When it was over, Jim Richardson couldn”t resist taking a plunge into the pool.
It”s customary for the swimmers and coaches on a Big Ten championship team to leap into the water after the award ceremony, but Richardson hadn”t always been so respectful of tradition.
“When we won the conference my freshman year, he didn”t go in the pool,” senior Missy Sugar said. “I”m glad we were able to get him in this time.”
For the Michigan women”s swimming team, it was an appropriate way to wrap up a season that for so long had threatened to go into the tank.
In their previous weekend of competition, the Wolverines suffered consecutive defeats at Notre Dame and Northwestern, which dropped the team”s overall dual record to 4-5.
Three weeks later, the team holds the 2001 Big Ten title. In a performance that seemed to mirror their entire season, the Wolverines surged into first place early on, slipped behind Penn State on the second evening, and then rallied to outlast the Nittany Lions, 582-557.
“Sometimes you may not be dealt a winning hand, but if you play it well, amazing things can happen,” a jubilant and wet Richardson said following the meet. “This team has a spiritual depth to it.”
Heading into the final event, the 400-yard freestyle relay, the conference crown remained undecided, as the Wolverines clung to a scant nine-point edge.
But the Michigan team of Samantha Arsenault, Jennifer Crisman, Sugar and Annie Weilbacher finally clinched the title, taking first place in the event with a pool record time of 3:19.61.
“There was a lot of pressure,” Arsenault said after swimming the final leg of the relay. “But I felt calm knowing that I had three girls going in the relay with me. I wasn”t as nervous for this one as I was for my individual races.”
The relay capped an up-and-down meet for the Wolverines.
On Thursday evening, Michigan seized an early 28-point lead, aided by a win in the 400-yard medley relay by Crisman, Traci Valasco, Weilbacher and Arsenault. The group set Big Ten meet and pool records with a time of 3:38.76 just one of 14 events in which a pool record was set.
Crisman added to her success on Friday night, capturing her fourth consecutive Big Ten title in the 100-yard backstroke. Crisman would lead all scorers in the meet with a total of 54 individual points.
Nevertheless, Michigan found itself trailing Penn State after the second night, 413-403. As each team was poised to compete in some of its strongest events, Saturday, the meet figured to go down to the wire.
“Coming in as underdogs has two sides to it,” Arsenault said following the meet. “There”s pressure, but it makes you have to perform.”
As Michigan”s greatest strength lay in the freestyle events, the 1,650-yard freestyle loomed large.
“If we”re going to win this, that one is going to be huge,” Richardson said before competition on Saturday. “We”re hoping Emily Fenn can come through. This is her first conference meet, and she”s had difficulty sleeping.
“Hopefully she”ll swim well.”
Fenn came through, finishing fourth in the event. With four Wolverines finishing in the top eight, Michigan took over first place by a 48-point margin, and would not relinquish it.
The Nittany Lions remained within striking distance throughout the evening, behind strong performances in the breaststroke and fly events, but finally were outlasted in the 400-yard freestyle relay.
“Michigan has a great team,” Penn State coach Bill Dorenkott said. ” We swam the way we expected, but we haven”t quite gotten to their level yet. They came through when it counted.”
Richardson marveled at his team”s progress. “I thought we would be in the mix, but we”d have to swim the perfect meet to win.
“I can”t remember a team with this poise and togetherness. It”s been a magical three days.”