U swimmers sink Michigan

Jim Schortemeyer

The Big Ten swimming and diving championships might as well have been a dual meet between Minnesota and Michigan.
The Gophers and Wolverines have claimed the top two spots every year since 1990, and the situation wasn’t different this season — except for the eventual order of the teams, that is.
Minnesota, which had finished second behind Michigan every year this decade except 1996, managed to put together three consecutive winning days to sink the Wolverines 714-641. Michigan was far ahead of third-place Penn State, eclipsing the Lions by nearly 250 points.
“It’s satisfying knowing that in 1996 (Michigan) had a million excuses,” junior Martin Zielinski said. They tried to do everything they could (this year), and they couldn’t beat us.”
When Friday’s competition began, Gophers coaches and swimmers were leery having a repeat of last year’s meet. In that meet, Minnesota jumped to a lead of 22 points on the first day, only to fall back to Michigan and lose by 17. This year was a different situation, as the Gophers increased their 16-point lead on Thursday to 40 by Friday.
The intensity of the swimmers on Saturday was at a fever pitch, especially between Minnesota and Michigan’s athletes, who were sitting next to each other. During Saturday’s 1650-yard freestyle preliminaries, the Wolverines and Gophers were already cheering loudly for their swimmers. At that point, the thinking was that every little point could count.
Although the Gophers came into the final day of competition leading by 40 points, they were anything but cocky. Michigan would have its “money-maker” event, the 1650 free, before the meet was over.
“We know we have to out-qualify them in the other events tomorrow morning,” Minnesota head coach Dennis Dale said Friday.
That is exactly what happened. Minnesota qualified 11 swimmers for Saturday’s final heats (the fastest), while Michigan managed only nine.
“They set the tone this morning,” Michigan swimmer Tom Malchow said Saturday. “This meet was won this afternoon; it wasn’t won tonight.”
Michigan actually led the Gophers for a brief period Saturday night. The Wolverines had five swimmers (out of eight) in the finals of the 1650 free, and managed to take the top three places. Minnesota, however, was buoyed by having four swimmers in the 200-yard butterfly final and three in the 100-yard freestyle final.
Malchow faced strong competition in the 200-yard butterfly on Saturday, but still managed to win his second consecutive championship. Minnesota’s Mike Mesenbourg swam a blistering time of 1:47.67 in the preliminaries, a half second behind Malchow and 2.5 seconds faster than he’s ever swam before.
“That was maybe the best swim of the meet,” Dale said.
Mesenbourg’s performance was all the more impressive considering he was severely injured in a bike accident last year.
Minnesota’s domination of the relay events was a major factor in the meet. The Gophers managed to win four of the five relay events, and placed second once. They narrowly missed school records in the 200 free relay and the 200 medley relay. The 400 freestyle relay team closed the meet in fashion, setting a school record.
The Gophers also benefitted from an improved performance from freshman diver Dan Croaston. After finishing a less-than-expected 12th on the 1-meter, Croaston managed to put together a better night of diving in Friday’s 3-meter competition, finishing a respectable fourth.
“Yesterday, in the first big meet for him, he was too nervous,” diving coach Kongzheng Li said. “Because he experienced that, he relaxed more.”
Michigan’s Derya Buyukuncu shut down Minnesota’s Alex Massura in the backstroke events. Massura broke the school records in both the 100- and 200-yard backstroke, but it wasn’t enough to subdue Buyukuncu. Buyukuncu set a Big Ten record in both events, while Massura finished second. Buyukuncu, a senior, never lost a backstroke race at the Big Ten Championships, and ended his Big Ten career with “Swimmer of the Meet” honors.
A pair of sophomores won a multitude of points for Minnesota, even though they didn’t win any individual events. John Cahoy was on three of Minnesota’s relay teams, took second in the 100-yard free, third in the 100-yard butterfly and also competed in the 50-yard free. Bill Bishop also had a busy weekend, earning a fourth- and fifth-place finish in distance events and a somewhat surprising second-place finish in the 400-yard individual medley.
“I got second, and that’s more than I’d asked for,” Bishop said.
After the meet, awards abounded for the Minnesota swimmers and coaches. The Gophers had nine members of the All-Big Ten this year, tying their second-best output ever. Dale earned “Big Ten Coach of the Year” for the third time in his career.
There are two big events remaining on the swimming calendar: First up will be the NCAA Championships, where Minnesota figures to be in the top 10 for the first time since 1995. Their best showing at NCAAs was a sixth-place finish in 1992.
Then, a select few will move on to the Senior Nationals to compete against the best swimmers in the nation.
For now, however, the past weekend’s meet is the focal point.
“We won each day. I didn’t think we would accomplish that,” Dale said. “I’m proud of the way we maintained our level of enthusiasm.”