Michigan's Distance Program, Part 2
By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent
They came from different areas, from different regions of the country.
One from New York. One from Tennessee. Another from New Jersey.
They converged in Ann Arbor, Mich., at Canham Natatorium to take reigns of a unique tradition in the world of swimming: Michigan’s distance program.
Ryan Feeley, Sean Ryan and Connor Jaeger weren’t promised automatic success. In swimming, nothing is automatic. In fact, they entered Michigan at perhaps one of the more “tumultuous” times in the program’s history: A new coach, a new program, a new attitude.
Last week, I wrote about the tradition of Michigan’s program, dating back to collegiate distance greats like Dolan and Thompson. This week, we look at three current Michigan swimmers who turned that tradition into a championship.
This is a story of three swimmers – the previous three Big Ten Champions in the 500 freestyle, to be precise – who trained together, took some classes together, and bonded together en route to an NCAA title.
Feeley, son of an NYC firefighter and alum of the prestigious Badger Swim Club, arrived at Michigan as the de facto caretaker of the distance program. He was the first major distance recruit for the new Mike Bottom-led program. It would be easy to argue that without him agreeing to come on board, the rest of the pieces could have fallen apart. Feeley could have gone to numerous other schools, but ultimately he chose Michigan.
When I asked him why, he said:
“I chose Michigan to win a national championship.”
As the senior leader of the distance group, Feeley tried to go along with the team’s managed expectations, but personally, he still believed they had a chance to win. He described his perspective as being an “all in” type of a guy. Going into the NCAA Championships, the official team goal was to place in the Top-3. This would have been a huge accomplishment, as it would have been their highest finish in more than a decade.
“We just wanted to get hardware, to get into the top-3, because that would be our best finish since 1996,” Feeley said.
Though their expectations were managed, the group knew they had accomplished much that season: An early No. 1 ranking. A chance at a title. An opportunity to do something Michigan hadn’t done since days when Tom Dolan and Eric Namesnik walked the Maize-and-Blue pool decks.
By the time the title meet came, Feeley says part of the reason for Michigan’s success was that they were constantly cheering. Cheering for teammates was emphasized throughout the season: To stand up for teammates and cheer. And then, of course, swim fast.
“One thing Mike wants this program do is constantly swim fast, no matter what the situation is,” Feeley says. “To do that you have to recreate the championship atmosphere and have your teammates cheering behind you every single race.”
Sean Ryan, from Chattanooga, Tenn., arrived at Michigan one year after Feeley. He came into the program after qualifying for the Junior World Championship team, after dropping nearly 20 seconds in his 1500m at the 2008 Olympic Trials. This was the first race Ryan knew he would excel.
But at the start of this season, Sean Ryan had a shoulder injury. The injury kept Ryan out of the water for multiple weeks, something that’s practically a death sentence in the world of swimming.
“I didn’t swim the first few weeks of the season,” Ryan said. “I was nervous if I would even make the final in the 500 at Big Tens. I knew I needed to have a really good mile [at Big Tens] to even make it to the NCAA Championships.”
He battled through and overcame the injury. By the end of the season, Ryan placed 4th in the 1650 at the NCAA Championships, a little bit off his best time from 2012 before the injury, but scoring major and much-needed points for his team.
But it’s not just support from teammates in the pool that helped Ryan. It was support away from the pool, too. For example, Ryan and teammate Connor Jaeger see each other outside of the pool in the classroom. As an engineering major, Ryan and Jaeger see each other “literally 18 hours a day.”
It’s that type of bonding that helps manage pressures and expectations, which can be substantive come championship season time.
“We had team meetings where our goal was to get hardware. Anything extra would be awesome,” Ryan said. “After Big Tens, coaches said, ‘Don’t pay attention to anything. There’s no pressure on you guys.’”
The most decorated of the group, a 2012 Olympian in the 1500m free, Connor Jaeger arrived at Michigan without having done doubles in the summer – ever.
This is fairly shocking, considering Jaeger would go on to qualify for the 2012 Olympics in one of the most grueling distance events in swimming. Jaeger’s freshman year, as you could imagine, was a huge adjustment.
“It was really tough. It was really hard,” Jaeger says about that first freshmen year. “Where you feel it more isn’t in the pool, but in your daily routine. It’s all part of being a college student. It’s so much adjustment at one time.”
The New Jersey native grew up five minutes from the ocean. But when he arrived at Michigan, he had a difficult freshman year at the Big Ten Championship, one in which he was swimming the 200 fly instead of the 1650. After his disappointing 200 fly, Jaeger collaborated with coach Bottom and determined that, following a successful summer season, he should concentrate on distance freestyle rather than being a butterflyer.
“At summer Nationals, I went 3:53 in the 400 free, but my 200 fly was just OK,” Jaeger said. “I had a conversation with Mike and I said, ‘I can’t do the 200 fly. People are too good at underwater kicking.’”
He adds: “[Mike and I] had a conversation about where I saw myself being more successful, and Mike was definitely on board. He was probably thinking the same thing.”
Jaeger, who describes himself as analytical and sometimes doubtful, approached the season as being more nervous for the Big Ten Championships than the NCAA Championships. Largely because there are more unknowns; when you shave and taper for the first time, you’re unsure of so many things. Jaeger depended on coach Josh White to help assuage those doubts.
“I was really nervous at Big Tens,” Jaeger said. “I was a little sick and I wasn’t feeling very confident.”
However, Jaeger ended up winning both the 1650 and the 500 freestyle at the Big Tens, and then later, at the NCAA Championships.
The NCAA Championships
After a season of limited 1650s (described last week) and a nearly consistent No. 1 ranking throughout the season, Michigan entered the NCAA Championship season with team-managed expectations. They did not set their sights on a title; they just wanted that top-3 hardware. Ultimately, as the meet went on, it became incredibly difficult to have the lead. Having the lead throughout the meet can be as nerve-wracking as not having the lead.
“I was pretty scared. The first day was great, but I knew Cal had a lot coming for us,” Ryan said. “Our guys swam phenomenally. It was a total team effort. Sitting on the bench the second day, it was awesome to just jump up and down and cheer.”
Feeley adds: “One thing we did really well was we were constantly cheering. Every dual meet, every Big Ten Championship meet, we’re always cheering. Cheering is something we all know how to handle and manage our energy. We know how to do that during the meets.”
By the last day, when the NCAA Championship was within grasp, on the final day when everyone is tired, when legs are sore and voices ache, Michigan’s Feeley, Ryan and Jaeger stepped up to the blocks in the 1650: The most difficult event in swimming. The rest of the team stood on their feet and cheered them home. As they had done all season. As they had practiced.
“Going into the last night, we didn’t want to say anything until it was all over.”
Jaeger – the sometimes doubtful one – won the event. Ryan – who had battled shoulder injuries earlier in the year – earned 4th. Feeley – the senior who was the first distance guy to go through the Mike Bottom era – splashed home to 6th.
Individually, they scored many points for Michigan.
Together, they kept the tradition going.
Any team tradition is built on every single individual’s shoulders. This was more than the story of a tradition that stayed alive this past season. It was about three individuals from different areas of the country, from different backgrounds, who cheered together, took classes together, swam together, encouraged each other, and, ultimately, won together.
Mike Gustafson is a freelance writer for USASwimming.org and Splash Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @MikeLGustafson.