The lights at Canham Natatorium dimmed after practice and, as his team headed to the locker room, junior Alex Vanderkaay dove into the pool wearing a brand-new, maize-and-blue fastskin. After swimming one lap, he voiced his opinion of the new attire.
“It feels weird!” he exclaimed.
“It feels fast,” Michigan coach Bob Bowman corrected, laughing.
After four solid months of training without taper, the Wolverines are ready to fit into their new fastskins and face their Big Ten rivals at this weekend’s conference championships in Columbus.
No. 12 Michigan finished 3-1-1 against Big Ten opponents during the regular season, with a tie against defending Big Ten Champion Indiana and a loss to Northwestern. At their last meet, against Ohio State and Northwestern, the Wolverines were drowned by the Wildcats’ first-place finishes.
Co-captain Vanderkaay dismissed the suggestion that Northwestern’s dominance would continue and believes that Michigan’s deep talent pool will reverse the results at the Big Ten Championships.
“One of the things about Big Tens is that you need a lot of depth,” Vanderkaay said. “In past years, that’s been our problem. But this year, we’re a lot better with that. Northwestern’s not that good. They don’t have the depth we have. They have their star swimmers who are going to win events, but so do we.”
Added sophomore Matt Patton: “We’re definitely a different team than when we raced them. We have a lot more rest now than we did then, and we’re definitely going to surprise a lot of people.”
Bowman said Michigan’s main competitors will be No. 6 Northwestern, No. 10 Minnesota and No. 11 Indiana. The Wolverines have finished third at the Big Ten championships in both years of Bowman’s tenure, with their last two conference championships coming in 2000 and 2003.
Last season, Michigan was propelled by then-seniors Chris DeJong, Davis Tarwater and Peter Vanderkaay.
“Our senior class scored the majority of our points at Big Tens (last season),” Bowman said. “This year, we’ve done a very good job of bringing the younger people up. You never replace somebody like Peter Vanderkaay, but I think two or three people can add up the points that he scored. That will be the question – can everybody down the line step up?”
The Wolverines’ eight freshmen have stepped up to the challenge during the regular season, earning NCAA consideration times and frequently winning dual meet events. Freshman Adam DeJong said this weekend will be no different for the underclassmen.
“Everyone on the team is expecting us to pull our own weight,” DeJong said. “We know we’re one of the best freshman classes in the Big Ten. We have that mentality, we can swim well and everyone in the freshman class can score.”
Bowman said Patton and Vanderkaay are expected to be the team’s top contributors. Vanderkaay is vying to win the 200-yard butterfly and 400-yard individual medley while Patton attempts to earn a victory in the mile. In addition, the two athletes expect to place first and second in the 500-yard freestyle.
The team swam in Columbus during its final regular-season meet, an advantage that will reduce the amount of time needed to adjust to the pool before swimming against Big Ten competition. After leaving for Ohio State on Tuesday afternoon, the team will practice once on Wednesday before the beginning of the three-day meet the following afternoon.
And on Thursday – whether the athletes are putting on their Michigan fastskins for the first time in their career or the first time this year – the Wolverines expect to dive into the pool and race fast.
“We had a plan this year, and I think that we’ve followed it every step of the way,” Bowman said. “Our goal is to improve, qualify a lot of people for NCAAs, and score as much as we can. There’s every reason to expect that we’ll do well at Big Tens.”