The start of a water polo game is moments away. You’re treading water at the lane line with your teammates, head back and feet pointed toward the center of the pool where the ball will be dropped. Breathing as fully as you can, you clear your mind.
You’re the sprinter, and a lot is about to happen in the next six seconds.
The whistle blows. You pivot hard on your hips and swing your upper body forward with arms outstretched and locked. The momentum carries you briefly, just enough for your body to straighten out.
Then you swim. Fast, frenzied strokes ⎯ not the kind you would use at a swim meet. When you’re less than 12 meters from the ball, you don’t get up to speed by looking pretty.
You keep your head down and eyes forward. You don’t know where the ball is yet because the referee doesn’t drop it until you’re halfway there. If you lift your head prematurely, you’ll slow down.
On that note, don’t even think about turning to breathe.
You finally reach the ball, but so has the other team’s sprinter. The timing of your hands is critical as the two of you fight to pass it back to your trailing teammates. If you succeed and your teammate secures the ball, your team gets the first offensive possession, at which point you come out, receive a pat on the back, and wait for the beginning of the next quarter. Your job is done, for now.
But if you were Michigan senior sprinter Keller Felt, you’d keep swimming.
This is because in addition to being the fastest player on the team, she’s a four-year veteran on offense. Her coach calls her his best two-meter defender, too. For the moment, though, that doesn’t really matter.
Because if you’re Felt, the Wolverines are starting on offense.
“(Felt) is as good of a sprinter as there is in the nation,” Michigan coach Matt Anderson said. “You can count on one hand the number of sprints that she’s lost.”
Felt has been the Wolverines’ starting sprinter since she took over the job after splitting time with Kelsey Haley her freshman year. For the past three seasons, Felt’s sprinting prowess has afforded Michigan a luxurious four extra possessions per game, every game.
It’s no small advantage. Not only does winning the sprint set a positive tone for the team, but also converting even one of those possessions into a score could be the difference in a close contest.
Just ask the Indiana Hoosiers.
“Indiana started a different player (last Saturday) than I expected because they wanted that person to sprint against Keller,” Anderson said. “Keller still beat her every time.”
Felt is what Anderson, who is known for recruiting speedy players, calls “the rabbit of the group.” Like most other water polo players, the California native started out as a swimmer. She began swimming at age five and competed in high school, where she set records for 200-meter and 400-meter relays and was named team MVP twice.
But also like most other water polo players, Felt eventually got tired of just swimming, so she joined her high school water polo team.
However the transition from swimming to water polo wasn’t as easy as many would assume. Even with her speed. Being a fast water polo player and being a fast swimmer aren’t quite the same.
“You can be the fastest swimmer in the world and get countered by a great water polo player who understands when to go,” Felt said. “If they know when to go on the counter, that’s going to make them seem like the faster player.”
With eight years of experience now under her belt, the discrepancy between swimming and water polo has disappeared. In addition to sprint duty, Felt often leads the counterattack, where her speed and game sense give her an edge. It’s evident even during practice. When the pass from the goalie lands in front her, she’s already half a body length ahead of the closest defender.
And that’s before Felt starts really swimming.
“There’s a fast person and there’s a quick person,” senior Cara Reitz said. “(Felt) is both. Not only is she the fastest swimmer straight up and down the pool, but she’s quick, and she reads well.”
Unsurprisingly, Felt and her unique set of skills have been the gamebreaker more than once in the past year.
In last season’s first game against Indiana, her breakaway counter drew a penalty shot in the final 30 seconds, which senior Lauren Orth converted to win the game. Earlier this year against UC-Santa Barbara, a team Michigan had never beaten, her breakaway in sudden death overtime elicited a penalty that led to another Orth goal, again for the win.
Last Saturday, Felt had the ball late in the fourth quarter. Her speed on the edge pulled several Hoosier defenders out of position, which opened a shooting lane for junior Meagan Cobb. Felt recognized the setup and passed the ball with such precision that the ensuing tip shot looked more like an alley-ooped slam dunk.
It was the Wolverines’ final goal of the game, and it allowed them to outlast Indiana, 9-8.
For a weapon so deadly, Felt’s teammates have given her the perfect nickname.
“ ‘Killer Keller.’ Because her name’s Keller, and she’s a killer,” said Reitz.