After a regular season full of ups and downs including a Big Ten Record for sophomore Beata Nelson and the departure of one of their captains, the No. 21 Wisconsin women’s swim team is ready to put its last four months in the rearview mirror and move to the penultimate point of its season — the Big Ten championships.
“It’s always an exciting time of the year because everyone’s always rested and ready to do some special things,” head coach Whitney Hite said. “It’s exciting to see their six months of hard work pay off.”
Looking at it broadly, this is going to be the Badgers’ toughest meet all season. They have gone up against good in-season teams such as No. 6 Georgia and No. 3 Michigan in duals, and even took No. 10 USC down to the wire in January. However, it is important to note that the aforementioned three meets were in periods of heavy training, and none of those teams were shaved, suited up or tapered.
“When we’re rested, we’re a lot more mentally ready and know how fast we can go,” junior Emmy Sehmann said. “We’re just ready to go in there, be the underdogs and continue fighting.”
The Badgers are young but extremely talented this year, and they will be in the mix for a title if all the pieces come together properly. Nelson has come into her own after a lackluster freshman season, breaking school and conference records in the process. Her success in the butterfly events is also pushing junior Ariana Saghafi to improve rapidly and become more likely to score some points.
“Having someone like Beata on the team helps push me,” Saghafi said. “She helps set a good standard in terms of goals to reach.”
Hite also praised Saghafi’s performance.
“Ari has just worked so hard for the past two years, and getting to that point where, as a junior, she’s getting to see her hard work pay off, we’re just really thrilled for her,” he said. “For her, knowing that she’s had a breakout season, we’re just hoping that she can do it again.”
Additionally, juniors Jess Unicomb and Sehmann as well as senior Abby Jagdfeld are bona fide A-finalists in their respective events, and their performance should be essential on relays.
“Our relays this year are going to be a little different from last year,” Sehmann said. “At [NCAA’s], we’re going to want [Nelson] on all five, but at Big Tens, we’re going to have a lot of people contribute and step up. It’s super exciting and we’re ready to get as many top three relays as we can.”
There is no shortage of competition as the Big Ten sports six ranked teams. In addition to Michigan and Wisconsin, the Big Ten features No. 8 Indiana, No. 12 Ohio State, No. 16 Minnesota and No. 23 Purdue.
Last year’s conference champion, Michigan, looks to be just as stacked this year as it was last year, but could be without a crucial piece of its lineup as junior distance swimmer Rose Bi recently suffered an injury and is day-to-day. Still, the Wolverines feature swimmers like seniors G Ryan and Clara Smiddy, who have competed and succeeded on an international level. They also feature two talented transfers in Taylor Garcia and Miranda Tucker, both of whom are important pieces on relays.
“We’re expecting Michigan to swim really fast and be really competitive,” Saghafi said. “I think we’ve trained really hard and have been really prepared with back-to-back meets, so we feel ready to take everyone on.”
Indiana, Penn State and Purdue also boast US National Teamers of their own in Lilly King, Ally McHugh and Kaersten Meitz. All three of those swimmers should be able to qualify for at least two A-finals each and score some big time points for their respective teams.
Purdue’s Meitz in particular will be interesting to watch, as the Wisconsin native will go head-to-head against her former training partners from Waukesha Express — Jagdfeld and juniors Maddi Tew and Molly Manchon — in the 500-yard freestyle.
“I think it’s going to be super fun for all of them,” Sehmann said. “I think it’s going to be great for them to push each other. I think [Meitz] has been really on this season, so it’s going to be neat to have all those girls to really step up against her.”
Other exciting races will be the backstrokes, which look to be a four-way dogfight between Unicomb, Nelson, Michigan’s Smiddy and Minnesota’s Tevyn Waddell. Last year Waddell narrowly out-touched Smiddy and Nelson in the 100, and this year’s event looks to be just as nail-biting. With Nelson pushing things to a new gear with a conference record in the event earlier in the season that was nearly two seconds faster than Waddell’s winning time, the field itself should be much faster.
“We expect everyone to be faster,” Hite said. “Our expectation is that everybody gets better, not only on our team but on everyone else’s team, and that’s consistently how it’s been. I know Beata doesn’t like losing, and she’ll be ready to go.”
With tight competition for everyone on the team, the conference meet is anyone’s to take. If the Badgers’ swimmers execute their race strategies properly and the young diving corps scores well, Wisconsin might have a chance to hoist that trophy this year.
The Big Ten Championships begin Wednesday, Feb. 14 at the McCorkle Aquatic Pavilion in Columbus, Ohio. The meet will continue through Saturday, Feb. 17.
Editor’s note: The author of this article went to high school with Meitz and Manchon.