Michigan's Distance Program: Part One
By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent
When you walk inside Canham Natatorium, the first thing you notice is the museum. It’s a relatively newer (“newer” because it wasn’t around when I was a younger swimmer) display of plaques, pictures, and posters about the history and tradition of Michigan Swimming.
You read about Michigan’s legendary coaches, from Matt Mann to Jon Urbanchek and Bob Bowman. You read about how Michigan’s coaches were all selected as Olympic coaches, the only such college program to achieve that. You scan trophies and awards, Olympic photographs and accolades, and eventually, you get to a small sentence at the bottom of placard about “The Bob Bowman Era” that says this:
“Mike Bottom became Men’s coach in the fall of 2008. Is this the start of a new Era?”
Next, you walk inside the pool. You see banners. They line the ceiling’s perimeter in maize and blue, perfectly in place, hanging like reminders. They date to days when our grandfathers and grandmothers were born. The 1927 Big Ten Championship. A string of 1930s NCAA Championships. They surround the pool, engulf it, so by the time you’re staring upwards, you don’t notice the work taking place in the pool itself.
A few weeks after Michigan’s men’s NCAA Championship title, I visited the team during finals week workouts. They divide themselves into three groups: sprinters, who swam on the far side of the pool, middle distance, who swims in the middle, and distance swimmers, who occupy the first two lanes. You couldn’t tell they just achieved the highest peak of NCAA swimming. Swimmers were back to practice, slogging the miles once more. There was no banner signifying the 2013 NCAA Championship. In fact, there’s not room to do so. There were no championship rings on swimmers’ hands. The only thing I noticed was that coaches wore suit and ties, a result of having come from a congratulatory meeting with Michigan’s Board of Regents.
Practice continued on, and so did Michigan’s program.
But the story of Michigan Swimming does not begin in 2013. Not with this team. Not with last year’s team. Michigan Swimming goes back before we were alive, back during times of typewriters and black-and-white silent movies. Michigan Swimming is a story of tradition, of great stretches of success, of legends who came before and continued this program through a World War, numerous Presidents, and technological change. Though recently it took Michigan Swimming 18 years to recapture its NCAA Championship after last winning in 1995, their men’s program has been consistently good, and it has done so for primarily one reason:
Think back to the names. Dolan. Thompson. Vanderkaay. These now legendary names, names you can read about at the museum, are not accidentally created. They are manufactured in these lanes in Canham, under these maize and blue banners, under the watchful eyes of those who are now in charge of this tradition. When Mike Bottom, a coach who was famous for putting sprinters like Anthony Ervin and Gary Hall Jr. on the Olympic medal podium, took over Michigan’s program, there were whispers about what would happen to this hallowed distance group. Would it change? Would it continue to be as dominant as it was?
Mike brought in Dr. Josh White, a swim coach and former Kenyan swimmer with a doctorate in human performance. Analytical and amicable, Dr. White has not only embraced the distance program here at Michigan, but he enhanced it. He’s done so with a core of three swimmers: Connor Jaeger, Sean Ryan, and Ryan Feeley. Together, these three scored 1st, 4th, and 6th at the NCAA Championships in the 1650, arguably swimming’s most grueling and tiring event.
To underscore the importance of this core distance trio, there is a photograph hanging in White’s office. It depicts these three Michigan swimmers, Jaeger, Ryan, and Feeley, huddled together before the Olympic Trials final of the 1500m. It was a special and perhaps bittersweet moment for White, one in which he knew at least someone would not make the Olympic roster. But it’s not every day you have three swimmers – each of whom have won the 500 freestyle Big Ten Championship the previous three seasons – be so dominant, so consistent, and such a continuation of a storied group like Michigan’s distance swimming.
In 2008, Mike Bottom took over a storied program. He added a sprint dominance to the game, his specialty. But he also, to his credit, continued the distance tradition, and by doing so, it has resulted in a new era for Michigan swimming, and a new NCAA Championship.
To Swim The Mile Fast, Do Not Swim The Mile Slow
Jaeger, Ryan, and Feeley sit down with me in Canham’s stands. It is raining outside in Ann Arbor, and the pool’s lights are faintly buzzing overhead. It is an hour before practice starts. When we sit, after getting to know each, I want to hear about this magical 2013 swim season. I want to hear how Michigan – and this distance group -- prepared to have such success in the distance events. So I ask the question: How many times do you have to swim the mile in order to prepare to swim the mile fast?
The answer was surprising.
“We only swam the mile a few times during the season,” Jaeger told me.
Not only do they not swim the mile that much during the season, they actively try not to. Dr. White shared with me his philosophy: That to swim the 1650 requires a great amount of energy, and if you are not prepared to swim the 1650 at a fast speed, it can be mentally counter-productive.
So how were they able to swim so fast at the end of the season with a limited amount of mid-season 1650 preparation swims? How were they able to go 1-4-6 in the 1650 at NCAAs? Connor Jaeger, the NCAA champion in the mile, says that it all comes down to one thing:
“Training,” Jaeger says. “By the time we have to swim the mile and swim it fast, we are prepared.”
Dr. White adds: “The thing about swimming the mile is that it takes an incredible effort. Not that other events don’t, but in other events, you’re not ten minutes into an incredible effort and still have five minutes to go. There’s more time to have mental give-and-take,” White said. “When you ask someone for that kind of effort, you don’t want to do that all the time. You want to set them up so when they do it, they’ll do well at it.”
It is a group of both analytical coaches and analytical swimmers. It makes sense that this is true, given the amount of time both spend isolated inside one’s own thoughts during long and grueling distance sets. Jaeger explains that many of the workouts are written by White, but are also collaborative between coaches. For instance, at the end of a long distance day, they’ll step up to the blocks and swim two sprint all-out 50s from the blocks.
“It’s really a collaboration between the coaches,” Ryan agrees. “We switch it up every so often, swim all-out sprints at the end of a practice, and that’s Mike’s influence.”
“It’s a huge team and coaching effort,” White says. “One of the things that’s really important to our success has been an understanding of team. You’ll find in other places distance swimmers and sprinters not understanding what the other does. We want to maintain as much cohesiveness as we can. Part of that is that the groups have to be intertwined.
He adds: “All of the groups need to be comfortable with the coaching staff and learning from different people on the coaching staff. There’s a true team effort here.”
Communicating When Not Communicating
Swimming is largely isolated. Especially distance swimming. I was curious: How can you formulate a good bond between swimmers when verbal communication between the individuals during practice is so limited? How do you facilitate a team-like atmosphere in a distance group?
“Even though you can’t talk, there is a lot of communication that goes on,” White said. “They can bond just by going through a workout together without talking to each other. They can form a relationship. It happens all the time.”
He adds: “We’ll do sets where people leave the wall at the same time, regardless of what group it is. They might do different stuff after they leave the wall, but they come together for that moment, look down the pool, and see everybody. It seems like you can’t talk during a practice, but moving together is a really powerful thing.”
For a while I sat and watched the practice continue on. Above the pool, a large, red, digital clock ticks: “Countdown To Rio.” The numbers continue to decrease as each swimmer slogs another lap, another set, another mile. They are chasing dreams, wild ones, but also communicating with each other as they churn onwards: Go faster. Swim harder. I’m right here. I’m with you.
They are competitors. They are athletes who swim against each other not just every day in practice, but on the ultimate stage at the Olympic Trials. But they are also teammates. Jaeger, Ryan, and Feeley are so comfortable training with and against each other that they wanted, with some urgency, to be in that final heat together at the NCAAs. To swim together in the 1650. I thought back to that picture hanging in Dr. White’s office, the one of Jaeger, Feeley, and Ryan together.
“They wanted to be in that final heat together at the NCAAs,” White said. “Just like that photograph from Trials.”
Moving together can be a very powerful thing.
Next week, we’ll continue on with Part Two of our series with Michigan’s distance group.
Mike Gustafson is a freelance writer with USASwimming.org and Splash Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @MikeLGustafson.