and
Ketchum, but they walked away with several new experiences that
they can bring back to Michigan.

“The Olympics were really special for me — being one
of my first international competitions and my first Olympics
Games,” Vanderkaay said. “I never thought I would even
make the Olympics let alone win a gold medal — so I was
thrilled after my race. Also, I had never been to Europe before, so
it was exciting to see everything there and travel around a bit. It
was totally awesome.”

“The overall experience was amazing,” Ketchum said.
“It was more than I expected it to be. I couldn’t put
it into words.”

One of the most anticipated issues heading into the Games was
security. With the threat of a terrorist attack, Athens had
enlisted more security measures than any Olympics before it.
Ketchum heard rumors of streets lined with police and a separate
athlete’s village for the Americans, but none turned out to
be true.

“I didn’t feel the presence of the security that
much,” Ketchum said. I thought it was going to be much worse.
I felt very safe, while at the same time there was plenty of
police, checks, metal detectors and all the works, but not so much
security that it was a hassle.”

Although they have come back to Ann Arbor with gold medals they
earned together, Vanderkaay and Ketchum are ready to set out on
different paths. Vanderkaay has two more years of swimming for
Michigan, while Ketchum has already finished his career as a
Wolverine. Ketchum has one semester of classes to finish and plans
on assisting with the team, possibly on through to the Big Ten and
NCAA championships. After graduating, he plans to pursue a career
in engineering.

As for Vanderkaay, he is focused on the upcoming season and
hopes to put his Olympic experience to good use.“I’ve
heard people say that they’ve had post-Olympic letdown when
they come back and it’s not the same,” Vanderkaay said.
“But it’s definitely not that for me. We have such an
exciting time ahead of us here at Michigan, and I’m just as
fired up to be here as I was on day one. I think that will show
throughout the season with what we accomplish.”

Vanderkaay isn’t ruling out another trip to the Olympics,
either, and that’s where Phelps comes in. Phelps will step in
as a volunteer assistant to fill the void left by Keller.

“Klete and I had a great relationship because we were
friends in and out of the pool,” Vanderkaay said. “We
had a good, healthy competitive relationship and I think it was
positive for both of us. We pushed each other at practice everyday.
Now that Klete is going to be out on the West Coast, and Michael is
coming in, I hope we can have the same relationship and push each
other to be the best.”

With Vanderkaay in the pool, and Ketchum and Phelps helping on
the deck, Bowman has a strong nucleus of people he is familiar with
that will make the coaching transition a little easier.

“They are going to be leaders on our team,” Bowman
said. “Having been around them and just getting to watch them
train, it really gives me a leg up when we get started to know
where they are and know the kind of things they are capable of
doing.”

Michigan should continue its strong tradition of excellence in
the pool with Vanderkaay leading the way. For him, Michigan was the
platform that started his rise in the swimming world.

“I’ve definitely taken off since I’ve gotten
(to Michigan),” Vanderkaay said. “I think a lot of that
credit goes to my coaches and teammates, because without those guys
there is no way I’d be where I am now. I’d like to give
a lot of credit to coach Urbanchek and other guys I’ve looked
up to that made the (Olympic) team too, like Tom Malchow, Chris
Thompson, Klete Keller and Dan Ketchum. To be a part of that is
something that I’m really proud of.”

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *