Solid swimming trio buoys Gophers’ Big Ten hopes

Sam Campanaro

Jeff Hackler, Todd Smolinski and Matt Taylor are shaved, rested and ready to go for the men’s swimming and diving Big Ten championship meet.

The three senior captains exemplify the attitude and dedication it took to win the team’s two previous Big Ten championships and what it will take to win another.

Hackler, Smolinski and Taylor are highly decorated, having claimed 27 All-America honors and five Big Ten individual championships to fuel the Gophers’ two previous Big Ten championship teams.

The three-day meet starts today at the University of Michigan and goes until Saturday, March 1.

The burden is on the trio; the three captains are expected to win eight individual championships as well as make their NCAA qualifying cuts.

“We expect them to be strong and forceful leaders for the entire team, to not only lead by example but stamp their personality on the team as well,” head coach Dennis Dale said.

The Gophers have taken first or second place all four years of the seniors’ careers. They would be disappointed to not finish first or second again, Dale said.

The seniors are the only members of the current Minnesota team who have lost a Big Ten championship.

“When we lost our freshman year it was at Michigan’s pool, so this is like a little revenge,” Hackler said.

The past three years have put Minnesota and Michigan in the first and second-place spots at the Big Ten meet.

It looks like a battle of the “U of Ms” once again this year. Michigan is currently ranked fourth in the nation and Minnesota is ranked sixth.

The meet will be tough for Minnesota in Michigan’s pool and it will be a challenge for Michigan to keep Minnesota from a three-peat.

“We do have competition this year and it’s at Michigan’s pool,” Taylor said. “It would be sweet to beat Michigan in its own pool.”

The seniors know what it will take to bring home another championship. They look

forward to it, yet they know what it does to their bodies.

“It’s a draining meet,” Taylor said. “Any big meet that has three days with both prelims and finals beats you up.”

In order for Hackler, Smolinski and Taylor to add to the team’s success they must focus on their individual events.

“It’s an individual team sport,” Smolinski said. “If you take care of yourself first then everything comes together.”

Hackler specializes in the breaststroke and individual medley events. He currently holds the 100-yard breaststroke record in the Big Ten conference. He also broke Indiana’s pool records in the 100- and 200-yard breaststroke events at the Big Ten meet last year.

He has made appearances at the NCAA meet his three previous years on the team and has claimed 11 All-America honors. Hackler also won a bronze medal in the 2001 Goodwill Games.

Smolinski’s specialty is the backstroke. He is making his fourth Big Ten appearance. He currently holds the 100-yard backstroke record in the Big Ten conference.

Smolinski has also made three NCAA meet appearances and claimed 11 All-America honors. He also won a silver medal and bronze medal at the 2001 World University Games.

Taylor specializes in freestyle and butterfly. He will be making his fourth Big Ten meet appearance. Last year he placed third in the 200-yard butterfly and 200-yard freestyle events.

Taylor has also made three previous NCAA meet appearances and claimed five All-America honors.

As a team, the Gophers hope to finish in the top five nationally. In order to accomplish their goal, they must qualify as many swimmers as possible to the NCAA championships.

Hackler, Smolinski and Taylor lead the cast of Gopher men who will be competing at the Big Ten championships, hoping to put the finishing touches on one of the most productive classes in team history.

Sam Campanaro welcomes comments at [email protected]