Week two of major Division I conference championships kicked off with a bang. The Michigan Wolverines, defending men’s NCAA champions, wasted no time in returning to the dominating post-season form that saw them absolutely roll to conference and national titles a year ago, taking just the second event of the Big Ten Championships and turning it into the highlight of the weekend.
The 800 free relay, the longest and perhaps most grueling relay event on the college event lineup, turned out the be well worth the effort for the Team Blue. The Wolverine team of Anders Nielsen, Michael Wynalda, Justin Glanda and Connor Jaeger went 6:09.85 to become not only the fastest relay in NCAA history, but also the fastest 800 free relay ever swum on American soil.
The much-talked about hero of the relay was Wynalda, who put up a blazing 1:30.60 split swimming second, even with a pretty average relay exchange. That’s the kind of split that immediately makes people think of barriers – suddenly the first-ever 1:29 200 freestyle split seems incredibly possible, perhaps even imminent.
The 200 free is an event where the stakes have been progressively raised in big ways this season. Back in the fall of 2013, we saw Yannick Agnel and Conor Dwyer go head-to-head at the Minneapolis Grand Prix in what was one of the fastest 200 free battles ever recorded (Agnel won 1:31.90 to 1:32.09). Then in December we saw Joao de Lucca and Darian Townsend become the first swimmers under 1:32 in the same field. Wynalda’s split (and the splits of his three Michigan teammates) ups the ante even more, and now swim fans get to spend three weeks wondering if Wynalda’s NCAA showdown with defending champ de Lucca will even top all of that – could we see the first 1:30 in NCAA and American history? Could we see two of them?
That’s not even to speak of what the relay win says for Michigan. It’s an early statement that the Wolverines are back for another post-season run, perhaps spurred on by the fact that they’ve at times been overlooked this season as NCAA title favorites despite the way they proved so many doubters wrong a year ago. It also shows that this team, though quite different from last year’s in composition, can still find ways to hurt you. Where last year’s group was loaded with versatile sprinters that made their medley relays so dangerous, this year’s team is a buzzsaw in the middle-distances, and that 200/500 group is proving that they can transcend being great (they were 2nd at NCAAs in this event a year ago) and rise to a whole new level of eliteness entirely.
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