Saturday night, in a unified leap, the Michigan women’s swimmers, divers, coaches, trainers, and the Big Ten Championship trophy splashed into the pool at Canham Natatorium, capping off a victory years in the making. Over the course of the four-day Big Ten Championship meet, the Wolverines beat out the 12 other Big Ten teams and claimed their first Big Ten title since 2004.
“The only way to put that in words is to cry for joy,” said Michigan coach Mike Bottom.
The Wolverines dominated the meet, leading from the second day on. After the 100-yard freestyle, in which freshman Siobhán Haughey set a pool record with a time of 47.71 and senior captain Ali DeLoof finished third, the meet was all but over. And after the 200-yard butterfly, with two events still remaining, the Wolverines had put themselves out of the reach of second-place Indiana, the only team within 400 points of the Wolverines.
However, DeLoof didn’t always know that Michigan would accomplish this much. Three years ago, DeLoof was a freshman struggling through weeks of 20 hours of practice in the pool. It was Bottom's first year with the program, and the team finished sixth in the Big Ten. DeLoof helped the team to improve over the next two years — placing fifth in the Big Ten in 2014 and third in 2015 — but taking the next step was still somewhere in the distance for the Wolverines.
“We imagined it at the beginning of the year, but it was always just a possibility,” said sophomore Clara Smiddy.
Even just a few days ago, DeLoof — who was named first-team All-Big Ten on Saturday — didn’t know if she would be able to help her team capture a Big Ten title. She fell ill earlier in the week, putting the chance to swim at Canham for the last time as a senior in serious danger.
But by the time the meet started, DeLoof was determined to compete. Not only did she swim, but she excelled and capped off her Big Ten career by anchoring the pool record-setting 400 Yard freestyle relay, with a time of 3:13.81.
“My freshman year, I didn’t think I was going to make it at all,” DeLoof said. “ ‘Those who stay will be champions’ — it’s really what’s been with me all year and even this week.”
Though the program had shown clear improvement this year, winning all but one of its dual meets, it was an underdog to the Hoosiers going into this weekend. Bottom and his team knew they needed to step up, and both swimmers and divers answered the bell.
In the 1,650-yard freestyle, freshman Yirong Bi bested her seed time by 20 seconds to finish second. Smiddy just missed a pool record in the 200-yard backstroke when she beat out Indiana’s Kennedy Goss to win the event. And the dive team impressed a sold-out Canham crowd by qualifying four divers for the platform finals.
Bottom, the long-time men’s coach, took control of the women’s team in 2012. He took over a team that had fallen off since the success of the early 2000s and was closer to the bottom of the Big Ten than the top.
Drenched from his victory leap into the pool, Bottom was hit with a wave of emotions when talking about how far the program had come.
“It’s absolutely a dream to reality,” Bottom said. “Our first year, we didn’t have people in the final. I think we had two, maybe three people in any of the finals. Tonight, we had people in almost every final.”
For Bottom, getting this far was not only in his mind, but also in plain sight — the 2004 Big Ten Championship banner has beckoned at every training session and every home meet during his time with the Wolverines. Every Saturday for the past four years, his team has stood under that banner and sang the Michigan fight song together.
It took Bottom, DeLoof and the rest of the program four years to get there, but the hard work has paid off. Saturday, they could look at the banners on the wall, and for the first time in 12 years, know that there will be a new place to sing “The Victors.”