After a one-year hiatus due to the uncertainty surrounding the 2020-2021 season, our college previews back! We’ll be previewing the 2021-2022 seasons for the top 12 men’s and women’s programs from the 2021 NCAA Division I Championships – stay tuned to our College Swimming Previews channel to catch all 24.
#6 MICHIGAN WOLVERINES
Returning Fifth Years: None
Two years ago, we unveiled a new, more data-based grading criteria based on ‘projected returning points’, a stat of our own making that involved a lot of manual calculations involving departing seniors, redshirts, freshmen, etc. We liked the objectiveness of that stat, but given that there’s still a lot of uncertainty for this year, we’re adopting a hybrid approach this year. The “stars” will rely heavily on what swimmers actually did last year, but we’ll also give credit to returning swimmers or freshmen who have times that would have scored last year.
Since we only profile the top 12 teams in this format, our grades are designed with that range in mind. In the grand scheme of college swimming and compared to all other college programs, top 12 NCAA programs would pretty much all grade well across the board. But in the interest of making these previews informative, our grading scale is tough – designed to show the tiers between the good stroke groups, the great ones, and the 2015 Texas fly group types.
- 5 star (★★★★★) – a rare, elite NCAA group projected to score 25+ points per event
- 4 star (★★★★) – a very, very good NCAA group projected to score 15-24 points per event
- 3 star (★★★) – a good NCAA group projected to score 5-14 points per event
- 2 star (★★) – a solid NCAA group projected to score 1-4 points per event
- 1 star (★) – an NCAA group that is projected to score no points per event, though that doesn’t mean it’s without potential scorers – they’ll just need to leapfrog some swimmers ahead of them to do it
We’ll grade each event discipline: sprint free (which we define to include all the relay-distance freestyle events, so 50, 100 and 200), distance free, IM, breaststroke, backstroke, butterfly and diving. Use these grades as a jumping-off point for discussion, rather than a reason to be angry.
Despite incurring some significant losses in the two years between NCAA Championships, the Michigan women performed exceptionally by placing sixth at the 2021 nationals with only seven individual scorers.
Gone was former program linchpin Siobhan Haughey, along with key contributors Catie DeLoof, Miranda Tucker and Rose Bi, but upperclasswomen Maggie MacNeil, Olivia Carter and Sierra Schmidt stepped up in a big way to give the Wolverines their third straight top-six NCAA finish, edging out Big Ten rival Ohio State by just nine points.
At the B1G Conference Championships, after three consecutive titles from 2016 to 2018, Michigan was the runner-up for the third year running, falling to the Buckeyes by over 250 points.
The way this program is currently constructed has the team high on quality and low on quantity, relative to their counterparts. The depth of a team like OSU is too much to overcome in a conference championship setting, with points being awarded to the top 24 finishers in each event, whereas at NCAAs, the star power of swimmers like MacNeil and Carter really carry them.
To no one’s surprise, MacNeil had an absolutely sensational season, highlighted by her otherworldly NCAA and U.S. Open Record of 48.89 in the women’s 100 butterfly. That won her the NCAA title in the event, and the junior also claimed the 100 freestyle in a tight race against Virginia’s Kate Douglass, clocking a time of 46.02 to become the third-fastest swimmer ever, and took second to Douglass in the 50 free to put up 57 of a possible 60 individual points.
The team got a third national title from Carter, also a junior last season, who won the 200 fly by more than a second and a half in 1:51.33, dropping eight tenths from her previous best time set one month prior in winning the Big Ten title.
Carter was also sixth in the 100 fly at NCAAs, scoring a total of 33 points, while Schmidt, a senior, was third in the 1650 and fourth in the 50 free to score 31. Sophomore Kaitlynn Sims (fifth, 1650 free) and freshman Kathryn Ackerman (seventh, 400 IM) also had one big scoring swim apiece, and sophomore Mariella Venter (12th, 200 back) and freshman Sophie Housey (t-14th, 200 free) got on the board as well.
At Big Tens, relays proved to be a strength—the team scored 292 points across the five events, placing no worse than third, and winning both the 400 and 800 free relays.
However, the abrupt retirement of senior Daria Pyshnenko after Big Tens threw a wrench in some of the relays for NCAAs, with the team ultimately going slower in March than they did in February in three of the five relays and placing 16th (only two points) in two of them.
A glaring hole on breaststroke in the medley relays, one that could be covered up with their strengths elsewhere at Big Tens, was a hindrance at NCAAs to an extent, but losing Pyshnenko’s anchor abilities also hurt.
The relays almost cost Michigan a place in the team standings, with Ohio State outscoring them by 65 points across those five events, and finishing just nine points back overall.
But if we zoom out and take a look at the big picture of last season, given the team could only really rely on a few swimmers to score big NCAA points, and then having to adjust on the fly with Pyshnenko leaving, the Wolverines performed extremely well and be returning the majority of that cast this season—plus a few big additions.
SPRINT FREE: ★★★★
Maggie MacNeil was far and away the team’s top option in the 50 and 100 freestyle last season, taking second and first, respectively, at NCAAs while sweeping both at Big Tens.
With Pyshnenko, who took second in both events at the conference championships (tying with Northwestern’s Madeline Smith in the 100), out of NCAAs last season, the freestyle corps was greatly diminished, as MacNeil assumed backstroke duties on the medley relays. Now, the Wolverines have got a fantastic replacement in the form of Lindsay Flynn, the #12 ranked recruit in our class of 2021 re-rank.
Flynn owns best times of 22.03 and 48.15 in the sprint events, both good enough to score individually at NCAAs, with the 50 matching what was required to make last year’s ‘A’ final. Beyond the individual times, Flynn is a proven relay performer, including dropping three 50 splits in the 21.46-57 range at a single meet this past March, making her a welcome addition to Michigan’s free relays, plus a viable replacement for the anchor leg on the medleys.
Last season as a sophomore, Megan Glass was a workhorse at NCAAs, racing all five relays and contributing freestyle splits of 22-mid, 48-mid and 1:45.7. Glass also took 26th individually in the 200 free, was fourth in the event at Big Tens, and threw down a 1:44.2 split on the 800 free relay. Heading into her junior season, Glass is someone that can be relied upon for the relays, but looks poised to take the next step and challenge for a top-16 spot in the 200 free.
Sophie Housey, a rising sophomore, is in the same boat, having been the team’s fastest 200 freestyler (flat-start) last season, leading off the 800 free relay at Big Tens in 1:45.46 and then going .01 quicker at NCAAs. Like Glass, if she can put up a 1:45-mid swim individually, Housey can score at NCAAs.
With MacNeil having a shot to score 40 points in two events, Michigan instantly gets a strong sprint free grade. Flynn adds to that as a likely scorer, and Glass and Housey have PBs that can score in the 200 as well, putting them in good shape.
DISTANCE FREE: ★★★
The distance group takes a big hit with the loss of Sierra Schmidt, who has been a top NCAA performer for several seasons, finishing things off by scoring 31 points as a senior.
However, there are a few swimmers that can help shore up that loss, namely rising junior Kaitlynn Sims.
Prior to the cancellation of the 2020 NCAA Championships, Sims had a breakout performance at Big Tens, placing fourth in the 500 and third in the 1650 in new personal best times of 4:37.31 and 15:49.83, respectively.
While Sims didn’t quite match those times last season, she had some strong performances, taking second at Big Tens in the 500 (4:40.2) and then scoring 14 points with a fifth-place finish in the mile at NCAAs (15:57.8).
If she can execute in the 500 free heats during the opening prelim session at NCAAs—a race she faltered in last season—Sims can be a big-time scorer in both events this season. In fact, if she hit personal best times in both events last season, she would’ve finished one spot ahead of Schmidt in both and scored 31 points.
In addition to Sims, the Wolverine distance crew also has incoming freshman Kathryn Shanley. If Sims is to replace the points lost by Schmidt, then Shanley can be slotted into the role of Caroline Sisson, who has moved on to graduate studies at Georgetown.
Sisson was seventh in both the 500 and 1650 at last season’s Big Tens, and Shanley’s best times of 4:46.1/16:22 certainly fit into that realm. Shanley’s mile projects her to be an NCAA qualifier as a freshman, like Sisson was last season, and steady progression could make her a scorer down the road.
MacNeil was clearly the team’s top backstroker last season, but hasn’t raced the events individually during the postseason with her schedule already filled with the 50 free, 100 free and 100 fly.
With Carter swimming fly, MacNeil will likely continue to be the team’s de facto lead-off leg on the medley relays, but any individual points earned will have to come from elsewhere.
Last season it was Mariella Venter notching a 12th-place finish at NCAAs in the 200 back to score some valuable points, dropping almost two seconds in 1:52.19 to take 11th overall.
Venter, who represented South Africa at this summer’s Olympic Games, also has a solid 53.02 best in the 100 back, good for fourth at Big Tens, and there were four freshmen on last season’s team that were in between 53.5 and 54.9, led by Casey Chung (53.54).
Housey, in addition to her 200 free abilities, is also a strong 200 backstroker, having placed seventh at Big Tens in a best of 1:55.83, ultimately DFS’ing the event at NCAAs.
Outside of Venter’s 200 back, points will be tough to come by on backstroke for Michigan, though they’ll continue to have one of the best lead-off legs on the medley relays thanks to MacNeil.
Breaststroke was a glaring weakness for the Wolverines last season.
Not only did the team field no swimmers in either event at NCAAs, they only had one singular swim in a breaststroke race at the Big Ten Championships, yielding zero points.
In the medley relays at NCAAs, Venter, primarily a backstroker, had to fill in, while she and Claire Tuttle each swam one race at Big Tens. In the 400 medley relay at Big Tens, Michigan lost three seconds on the breaststroke leg compared to eventual winners Ohio State and runners-up Northwestern, but still finished within half a second of first thanks to the strength of the rest of their squad.
That void has now been filled with the arrival of Letitia Sim.
Sim vaulted up 12 spots to #4 in our class of 2021 recruiting re-rank this year, becoming the fastest incoming freshman breaststroker by a mile with her best times of 59.01 and 2:09.50.
That 100 breast time instantly saves the team probably two seconds in the 400 medley relay, and despite Sim being far from a pure sprinter, her 27.4 50 split from the 2021 NCSAs is already an improvement for the 200 medley.
Individually, Sim is in position to be a top-16 NCAA scorer in the 100 breast, with about six-tenths to drop to get into ‘A’ final territory. She’s also less than a second shy of being a scorer in the 200 breast, and at Big Tens, she figures to be a top-five finisher in both.
The breast group remains thin—Tuttle (1:02.7) was the only swimmer sub-1:05 in the 100 last season, and the fastest 200 breaststroker was Venter at 2:19. But Sim puts an end to the medley relay difficulties and should also provide some individual points.
Juxtaposing the breaststroke breakdown is butterfly, which couldn’t be much better in terms of high-end ability as the Wolverines boast the defending NCAA champions in both the 100 and 200-yard events.
MacNeil came into the 100 fly at nationals with lofty expectations, having won the World Championship title in the long course event since the last time NCAAs was contested, and she exceeded those by becoming the first woman under the 49-second barrier in a mind-boggling 48.89.
Carter added a sixth-place finish at NCAAs, giving Michigan 33 points in the event. Both Glass and freshman Noelle Kaufmann broke 53 seconds during the season to add depth.
In the 200, Carter blew away the field to win the title as was previously touched on, clocking 1:51.33 to top the next-fastest swimmer by 1.54 seconds.
It’s possible that Carter will have to contend with the likes of Regan Smith this season, though she may opt to avoid the difficult 200 back/200 fly double on Saturday, and MacNeil will get a new challenger in the form of Torri Huske in the 100, who, like Smith, will be a freshman at Stanford.
MacNeil is coming off of winning the Olympic gold medal in this event, it should be noted, and it’s been a long time since someone beat her head-to-head—short or long course—in this race.
As it currently stands, both MacNeil and Carter would have to be favored to repeat as NCAA champions in the butterfly events, and Carter maintains an ‘A’ final threat in the 100.
That potentially gives Michigan 50+ fly points in just three swims. They’ve also got senior Victoria Kwan (1:56.37) and sophomore Sophie Housey (1:57.29) who have scoring potential in the 200 fly, and incoming freshman Sim (52.7/1:56.9) is also a strong flyer, though both events coincide with the breaststrokes at NCAAs.
Kathryn Ackerman is the core of the team’s medley group, having been an NCAA ‘A’ finalist in her freshman year last season with a seventh-place showing in the 400 IM (4:06.95).
Ackerman, a Michigan native, came into the season with a best time of 4:07.79 in the event dating back to December 2018, and broke it for the first time in more than two years in the NCAA prelims (4:07.35) before going even faster in the final.
If she can carry that momentum forward into this season—and clearly the coaching in Ann Arbor is working for her—she should be back in the top-eight.
The team’s top 200 IMers project to be Carter and Sim, who both swim the race as a third option to go along with their 100/200 specialty strokes.
Carter was as fast as 1:56.32 last season but didn’t race it at NCAAs in order to swim five relays. Sim will surely take the race on for Day 2 of NCAAs prior to the breaststrokes, and her best time of 1:57.4 is within three-tenths of ‘B’ final territory.
Ackerman has been as fast as 1:58.6 in the 200, but was 2:00.0 last season and didn’t race it at NCAAs.
Kwan was an ‘A’ finalist in both IM events at last season’s Big Tens, nearing her 400 lifetime best from the previous season’s conference meet in 4:09.73. Matching that time in the NCAA prelims would’ve earned her a second swim, but she added more than four seconds and finished 31st.
If she can hit her taper for NCAAs, Kwan can be a scorer in the 400 IM, joining Ackerman, and her 200 personal best from 2020 (1:57.58) would also put her in the hunt for a second swim.
All in all, the Wolverines may only land one scoring IM swim at NCAAs from Ackerman, but there’s potential for a few more.
The Wolverines didn’t score any NCAA diving points last season, and their sole diver that qualified, Nikki Canale, has graduated.
Junior Lucy Hogan brings promise, having placed seventh in the 1-meter at Big Tens and 11th in the other two events to combine for 55 points. Their next-highest finish at Big Tens behind Canale and Hogan is another departing grad, Christy Cutshaw, leaving the door open for some of the younger divers to make an impact.
Michigan did what it had to do to make its medley relays more competitive this season. By adding Sim, the Wolverines can now roll out a lineup of MacNeil, Sim, Carter and Flynn/Glass and push for conference titles and top finishes at NCAAs.
Carter and Glass made the relays a priority last season, taking on all five at NCAAs, and that will likely have to remain the case to keep them competitive. With Flynn joining those two, along with MacNeil, the sprint relays will get a nice boost.
The only relay that seems to be getting a downgrade this season is the 800 free, where Schmidt anchored them home last season in 1:45-low. That could be a spot for Shanley to fill, with her flat-start best sitting in the 1:47-mid range.
With Sim giving them the breaststroker they needed, and Flynn shoring up the sprint group, Michigan’s relays are in good shape to outperform last season’s showing. Even if they just improve in the 200 free and medley relays, which were both 16th last year, and hold firm everywhere else, they’ll be looking good.
As long as Michigan has MacNeil, they’ll remain competitive. With this being her senior season, and indications that she might be looking elsewhere for her fifth year of eligibility, this is probably the Wolverines’ best shot at a high NCAA finish for a while.
They’ve patched up the few holes that they had, and if some of the sophomore and junior swimmers can take a step forward, the team will be able to replace the lost points from Schmidt by committee.
The relays should be better, the individual points have the potential to be better, and a top-five NCAA finish is certainly a tangible goal.
It will also be interesting to see how the team performs after associate coach Rick Bishop, who worked primarily with the women’s team, departed for LSU in the offseason. Assistant Nikki Kett also is no longer with the team, with former Penn State assistant Priscilla Barletta joining the staff.
With the possibility of this being MacNeil and Carter’s last go-round with the team, they’ve got to make the most of this season.