The NCAA Swimming and Diving championships are not just the Super Bowl or World series of collegiate swimming. They are the fastest short course — or 25-yard long pool — competition in the world, since events at the Olympic level are swum in 50-yard pools. Senior co-captain Mike Smit, senior Dave McKechnie and sophomore Wes Newman have been invited to compete in this prestigious event, which begins today and lasts through Saturday at the University of Minnesota Aquatic Center.
“To race at this level is such a great experience,” Newman said. “For me, the goal of making NCAAs wasn’t necessarily a long shot, but I had to sit on pins and needles for a couple of weeks not knowing if I’d make it.”
The trio of Red swimmers trained for the two weeks following the EISL championships without knowing whether or not it’s times would even earn them an invitation to the meet, since no automatic bids were doled out to individual event winners at league championship meets this year. Unfortunately, this means that some athletes whose times have a shot at qualifying put in the time but do not compete in the meet, as was the case with the Red’s 400 relay team of Smit, Newman, McKechnie and sophomore Phil Baity, the team missed qualification by three spots.
“It was pretty anti-climactic I guess,” McKechnie said. “After practicing for two weeks, the coach just says, ‘Congratulations, you’re invited.’ My time was ranked pretty high, but if I had been ranked a tenth of a second lower in my race, I’d have been freaking out. A lot of conferences have meets after ours, so a lot of other kids have a chance to get into the meet and affect our chances.”
“The invitation process changes every year,” Smit said. “Around the fastest 14 relay teams and maybe the fastest 20 or 21 swimmers make it for each event. It’s a really complicated process where they go through the results of each event one-by-one until they fill up the roster. It’s a pretty nice honor.”
The NCAA sets up A-cut and B-cut times as markers for qualification, but the selection committee reviews the conference championship times of each swimmer in Division I and invite the 21 fastest swimmers for each event. A swimmer who makes the B-cut in an event other than the one for which he has been selected may choose to swim in that event at the championships if he wants to.
“Very few swimmers actually made the A-cut,” said head coach Joe Lucia. “They set up the selection process to have a really fast cut time this year.”
Selection for the 200 free, an event in which Smit will compete, provides an example of just how difficult an invitation to the NCAA meet is to earn. Each of the 126 Division I teams submitted times for three swimmers – meaning that 378 athletes were vying for 21 spots.
“The fact that Cornell has three guys in the meet has never happened in the recent past,” Newman said. “Our conference is pretty strong, but the NCAAs are hard to make. There are only five guys going from the EISL: one from Harvard, one from Yale, and the three of us.”
Smit, who is competing in the 200 free with his time of 1:35.52, ranked 14th on the pre-meet psyche sheet, will be swimming in his second NCAA meet after competing along with Stefano Caprara ’06 last year. Smit was also named the EISL Career Swimmer of the Meet at the league championships, and he’ll have the opportunity to swim in the 100 fly (47.79) and the 200 fly (1:46.44) after making B-cut times in these events.
“This meet is just incredible,” Smit said. “It’s one of the fastest meets in the world, period. There are so many swimmers from all over the world who compete in the U.S. Every year it’s cool to see so many records drop lower and lower at the meet.”
Newman also earned an invitation to the tournament for his time in the 200 free (1:36.18), in addition to having a B-cut time in the 500 free (4:24.07), the event for which he and Smit swam exactly the same time and won at the EISL meet.
McKechnie, who is tentatively ranked 17th on the psyche sheet, will compete in the 100 breast after winning the event at the EISL meet (53.94), but he can also compete in the 200 breast if he chooses.
According to Lucia, his swimmers’ accomplishments are even greater considering that they are a bit of an anomaly at the tournament.
“Very few athletes from the northeast qualify for the tournament,” Lucia said. “If you look at who made it, it’s mostly swimmers from southeastern schools, or schools like the Pac-10 that are bigger schools with the ability to give full scholarships.”
Smit’s sister Julia, a Stanford swimmer and Pac-10 athlete, also competed in the women’s NCAA championships last weekend, placing second in the 200 back, third in the 200 IM, and fourth in the 400 IM.
This weekend, however, her brother and his teammates McKechnie and Newman also have the opportunity to attain All-American certificates by making the top two finals at the meet, ranking among the top-16 swimmers in the nation. After arriving in Minnesota yesterday, the men are eager to compete.
“We were at the pool [yesterday] and the facility is phenomenal,” McKechnie said. “It’s kind of weird swimming with all the teams from other leagues. It’s a great experience, and everyone here is an amazing athlete.”