How unexpected was sophomore Dan Madwed’s gold medal at this summer’s FINA World Swimming Championships?

So unexpected that he wasn’t even slated to compete in the event in which he won.

After finishing ninth in the world in the 400-meter freestyle at the meet in Rome, he was asked to swim in the preliminary race of the 800-meter freestyle relay to give extra rest to one of the athletes who would swim in the event’s championship.

“It was my first time on a big-time national relay and it was scary,” Madwed said. “I didn’t want to mess up, I didn’t want to false start or lose our lead and I had a lot more nerves going into that relay than going into my individual events.”

Madwed didn’t mess up.

In fact, he maintained the Americans’ lead in the race and swam less than a second slower than fellow relay teammate and Michigan alum Peter Vanderkaay, who owns gold medals in the event from three World Championship meets and the 2004 and 2008 Olympics.

Madwed would win a gold medal for his contribution to the relay as long as the Americans won in the championship finals later that day. Current Michigan volunteer coach emeritus and U.S. national coach Jon Urbanchek told Madwed that a gold medal was guaranteed for the Americans, but as he stood in the stands with his teammates to watch the finals, Madwed remained anxious. Even with Michael Phelps leading off, the Americans found themselves chasing the German team after the first leg.

“I thought Russia and a couple countries were looking pretty good,” Madwed recalled. “During the final laps, I started thinking maybe Jon was going to be wrong, but then Ryan (Lochte) stepped up. He’s an amazing racer and watching him bring it home for us was just a great feeling.”

Madwed said his accomplishments this summer kept him extra motivated to stay in shape at home before moving back to Ann Arbor to train for the collegiate season. Michigan coach Mike Bottom believes Madwed’s experiences competing against the world’s best swimmers overseas will help him be more mentally prepared to compete during the NCAA season. Madwed concurs.

“I had always thought of myself as a butterflier,” he said. “But since I qualified in the 400 freestyle, all of these doors have started to open up. It wasn’t until I was actually in the water at the World Championships and staying up there with guys I’ve read about winning gold and silver medals at the Olympics, when I definitely realized, ‘Wow, I can actually do this.’ ”

He may have just realized it, but it’s really no surprise. Madwed started swimming at 10 when his mother signed him up for the swim team to keep him busy during the summer. And it wasn’t long before he realized how good he really was.

At age 12, in Connecticut, he started breaking state records and qualifying for regional swim meets. Madwed said at that age, he didn’t care about records or qualifying times, but enjoyed racing. Without fully knowing it, he was already on a fast track to national and even international success.

At 15, he qualified for the 2004 U.S. Olympic Trials. He didn’t make the Olympic team, but the experience gave him a new perspective on the sport and helped him set new goals.

“I was really inexperienced going into the 2004 Olympic trials,” Madwed said. “I went out swimming as hard as I could and I just died. A while after, I started looking ahead to the 2008 Olympics. By 2006, I was third in the country in 200-meter butterfly and thought, maybe I could make this happen.”

There was only one problem— Madwed was running out of people who could challenge him in the pool. He was consistently beating everyone at practice and needed faster teammates to train with to take him to the next level. After talking with several coaches and some friends on a national junior team training trip, his search for better competition not only took him to a new team but a new state. Just before his senior year of high school, Madwed moved more than 200 miles away from his hometown of Stamford, Conn., to Maryland where he joined the North Baltimore Aquatic Club, Phelps’s home training club.

Madwed decided to come to Michigan after being recruited by then-Wolverine coach Bob Bowman, who had coached at North Baltimore before coming to Ann Arbor. After Madwed committed to the school, Bowman announced he was leaving Michigan to return to North Baltimore, but Madwed says Bowman’s resignation never affected his decision to become a Wolverine.

In order for his parents and younger brother to stay in their house in Stamford, Madwed’s grandparents offered to make the move south with him. His new teammates and coaches in Baltimore provided him a more competitive training environment.

“Everyone wanted to know who the kid was that moved his senior year of high school just to swim, so I made friends pretty quickly,” Madwed said. “Plus, it was pretty fun living with my grandparents. My grandma volunteers and my grandpa entertains at old-age homes. I know that’s ironic, but it was a good experience.”

His move to North Baltimore clearly paid off during his freshman year at Michigan, where he made his mark quickly. Madwed placed 12th at the NCAA Championships in the 200-yard freestyle, finished as a two-time individual Big Ten Champion and earned All-Big Ten first team honors. The engineering major puts in long hours training with the team and in the classroom. His coaches say he’s never satisfied and routinely looks for ways to get faster.

But Madwed isn’t just one of the hardest workers on the team, he’s one of the happiest.

“He’s got a great sense of humor. He enjoys himself while he does everything, and I think that’s a rare characteristic,” Michigan assistant coach Dr. Josh White said. “It’s really interesting to see how hard he works but he doesn’t carry a grudge about it.”

This season, Madwed says his goal is to help the Wolverines repeat as Big Ten Champions and finish in the top four at the NCAA Championships.

And if the summer taught us anything about him, it’s expect the unexpected.

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