INDIANAPOLIS — Rows of school banners, logos and hand-made signs adorned the sides of the walls separating the crowd from the pool Thursday at the Indiana University Natatorium.
A deafening roar emanated from the swimmers on the sidelines almost simultaneously, as all 11 teams broke into various cheers before the start of the Big Ten Women’s Swimming and Diving Championships.
The No. 10 Gophers were one of the most vocal teams. Minnesota was extremely confident and relaxed on the sideline, just like all season.
But that confidence and inspired performance could not overcome an outstanding day by third-ranked Michigan, which lead the Gophers 208.5 to 179.5 after the first day of the three-day competition.
The Wolverines won three of the first six events in opening up a 40-point lead on Minnesota and a 66-point lead on No. 15 Northwestern. Twelve events remain and will take place today and Saturday.
Minnesota went into Big Tens expecting to finish behind 10-time defending conference champion Michigan. One day into the conference meet, the Gophers’ expectations are fast becoming a reality.
Despite trailing Michigan after the first day of competition, there were numerous bright spots for the Gophers. Minnesota’s 400-yard medley relay team of Shona Baillie, Gretchen Hegener, Tanya Schuh and Jenny Hennen took first in 3 minutes, 41.27 seconds, a new school and Big Ten championships record time.
In addition, the relay team automatically qualified to swim at NCAAs on Mar. 20-22, which will also be held at the IU Natatorium.
“We’ve never had a relay make automatic before,” Gophers coach Jean Freeman said. “The 400 medley relay really set the tone for how you do in a meet because all the strokes are represented.”
The Gophers’ other first-place finish came from All-American Olga Splichalova, who won the 500 freestyle crown in a time of 4:47.02. Splichalova set a new school record in the event and broke her own Big Ten record.
Splichalova won despite not tapering for the meet. She is trying to peak for NCAAs.
Of all Minnesota’s top performances, Hegener’s in the 200 individual medley was the most surprising. The junior recorded her career-best time of 2:05.6 during the morning preliminaries. Later that day, she topped it again in the consolation finals with a time of 2:03.64, the second-fastest time in team history.
“I was surprised to actually do as well as I did,” Hegener said. “I didn’t expect to be able to go my best time, because I really haven’t trained for the event all year.”
Freeman decided to swim Hegener in the event to try to pick up extra points, even though Hegener doesn’t usually compete in that race. The move paid off for Minnesota, who gained nine points from Hegener’s ninth-place finish.
Ten Gophers women placed in the top-16 in the morning preliminaries, advancing to the evening’s consolation and regular finals (The top eight competitors in the preliminaries of each event advance to the finals. The ninth- through 16th-place finishers compete in the consolation finals).
Relay events don’t have preliminaries because each team only has one relay squad per event.
Minnesota’s point total of 179.5 outdistanced the team’s goal of 150 and boosted the team’s already soaring confidence.
“I think we’ve always known that (Michigan) is a very, very fast team,” Hegener said. “We just want to get close to them and show them what we can do.”
The Gophers did just that but still trail the Wolverines by a significant margin. The Gophers and the rest of the Big Ten are preparing for the distinct possibility of Michigan winning its 11th consecutive conference title.
Even though the Gophers performed up to their expectations during the first day, so did Michigan.