Olympian Connor Jaeger raised his game to a higher level over the weekend, winning the 500 and 1650 free at the NCAA Men’s Division I Swimming and Diving Championship and leading the University of Michigan to the team title. Jaeger, who finished sixth in the 1500 at the Olympics last year, talks about the title and his plans for the future in this week’s 20 Question Tuesday.
1. What does it mean to be the NCAA team champ?
Connor: How can you describe this? There is a sense of fulfillment that comes with it. You know, we wanted to get a top three all year. But obviously, you go into a swim meet always wanting to win. All year, you make the right decisions so that it is solely geared toward the end of the year. To win this meet, it’s like, “Wow, hard work pays off.” If you believe and work hard, good things can happen. It makes you feel good for doing the right thing and having it pay off.
2. The 500 – where did that come from?
Connor: I don’t know. You know, I guess I dropped some time right there. As we were tapering and working more and more on speed, it was just coming together. Once I saw I was the only Michigan guy in the final, with the team race in mind, you have to go for all the points. My coach and I talked it over, and we figured I would not worry about anything in the first 100 and then make my move. My race strategy over the past two years has been to stay relaxed until the 250 or the 300, and really work the last 200. This time we saw just how competitive the field was, and there was no way I was going to win the race doing that. So I went for it right off the first 100.
3. Did your international experience help you or put pressure on you?
Connor: That was a long course race last summer. Short course is completely different. People were putting some hype into the Jaeger-(Michael) McBroom (from Texas, 2011 winner and runner-up in 2012) race, but I knew there were more than just he or I who could win that race, including people in the earlier heats. Was there more pressure? I don’t know. I think I felt a little less confident going into that race, maybe it was because of the pressure. But with that field, I was excited for the race at the same time. There was a lot of great competitors in that race.
4. When you hit that wall and see your name followed by the number 1, what do you feel?
Connor: What’s the feeling? It’s just love. You just feel love for your team, the alumni, the fans and your parents, and everyone who supported you – the coaches. You are just happy for the people who are supported you, especially those who are there with you.
5. How about Mike Bottom winning the title in his fifth year there after such a steady progression the last few years in the team standings – isn’t he due some credit?
Connor: I agree. People can say whatever they want about Mike, but I am pretty sure when he got here, we had been a seventh-place team a few times. Ninth, then fifth last year, and this year first. But our team GPA has gone up something like .3. We had a 3.2 team GPA last semester, and that’s pretty great. Last year we got the Team Community Service Award. These things are not a coincidence. He really is a great coach. And not just Mike, but the whole staff – Mark Hill, Josh White, and our strength coach Keenan Robinson, who is also just incredible.
6. The thing about Coach Bottom is that he is seen as a sprint coach, I guess from some earlier work, but he’s done great stuff with Olympics in all events, hasn’t he?
Connor: Oh yeah, absolutely. He has coached the Chinese 200 butterflyer, and we have a pretty good distance group at Michigan. We had guys in the A and B finals, and five guys in the 500, and that’s just going off two events. We had guys perform in every event. You can’t label Mike’s program just a sprint program. I need to give Josh White some well-deserved credit too, because he runs the distance program here, and he has figured it out, as one might say.
7. Ann Arbor is not only one of the top places to watch a football game, but also a great place to go to college, isn’t it? The weather is actually part of what makes it great, right?
Connor: You know, when I was thinking about it, as I was getting recruited and thinking about where I was going to spend four years of my life, it seemed like there were some people afraid of the cold weather we have in Ann Arbor. Then I thought about it, and the group they had training here up to 2008, the college team and the elite team, and I had this idea in my head that they were tougher for choosing this place, and the weather – I’m sure the weather doesn’t affect you at all, but in my mind the weather helps harden you. I’m from New Jersey, so the weather is no different than New Jersey, and the weather stories about here are exaggerated.
8. You are the quintessential Michigan man, and you take pride in that, don’t you?
Connor: Well, thank you – that’s a compliment. I guess that’s just the way we have been trained. The leaders over the last couple of years have really done a great job of showing us how to be men, and be gracious and humble. Honestly, too, going into NCAAs, you shouldn’t be talking because there are great teams coming, and several hadn’t rested at all yet this season – and we had. So we didn’t know what to expect with that, or diving. There’s never a reason to be too confident. You focus on doing your best and getting it done, and that will do the talking for you.
9. Were you at all surprised to make the Olympic Team?
Connor: You know, I didn’t go into the summer season thinking I was going to make the team. It was never a very realistic goal for me. Getting closer to Trials, our group was really excited, and we wanted to put someone on the team. We didn’t care who it was. The college season is a place where we share the success. If someone does well, it means a lot to us all. The summer season takes that away from you a little bit. We had four people training for the 400 and 1500 and only two people could make it even in a perfect world. It’d be really easy to look at each other as competitors. Matt (Patton) Sean (Ryan), Ryan Feeley and I all tried to keep the team mindset going into it. We huddled up before the final race of the 1500, and we pumped each other up. Someone – and it could have been anyone of us – said, “Someone has to make this team and represent Michigan at the Olympics!” That was a special moment.
10. How about finaling in London?
Connor: That was so cool. If you make the U.S. Olympic team… I don’t know if anyone has said this to you, but your duty is to do your very best. You are representing so much, and so many. I was so honored and humbled with that opportunity. I was so happy to make the final. I swam in the second-to-last prelim heat, and I swam slower than I did at Trials, so I was nervous and bummed I might not make the final. I was so happy I got that additional swim, to represent the United States in the finals. That was so great. I think that just gave me more race experience.
11. How different are the 500 and 1650 at NCAAs?
Connor: They are still intense, but they are different. The 500 does take more speed. There are guys swimming who are more about the 200 and 500, and guys like me who are about the 500 and 1,650. But in the end, they require the same core training. We trained for all of it, the 200, 500, 1650, and I did a lot of 400 IM training, and even a lot of breaststroke. I don’t think that took away from my 500 at all. I think it helped me.
12. Michigan has a lot of history in this sport, doesn’t it?
Connor: Absolutely. We celebrate our history here, too. We have so many great swimmers come through here. They are great people, too. For instance, Peter Vanderkaay handed out the 500 award to me (at NCAAs) and Davis Tarwater handed out the 200 free awards at NCAAs. I got to spend a lot of time with those guys this summer, and they are not just two great athletes, but two outstanding men who want to give back to the community. They took me under their wing and gave me some confidence.
13. Man, all of you guys, plus Charlie Houchin and all the Club Wolverine alums – Michael Phelps, Allison Schmitt – talk about a team well represented on the Olympic team, right?
Connor: Michigan really does have a lot of people on the Olympic team. We had five current or former guys make it, and you can count Michael Phelps since he trained here. We just have a tradition of getting people on the Olympic team which is cool – more than cool, it’s unbelievable!
14. What is harder, long course or short course?
Connor: I don’t know if I have enough experience with it to say which one is harder. I see both sides to it. The long course version is a lot easier to get a rhythm and keep a rhythm, but with the short course, all the flip turns in the race for some people involves using more legs than you do in long course – pushing off the wall and doing dolphin kicks. You are also breathing less with the additional turns. In the end, they are comparable.
15. What event are you focusing on now besides the mile?
Connor: I finaled at Trials in the 400, so I will keep swimming that. I didn’t have a good 200 this past summer, but I had a pretty good short course 200 at NCAAs, so that gets me excited for the long course race. I have improved quite a bit in the short course race, so we will see if it transfers over to 200 for long course.
16. Are you headed for open water at some point like a lot of milers?
Connor: Open water swimming? Those guys and women are so tough! We did the open water practice one day, so I have done some open water swimming. I used to do these life guard competitions. Some of these were like 400 races in the ocean or mile races I did in New Jersey growing up. Those were fun. But a two-hour race fighting with people, I don’t know, man. Those swimmers are tough. It would at least be a couple years before I even think about trying that.
17. What other sports did you play when you were younger?
Connor: I played baseball when I was younger, and I played a couple of seasons of lacrosse, which was fun. When I was really young I played soccer. Definitely once I was in high school, I focused on swimming. I think I stopped playing lacrosse in eighth grade. I only played it for two years. I was an early developer physically because I grew earlier so I had that to my advantage, but really, I (laughs) don’t think I was a very good player.
18. What’s your major?
Connor: Mechanical engineering. My sister studied biomedical engineering, and went to Boston. In high school, my strengths were math and science. Besides, I am a horrible speller and my grammar is bad. I’m not a big reader, either. So engineering seemed like a natural route for me.
19. How much does that quantitative acumen help in swimming?
Connor: You know, I think I have kind of developed some reasoning and puzzle solving skills through the engineering classes I have taken. But I am also someone who likes to analyze things. It’s kind of a running joke with our coaches that I will overthink things and think a lot before I make a decision, even on something small from practice. So the joke is that I overthink everything. But that’s something I have developed from my classes. Maybe that’s the kind of person I am.
20. What’s your future plan for the sport?
Connor: Right now, I am just worrying about swimming next season for Michigan. I am really excited about that. I will keep working on my degree. I am keeping grad school in mind, and some other possibilities like that. Over the next year and a half, I’ll have to make some decisions. If it makes sense to keep swimming once my college career is over – for me to keep going – then I will. Swimming is my passion, so I want to keep swimming. But I can only do it if it makes sense. It’s awesome to be an Olympian. It is so cool and something I will appreciate more as I get older.