Gophers finish 12th as hosts to NCAA championships

by Ryan Schuster

Over the weekend, the usually quiet University Aquatic Center was transformed into a loud, raucous arena during the men’s NCAA swimming and diving championships.
Throngs of people packed into the building for the event, bringing with them a multitude of different school banners, flags and even mascots. One overzealous Stanford fan dressed up as the school’s mascot, a Cardinal tree.
The fans were subdued, however, compared to the athletes themselves. After winning the team title Saturday night, the entire Auburn team, who had bleached their hair blonde before the meet, dove into the pool in celebration. Stanford took second and Georgia was third.
No. 9 Minnesota finished in a tie for 12th place with No. 14 Nebraska, equalling last season’s 12th-place showing at the NCAAs. The Gophers’ 109 points during the three-day meet is their lowest total since 1991. Despite failing to make their goal of a top 10 finish, the Gophers remained upbeat about their performance.
“Everyone just stepped up,” junior swimmer Eriek Hulseman said. “It took a lot more out of everyone to come back than we realized it would. We don’t have a big shot like a Derek Williams or a Bernie Zeruhn like we did in years past, so we’ve had people like Bill Bishop and Martin Zielinski stepping up.”
The Gophers started out slowly on Thursday, the meet’s first day, advancing only three events from the morning preliminaries to the evening’s finals. Minnesota was mired in 14th after the first day with only 29 points, 144 less than leader Auburn.
Minnesota’s 400-yard medley relay team took third in the consolation final and 11th overall with a time of three minutes, 15.25 seconds. The top eight finishers in the preliminaries score points in the championship finals, while the 9th-through-16th-place performers are in consolations. Only the top 16 competitors in each event score points.
The 200 freestyle relay team finished 12th. Freshman Bill Bishop also provided a much-needed surprise by placing 10th in the 500 freestyle in 4:22.96. His time was almost two seconds faster than he swam at the Big Tens a month ago.
On Friday, however, the team had a resurgence and jumped up to eighth after scoring points in two of the first three events. Gophers sophomore swimmer Martin Zielinski finished fourth in the 100 butterfly, becoming the highest finisher at the NCAAs in the history of the swimming program. His time of 47.00 set a new school and Big Ten record in the event, bettering the school and Big Ten records that he set at this year’s Big Tens by .1 seconds.
“I was out a little slow, but right with everyone around me,” Zielinski said. “I felt strong and brought it back as strong as I could. I wanted a time in the 46s, but I’ll take the 47.”
Zielinski joined Hulseman, Matt Schlessman and Ty Bathurst on the Gophers fifth-place 200 medley relay team that also set new Big Ten and school records. The relay team cut almost a full second off its time from the Big Tens, coming in at 1:27.17.
“We knew if we swam well, we’d have a chance of being in the finals,” Schlessman said after the race. “I’m real excited to be fifth. It helps the whole team’s confidence, it helps all of us. This kind of sets us up for the rest of the meet.”
The Gophers placed 10th in the 800 freestyle relay on Friday, and the team ended the second day in 11th place.
Bishop continued his overachieving ways on Saturday by taking eighth in the 1,650 freestyle in 15:10.55, an event in which he entered the NCAAs seeded 21st. He set a personal record in the event and also had the fastest first 1,000 yards in school history. The Gophers’ 400 freestyle relay squad took 12th and freshman Yoav Meiri placed 15th in the 200 butterfly Saturday.
Most of Minnesota’s 109 points at the NCAAs came from relay events, which count for twice as many points as individual events.
“We know the relays are one of the strengths of our team because they take advantage of the fact that we may not have one great member of the relay team, but we’ve got four good guys,” Gophers coach Dennis Dale said.
Even though the Gophers finished three places behind where they were ranked nationally and failed to make the top 10 at the NCAAs, the rankings don’t always accurately project how well teams will do at the NCAAs. Auburn, for example won the meet by more than 150 points, but was ranked second to Texas in the last poll. The Longhorns finished fourth.
“The rankings are just of dual meet strength,” Dale said. “Miami is in the top 10 teams, but we just killed them in a dual meet. Miami has four divers who scored. You can’t win a dual meet with four divers, but you can make the top 10 at the NCAAs with four good divers.”

Note: Junior swimmer Manolis Lentaris missed the NCAAs for the second straight year with an injury. The team doctors have not been able to tell what ails the native of Crete, Greece. He has suffered from cold and flu-like symptoms, nausea when he tries to practice in the water, loss of feeling in his lower right leg and lower back pain. It is believed by the doctors to be stress related.