MINNEAPOLIS Louis Armstrong”s “What a Wonderful World” played as the American flag was brought to center stage. The venue was the University of Minnesota”s Aquatic Center where the national anthem then bellowed through the stands on the last day of the 91st annual men”s swimming and diving Big Ten Championships.
The races held Feb. 22-24 were indeed wonderful for a handful of Michigan swimmers, but the team had to sit in the runner-up position behind Minnesota the 2001 Big Ten champions.
“We all expected to have a victory dinner, but things just didn”t go our way this weekend,” Michigan coach Jon Urbanchek said. “Nobody could have beat Minnesota they were unstoppable.”
No. 9 Michigan finished with 549 points and went home with both the Big Ten Swimmer of the Year, senior Chris Thompson, and Freshman of the Year, Dan Ketchum. But it was No. 16 Minnesota that had 36 championship finalists capture 797 points, breaking five Big Ten records.
The Gophers set the tone of the meet by finishing first in the 200-yard freestyle relay with a new conference record time of 1:18.49. About an hour later, they repeated their relay success by winning the 400-yard medley relay in a Big Ten record time of 3:10.79.
“Holding this (award) in my hand makes me want to lick my chops and go for two or three more,” said Minnesota”s Chad Krastins of the 400-medley relay. “I don”t want the silver or bronze I want the gold. And, if we keep swimming this well, our whole team will have one of these.”
Krastins predicted correctly, but not before his team would climb to unforeseen heights the Gophers would go on to win the 200-yard medley relay, the 200-yard breaststroke, the 200-yard butterfly, 3-meter diving and platform diving. But, Minnesota”s most impressive feat occurred when it conquered the 100-yard and 200-yard backstroke with one-two-three finishes in each race.
“It was only a couple years ago when we were having one-two-three finishes like that, so it was their chance to shine,” Urbanchek said.
According to Thompson, the Wolverines were the underdogs coming into the competition. But as predicted because of the nature of Urbanchek”s program they dominated all of the distance events.
Upon claiming his two titles, Thompson became the fourth men”s swimmer in Big Ten history to win both the 1650- and the 500-yard freestyle in four consecutive years one of the reasons for being named conference Swimmer of the Year. His time of 14:31.15 in the 1650 accomplished even after losing his swim cap at the 1200 mark beat his own Big Ten record, made new pool history and was the second-fastest time ever swum by an American.
“I felt that it was an awesome race,” Thompson said. “The last 500 yards were painful, but I am happy with the finish. I kind of fell apart at 1100 even though I hung on as long as I could.”
Also racing in the 1650, junior Tim Siciliano placed second (14:51.63), sophomore Justin Drake finished fifth (15:03.20) and Ketchum touched sixth (15:05.77).
Thompson and Ketchum then scored the one-two finish in the 500-yard freestyle, with Siciliano placing fourth.
For the third-consecutive year, Siciliano, the defending NCAA champion, took first in the 400-yard individual medley. His time of 3:42.45 set a new Big Ten record an incredible race for recently recovering from a shoulder injury that prevented him from competing in earlier meets this season.
“My team wanted me to go out there and break the pool record (of 3:40.64), but I just wanted the win,” Siciliano said. “It felt real great despite coming off my injury. I have been sore at times, but I have been able to work through that.”
Michigan also took first in the 800-yard freestyle relay. Jordan Watland led off to a fourth-place start, but it was Ketchum who dove in and caught the team up to first. All Thompson and Garrett Mangieri had to do was secure the win.
“We all kind of jumped on Dan”s back and let him carry us through this race,” Thompson said. “He definitely makes us a stronger relay team.”
Ketchum would go on to win the 200-yard freestyle in 1:34.99, tying the Big Ten record. The Freshman of the Year competed in three individual events and contributed to two different relays.
“I really didn”t expect it,” Ketchum said. “If you would have asked me at the beginning of the year or anytime during the year if I thought I would have done this well or swam this fast, I would have said “No way.””
But, despite Michigan”s successes and newly set records, it was Minnesota that enjoyed a victory dive, taking home the championship plaque.