By Casey Barrett
NEW YORK, April 1. HE gets you to believe. In yourself, in your talent, in your training, and importantly, in him. That's no small task, and it doesn't have much to do with what goes on in the water everyday.
18 to 22 year old boys can be a delicate lot. They won't admit to this, but it's true. Their egos are fragile and their freakishly fit bodies are hyper sensitive to the slightest turbulence in their training. Often times what they need is not a coach but a psychologist. Enter Mike Bottom, the ultimate mind coach.
Two days ago, Bottom guided Michigan back to the top, as the men raced to their first title in 18 years. Bottom's incredible accomplishments with a who's who of champion sprinters long ago established him as one of the world's great coaches, but this title does something else. It validates his Hall of Fame bona fides and transcends that old Sprint Coach label that he wore for so long. This Michigan team won it the Michigan way and the Bottom way. Which is to say they won it by dominating the distance events and swimming blazingly fast on the sprint relays. That's a dangerous combo.
They also won it with virtually no stars. With all due respect to Connor Jaeger, who posted a pair of terrific winning times in the 500 and 1650, this Michigan team was a group that won with depth and consistency, not with a few eye-popping record-shattering swims. They did post one NCAA record — a stunning 1:22.27 in the 200 medley relay that no one saw coming. But aside from Jaeger's wins and that one relay, you didn't see Michigan standing on top of the podium in any other events.
Consider the races that will be remembered at this meet. There were quite a few. USC's Vlad Morozov's staggering sprints. 17.8 on that relay, 40.7 flat start in his 100. Cal's Tom Shields, who ended his collegiate career in high style, tying Phelps's small pool record in the 200 fly with that 1:39.6. And of course, Arizona's monster sophomore, Kevin Cordes, who can now officially be proclaimed America's Next Great Breaststroker. A few days ago, I posted a claim that his 49.5 100 breast split on Arizona's medley relay may have been the best college swim ever. Turns out we spoke too soon. His 1:48.6 in the 200 breast is the best college swim ever. Tell me another that compares.
All of the above guys are Pac-12 swimmers. That's where the best swimmers are. It's hard to argue with the evidence. However, Michigan had the best team. By a lot. For all the drama at the meet this year, the team race was never really close. As the pre-meet projections established, Michigan was on another level, points-wise. They won by a comfortable 73.5 points ahead of Cal. (Talk about poetic justice. Beating your old team, after losing the top job there and watching them instantly ascend to the top in your absence…) The fact is, Michigan left plenty of points on the table. That first morning, they really should have had three or four guys in the final of the 500. Instead, they put four in the B-final, with each one missing the top 8 by less than half a second. There are plenty of other examples where they could have racked up plenty more points, but no matter. They did what they had to do.
They did it because Bottom made them believers. The man grasps the science of fast swimming as much as anyone, but it's always been about more than that with Bottom's swimmers. He simply convinces his swimmers that they're the special ones. Simply — talk about the wrong adverb… There is nothing simple about it. This is high stakes coaching. Because all you need is one swimmer to call bull, and start spreading seeds of doubt among his teammates, and all those inspiring whispers cease to matter. It's easier for coaches to place all their faith in a system. That gives everyone deniability. You present a program that's worked before — with the right amount of yardage and speed work, the right arc to a season, the right carefully plotted taper, and you let the end take care of itself. That makes sense, and it does work, but Bottom has always played for higher stakes.
He's the coach who creates unshakeable confidence in his swimmers, convincing them of their specialness, of their destiny. It doesn't always turn out that way. But when that promised specialness all works out in the end, that's when legends are made. Both in the water and on deck.
Casey Barrett is the founder of both swim blog capandgoggles.com and New-York based swim school Imagine Swim.