By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent
In 1995, my father and I trekked from Grand Rapids to Indianapolis for the final day of the NCAA Championships. The meet was at the IUPUI Natatorium, which was the venue for a plethora of Olympic Trials. Olympians’ names were painted on the walls. Legends’ pictures were framed in hallways. The drive took a few hours. Until that point, the biggest meet I had attended was a YMCA state championship. This meet was a tad faster.
I was an age group swimmer -- twelve years old just getting into the sport. I wasn’t very good. Like other young age group spectators who attend NCAAs, National Championships, or Olympic Trials, I just liked to swim. My father, a Michigan fan, knew Michigan had a great shot to win. They had a commanding lead. Our attendance was to watch the Wolverines take the NCAA title, but also to expose me to faster swimming and an exciting atmosphere.
It was a lot different than watching swimming on TV.
We sat with other Michigan fans. I didn’t know much about elite competitive swimming, but I knew that I had a team for which to root, which made all the difference. We cheered, jumped, and pumped fists with the other Michigan fans. We watched Tom Dolan, one of my idols, surge to victory. The crowd’s cheers increased as Dolan built his lead. With every race, we screamed for the maize and blue. When Michigan won the NCAA Championship, splashed to their victory dives in warm-ups, and sang the fight song while hoisting the trophy above their heads, a small contingent of fans including my father and me went nuts in the stands.
It was an incredible moment.
Years later, I competed against Michigan as a Northwestern swimmer. My father would sit in the stands once more, singing a different fight song than we did in 1995. There was more jumping, screaming, and fist-pumping. Then, even more years later, I sat in the stands again at NCAAs and cheered as Northwestern won their first relay title in decades. And, again: We cheered, shouted, pumped fists, and jumped like when I was twelve. We sang the fight song. We held signs and waved pom-poms.
NCAA swimming is more than swimming fast. It’s more than a conglomerate of individuals who move through water.
When Missy Franklin decided to forgo millions of dollars to experience NCAA swimming, I – and thousands of other former NCAA swimmers – smiled and nodded. Because we understood that she understood. She did her homework. She heard the rumors, stories, and legends. She knows she’ll meet her best friends in NCAA swimming -- her future bridesmaids, future mentors, future lifelong best memories. And no price tag can come close to that.
The first day of the Men’s Division 1 NCAA Championships kick off today. Ironically, they are back at that legendary pool at the IUPUI Natatorium. Once again, Michigan has a strong opportunity to win. There will be age group swimmers who attend the meet, wide-eyed and excited, staring at painted Olympian names on the wall with the same kinds of dreams I once had. And they’ll cheer. And they’ll jump up and down.
And maybe they’ll go to Michigan. Or they’ll go to another school. Or maybe they’ll stop swimming altogether. Or maybe they’ll win Olympic gold.
In swimming, only .0002% of USA Swimmers quality for the Olympics. It’s even more rare to win Olympic gold. But this weekend, there are hundreds of NCAA swimmers taking to the pool with a greater goal in mind: To compete to the best of their ability alongside best friends, teammates, and mentors. To swim in front of screaming throngs of fans and team supporters. To hold each other through the ups and downs. Through victory and defeat.
Thousands of the rest of us watch and cheer them onwards because we know that swimming is about more than winning.
It’s about best times – and not the clock kind.
Watch the prelims daily from IUPUI on the USA Swimming Network.
Mike Gustafson is a freelance writer for USA Swimming and Splash Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @MikeLGustafson.