Morning Splash by David Rieder.
For the victors, the meet meant everything, a previously-downtrodden program knocking off the gold standard. For the losers, it was just another lump in a season full of them—with the hope that all the lumps are meaningless in the end.
In the photo above, Arizona State freshman Grant House is celebrating his win in the men’s 200 free in the Sun Devils’ dual meet against Texas. In third place at the halfway point, House had turned on the burners on the third 50 and stormed home for his team’s third win in the first three men’s events. Fellow Sun Devil Cameron Craig took second.
The tone was set, and the Sun Devils would not back down from there. Craig, last year’s breakout freshman star for ASU, won the 100 free in a stellar 42.97, and at the end of the meet, with the victory not yet secured, he led off the 200 free relay in 19.65, six tenths faster than Olympic gold medalist Joseph Schooling one lane over.
Friday afternoon in Tempe, Ariz., that duo helped spark an Arizona State victory, 162 to 138.
After the meet, ASU head coach Bob Bowman considered the question: Was this his team’s biggest win in his three seasons at the helm?
“Yeah,” Bowman said softly. “Yeah.”
Earlier in the year, the Sun Devils pushed USC, the sixth-place team at last year’s NCAA championships, to the limit, only to fall six points short. And then one week before the Texas meet, the Sun Devils were competitive in dual meet losses at Cal and then at Stanford.
“I think we gained some confidence last week at Cal and Stanford,” Bowman said. “I thought we raced really well against those teams. We won a lot of events against Stanford, even though we didn’t have great depth against them. And even against Cal, we swam really credible times. When we came out of there, I felt like, if we stayed positive and kept moving forward, we’d be in a good place.”
Yes, a very good place. Just three weeks after a disheartening home loss to Harvard.
“We stepped down in every event that day,” Bowman said. “Today we stepped up in pretty much every event.”
Now, look back at that photo of House celebrating. Holding onto the wall behind him is an out-of-breath Townley Haas, the Texas junior who has swum the 200-yard free faster than anyone else in history. But in this race, Haas finished third in 1:38.32—yes, almost eight seconds off his best time.
Haas had been very much in the mix at the halfway point of the race, but his stroke fell apart after that, his tempo and length diminished. He simply looked uncomfortable. House ended up out-splitting Haas by two-and-a-half seconds over the back half of the race.
But the struggles are nothing new. In seven Texas dual meets so far this season, Haas has raced the 200 free seven times, and he has been under 1:38 exactly twice—in back-to-back meets against NC State and North Carolina back in November.
In those seven dual meets, the Longhorns have won twice—against North Carolina and Auburn. The losses have come to Florida, Indiana, Texas A&M, NC State and now ASU.
Yes, the same team that has won the past three men’s NCAA swimming titles, all in blowout fashion, has a 2-5 dual meet record. And that can’t be chalked up to Texas’ big personnel losses (Jack Conger, Will Licon and Clark Smith all graduated) or to the team’s deficiencies in certain events, like breaststroke.
No, this is just a team that looks tired. Eddie Reese, the legendary Texas head coach with 13 NCAA titles under his belt, chalked it all up to the intense workload he had given to his team—more difficult than even his usual standard.
“We’ve all trained harder, we’ve done more in the weight room, and it’s evident,” Reese said. “We’re swimming worse than you would like someone to swim. I just got to get them out of the weight room, got to get them off pullies.”
As Reese sat under a massive tent at the Mona Plummer Aquatic Center late Friday afternoon, he was introspective, thinking about how he was going to get his team, still chock-full of champions, back to their peak form. They had done their part, he insisted—three days earlier, Reese said, Haas had completed a set of 16 x 50 free, “and he was 22-plus, 23-lows from a push on all of them.”
Sure, it’s weird to see Texas get beat in a dual meet, but since when does anything matter to Reese’s team besides swimming fast when it matters at the NCAA championships? Reese has gotten his teams to perform at that meet year after year, and every one of his swimmers has full trust that the coach will come through for them once again.
Given recent history, who are we to doubt that trust?
So for the Sun Devil men, the meet was a massive win, possibly the biggest in program history. For Texas, it was just another meet.