ATHENS, Ga. – This was not how Tim Siciliano envisioned the end of his 400-yard individual medley career. As the finalists were introduced at the NCAA Swimming and Diving Championships Friday night, the Michigan senior – and three time defending champion – swam slow, deliberate laps in the cool-down pool.

Paul Wong
Tom Siciliano, three-time defending NCAA champion in the 400 IM, failed to qualify to win his fourth. (PATRICK JONES/Daily)

He had failed to qualify for a chance to become the second swimmer to win four consecutive 400 IM titles. And to make matters worse, he had just finished eighth out of eight competitors in the consolation race.

Siciliano swam in the second-to-last preliminary heat that morning, and he knew immediately that his title hopes were in trouble. He ended up in ninth place, .13 seconds short of the finals.

“Right when I touched the wall I looked up, and I was third (in my heat) with a (3:47.43), and I knew it wasn’t a very good time at all. I was really disappointed with that,” Siciliano said.

The consolation final that evening was the one that mystified him, though. Siciliano’s 3:51.63 was five seconds slower than his Big Ten Championships pace, and he looked sluggish and out of sync as he finished 16th overall.

“I was like, ‘Wow (Virginia’s Christopher Greenwood in the next lane) must be going really fast,'” Siciliano said. “And then I touched the wall and I was like ‘He wasn’t going that fast, I was just going really slow.’ I was just like ‘Are you serious? That’s my time?'”

With a strong field in front of him and a tough season behind him, Siciliano knew coming into the meet that he might surrender his title this season. But he certainly expected to be fighting for it in the final heat.

“Sometimes when you get in the water, you just don’t have it,” he said. “I don’t know what happened, I wasn’t ready for that race I guess. My body wasn’t ready for it or something.”

Teammate Garrett Mangieri suggested that the extra pressure of trying to join an elite list of swimmers with four national championships could have gotten into Siciliano’s head, but Michigan coach Jon Urbanchek said it all came down to Siciliano’s physical condition.

“He was not capable of defending his title – he just didn’t have the work behind him, mainly because of the injuries he had throughout the whole year,” Urbanchek said. “But the honest effort was there, and I really respect him for the effort. But that’s all the body had.”

An injured right shoulder limited Siciliano’s training most of this season, and while his shoulder pain was gone, he said his whole body hurt this weekend.

Even though his teammates knew he had been struggling all year, Siciliano has a history of coming up with a big swim when he needs one – he won the 400 IM at Big Tens despite the injury. So his teammates were surprised when he missed the finals at NCAAs.

“He has always shocked everybody once he’s gotten here, so we were expecting the same thing to happen,” Mangieri said.

He added that realistically, Siciliano’s performance “is what should have happened, but it was definitely something new for all of us. Since his freshman year, he has been pulling it out.”

After his cool down on Friday night, Siciliano watched Southern California’s Erik Vendt win the 2002 400 IM championship, but he had to turn away during the awards presentation.

“I was sitting down, I couldn’t really watch,” Siciliano said. “I was just completely bummed out.”

Later, Siciliano shrugged it off and said that he didn’t walk away from his last 400 IM with a bad feeling. But as he searched for words to explain what happened and settled on “I don’t know,” Siciliano’s eyes told a different story. It was the story of a guy known for his competitive fire who just didn’t have one more big race in him.

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