Men’s swimming in first after Day 1

by Ryan Schuster

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — As the championship finalists of the 50-yard freestyle were announced Thursday night at the Councilman/Billingsley Aquatic Center, Minnesota’s benched reacted in a wild, frenzied celebration.
Only a few feet away, the Michigan sideline fell silent, as if the team was in a deep trance.
Gophers Ty Bathurst, Matt Schlessman, Luis Lopez and Jeremy Rients all finished in the top eight of the event, helping No. 9 Minnesota take a 200-178 lead over No. 7 Michigan after the first day of competition at the Big Ten Men’s Swimming and Diving Championships.
“We’re swimming pretty good,” said Schlessman, a senior tri-captain. “I think we’re sitting in a position to score real well and be right at the top.”
Indiana is in third place with 140 points, Purdue is fourth with 139 and Ohio State sits fifth with 106.
Even though the Gophers won only one of six events Thursday, they finished second in three others, as their depth carried them.
The preliminary races were almost as important as the finals for the Gophers. Coming into the first day of competition, Minnesota had hoped to get six swimmers into the championship finals and two into the consolation round. Just like they have all season, the team exceeded their own expectations and placed eight competitors into the championship finals and two in consolation races.
Michigan, by comparison, advanced five swimmers to the championship heat and five to consolations.
“We came in really pumped and psyched,” Gophers sophomore Jonathon McLeod said. “I don’t think anyone is going to stop us.”
Minnesota transferred that emotion over into their preparation for the evening finals.
As the team entered the aquatic center at 5:30 p.m. for the 7 p.m. finals, they began to chant “Gophers” in unison. The other teams present looked up in surprise as they heard the thundering echo.
The Gophers also left a mark on the rest of the conference in the pool.
Minnesota’s 200 freestyle relay team of Bathurst, Rients, Schlessman and Lopez won the first event on Thursday in a time of 1 minute, 19.9 seconds, which set the tone for the rest of the meet.
The Gophers early success at this year’s conference championships clinched the possibility of the team winning its second straight Big Ten title.
“We’re the defending champions and everybody has gone after us,” McLeod said.
Despite the rest of the teams gearing up to beat the Gophers, Minnesota has held on to end the first day leading by 22 points. The Gophers led by 72.5 points after the first day last year at the Big Tens in Ann Arbor, Mich., and ended up defeating the Wolverines by 75 points, 620.5-545.5.
Before last season’s victory, Minnesota had gone 70 years without winning a conference title.
“(Thursday) was really important for us,” Schlessman said. “It’s great to have a lead after the first day considering we feel our best days are still ahead of us.”
The Gophers hope to finish well in the remainder of the freestyle events, and the backstroke and butterfly events, which will take place today and Saturday. Schlessman, Bathurst and Rients are all ranked in the top five in the conference in the 100 freestyle. Minnesota also has at least one swimmer in the top five of all the breaststroke and butterfly events — except for the 200 backstroke.
The Gophers are determined to take home the conference crown again this season.
“Last year weren’t expecting to win,” Bathurst said. “This year we are.”
Minnesota’s lead after the first day at the Big Tens is the first step towards achieving that goal. Nothing comes easily at the conference meet, though, especially against Michigan.
“We’re confident,” Schlessman said. “But at the same, we know we have a tough road the next two days.”