The last time the Ohio State women’s swimming and diving team had a better performance at the conference championships than it did last month, no members on the current roster were born.
Thanks in large part to two standout meets from junior Lindsey Clary and sophomore Liz Li, who secured two individual titles each, the Buckeyes took fourth place as a team at the Big Ten championships. Now they’re looking to repeat that success as they compete at the NCAA championships in Atlanta from March 16 to 19.
Overall, the Buckeyes took home five titles, including one relay win — the first time since 1991 that the Buckeyes won a Big Ten relay event. Li, along with classmate Macie McNichols and seniors Annie Jongekrijg and Rachael Dzierzak, won the 200-yard freestyle relay, beating their own school record, while setting a pool record in the process. To add the icing on the cake, the relay team’s winning time also qualified it for the national championships.
Clary had qualified for nationals at the Ohio State Invitational in November, so her training program was adjusted to have her be at her peak in Atlanta. As such, she went into the conference meet at a disadvantage relative to the other swimmers. Even though she didn’t have much to gain personally, Clary said she used the opportunity to accumulate points for her team as a catalyst to drive her.
“Going into Big Tens I knew that I was in spots to score for my team,” Clary said. “I kind of used that as motivation, I knew I was in a good spot rested or not, I knew that I could get the job done.”
She broke the pool record on her way to the Big Ten title in the 400-yard individual medley with a time of 4:03.64. She now enters the NCAA championships as the second seed.
“My coach and I have talked a lot about how I’m going to be in the mix for the (national) title for the 400 (individual medley),” Clary said. “It’s definitely never even been a thought for me, so when my coach said that in the fall in one of my goal meetings I was like, ‘(Wow), he’s crazy.’ But I guess seeing the psych sheet and seeing what I did at Big Tens with little to no rest, it really pumps me up, so I’m pretty excited to see how that plays out, as well as my mile and 500.”
Clary also won the 1,650-yard freestyle — the mile — and is seeded third in the event heading into the national championships. She took third in the conference in the 500-yard freestyle, which results in her qualifying for the NCAAs in that race, as well.
As for the other Buckeye who won two individual titles, Li said she fell ill while resting for the conference championships, but she used inspiration from her teammates and coaches to gain confidence heading into the meet.
“I was really sick, and I got tired mentally and psychologically. I felt like I might not perform well during Big Tens,” Li said. “I was so concerned about that, but my teammates and the coaching staff encouraged me, and they believed in me that I could do a good job.”
Li won the 50-yard freestyle with a time of 21.80 seconds and is the second seed in the event at the NCAA championships. This was the first time that a Buckeye had won the Big Ten 50-yard freestyle title since 1982.
Not being the top-ranked swimmer in the event isn’t necessarily a bad thing, Li said.
“I feel like maybe that’s a great opportunity for me to improve myself, because I love people in front of me who are faster than me to lead me to my best,” she said.
The sophomore also captured the conference title in the 100-yard butterfly and will be the No. 12 seed heading into the national championships. In her third event at the conference meet, she was out-touched in the 100-yard freestyle and had to settle for second place, but she will have another shot as the eighth seed in Atlanta.
Clary said she thinks the team’s resurgence is because of a change within the team atmosphere, which has been a focus for the Buckeyes this season.
“We’ve brought in a lot of outside aspects to help our culture and just team building and bonding with each other,” Clary said. “We’ve made that more of a priority, and I think the team has really bought into the program and the process.”
OSU coach Bill Dorenkott credited good personnel and individual discipline outside of practice and competitions as the reason for the team’s success this postseason.
“It took a while to get the culture where we want it, and that’s an everyday process,” Dorenkott said. “The decisions that the girls are making away from the pool, there’s a cumulative effect there, and you’re seeing the results of that. It just took a while to get the right people in the program and fit them into the proper roles.”
The season doesn’t end for the Buckeyes in Atlanta. Seventeen members of the team are planning to compete in their respective Olympic trials for the chance to swim in Rio de Janeiro in August.