WEST LAFAYETTE – It was a day of pivotal rematches for the No. 16 Michigan women’s swimming and diving team on the final day of competition at the Big Ten Championships.
Both fifth-year senior Emily Brunemann and senior Margaret Kelly looked to avenge second-place finishes in the 1,650- and 100-yard freestyle at the Boilermaker Aquatic Center, respectively.
Brunemann started the 66-length race strong, leading the field of competition through the first 200 yards. Competing side-by-side, Brunemann went stroke for stroke with Minnesota’s Ashley Steenvorden.
But much like their previous meeting, Steenvorden took over the race. At 500 yards, she gained a slight edge she didn’t relinquish. The final 100 yards proved to be a race for second, one Brunemann would eventually lose as the fifth-year senior touched the wall third, nearly four seconds behind Steenvorden.
“Not defending my tile was really hard,” an emotional Brunemann said. “That’s my event and that’s my favorite event. But that’s something that I chose, I chose not to taper for (Big Tens) and I chose to taper for NCAAs. But it doesn’t make it any easier.”
The performance was a microcosm of the meet as a whole; the Wolverines placed third (462.5) behind No. 10 Minnesota (572.5) and Big Ten champion No. 14 Indiana (758).
“We knew that on the psych sheet, coming in that first or second were really not realistic for us,” Michigan coach Jim Richardson said. “We knew we’d be in a tight fight with Purdue and Ohio State and maybe Wisconsin. I’m really proud of this team, they really stepped up.”
Just days earlier, the Wolverines had an opportunity to overtake Indiana, the defending Big Ten champions.
The team was trailing 276-252.5 heading into the finals of the 100-yard butterfly. Kelly posted the fastest preliminary time and was considered by many to be the favorite in the event. The Ann Arbor native posted a fast pace to begin the race but then faded in the waning moments to finish in a close second by six hundredths of a second. Indiana’s Donna Smailis touched the wall first in the event giving the Hoosiers an edge over Michigan that they never gave up. A victory by Kelly would have given the team a slight 306.5-304 advantage over the Big Ten favorites.
It wouldn’t be the last time Kelly would square off against Smailis with an individual Big Ten title on the line.
The 100-yard freestyle provided more of the same drama. In an event that she’s doesn’t typically swim, Michigan’s all-everything swimmer held her own. Standing in fifth place after the first 50 yards, the senior quickly made up ground, but would have to settle for third place.
But all was not lost for the Wolverines. If anything, they may have found an heir to Kelly’s throne as Michigan’s superstar swimmer.
In her first Big Ten meet, freshman Mattie Kukors put on one heck of a show. In her first final of the meet, Kukors touched the wall fifth, but she didn’t stop there. The newcomer also registered fourth-place honors in the 400-yard individual medley and earned a victory in the consolation B final of the 200-yard backstroke.
Knowing that Richardson still has depth, despite the third-place finish, puts him at ease with the season winding down.
“This team is amazing this year,” Brunemann said. “In the five years that I’ve been here, this is the closest and best team I’ve been on. And that’s why. I think so many people are so emotional.”