Dec. 11, 2006
In the 25-year existence of women's athletics in the Big Ten Conference, no team has established success comparable to that of the University of Michigan swimming and diving team. One of the most dominating forces in the history of the Big Ten, the Michigan program swept 12 consecutive conference championships from 1987-98 under head coach Jim Richardson, while also earning 12 top-10 finishes at the NCAA Championships.
The history of excellence is not limited to those recurring years. The Wolverines had a previous streak from 1976-80 under former coach Stu Isaac, and had later topped the conference in 2001 and 2004. Throughout this rich history, the Wolverines have earned a total of 164 Big Ten and nine NCAA individual and relay titles, making them the most successful team in conference swimming and diving history. At the 1995 NCAA Championships, the Wolverines became the first team other than Stanford, Texas and Florida to place in the top three, finishing second to Stanford after claiming the lead upon completion of the second-day action. The team finished just 19 points out of first place.
Richardson associates his longevity of success with the attraction of driven, hard-working student-athletes to the education one receives at the University of Michigan
"I look for people who have demonstrated the ability to handle the academic work load, have a foundation in swimming that will allow for continued improvement, and have the character to maintain the philosophy of our program," said Richardson.
Despite the multiple years of success, Michigan does not place much importance in winning, but rather living in the moment and working hard everyday.
"Whatever the moment calls for, that's what we want to do and try to do it the very best," said Richardson. "If we have a good training plan and people that are committed to giving their best everyday, then results will be what they should be."
Richardson does not recruit to replace the times of lost swimmers. He places more importance in protecting the integrity of the program. He wants alumni to be able to return and interact with the teams, knowing that these young women will have a lot in common with them, mainly their values, process, and the way they interact as a team.
The tradition is quite similar to that of a family.
Former UM backstroker Rachel (Gustin) Piersma, who swam from 1994-98 earning All Conference first-team honors each season and was a part of the 1995 NCAA Champion 400-yard Medley Relay team, notes the privilege of having been apart of such a success story went far beyond their winning record.
"To have such a diverse group of people work together for a common goal, and to support excellence in and out of the pool, that was our true success," she said.
One of Richardson's most recent success stories is that of Lindsey Smith. The current senior captain is a five-time NCAA All-American, six-time NCAA honorable mention All-American, six-time Big Ten Champion, and three-time first team All-Conference. In the classroom, Smith has been named A CSCAA Academic All-American, while earning Academic All-Big Ten and UM Athletic Academic Achievement honors as well. For such a bevy of awards, Smith is quite modest.
"It's nice to know that my hard work has paid off to some amount of success, but I really don't put much weight on being an All-American," she said. "I'm more concerned with representing the past, present and future of the Michigan women's swimming program."
Smith was well aware of the Wolverines' swimming and diving tradition while growing up. With both parents having attended UM and raising the family in Dexter, roughly 15 minutes away from the Ann Arbor campus, Smith went to numerous meets and even practiced in the same pool as the Michigan athletes she looked up to.
"It was the people that made me want to swim for Michigan," noted Smith.
Richardson recalls being attracted to Smith's stroke and development throughout her adolescence.
"We didn't really know physiologically what kind of potential she had, but as time has passed it has been exciting to watch her develop into a world class athlete," he said.
Although Smith is competing in her final season as a Wolverine, she will represent the program as a member of the U.S. Swim team in Thailand this summer.
And she can feel safe in knowing that she is leaving the team in good hands, with younger sister Hannah carrying on the tradition of excellence in the UM pool. Hannah is currently a sophomore on the team and is thankful to have her sibling there as not only a teammate, but as a sister.
"I have learned so much from Lindsey, both in and out of the pool," Hannah said.
The Smith sisters have the unique opportunity of being able to swim together towards a common goal. Having only one season to do so makes it all the more special.
"It's a lot of fun having Hannah at the same school and swimming with her everyday," Lindsey said.
It is much easier on their parents as well.
"With both of us at the same school it makes it easier for our parents with just one meet to attend," said Lindsey.
But at the end of the day it all comes back to being a part of the Michigan swimming and diving tradition.
"It's hard to put into words what it means to swim for Michigan," Hannah said. "I'm sure Lindsey and I don't realize yet how special it is to both be Wolverines. I know next year will be very difficult without her."
Richardson, a five-time Big Ten Coach of the Year selection, has truly created a tradition of excellence for the Michigan swimming and diving program. It is a tradition founded on hard-work, dedication and, as Richardson puts it, "a willingness to be a part of something bigger than yourself and to achieve something with a group of people that you can't accomplish by yourself."
And perhaps the most important aspect of the UM tradition is acknowledging your teammates as part of your family.
Even if they already are.