After a stellar regular season, the Wisconsin women’s swimming and diving team concluded its campaign with a 10th-place finish at the NCAA national tournament. This marked the first time in Wisconsin history that the team finished the season in the national top 10, and it is their best finish since 2000, when they finished 11th.
“Finishing 10th is huge,” coach Eric Hansen said. “We feel we can start readjusting our goals now. It just supports our philosophy, the consistency of our system is working and we are starting to get the kids who fit the philosophy of the program.”
The women swimmers took a grueling path to the tournament. After opening their season with an easy win at home against the Iowa Hawkeyes, the Badgers suffered their first — and only — defeat of the year against then-seventh-ranked Arizona.
“We go down there and race because of the success they’ve had,” Hansen said. “It’s always a good wake-up call for us to know what is happening in other parts of the swimming world. I think it just helped us reestablish what we needed to get done to be at the level we wanted to be at.”
After the tough loss the Badgers went on a tear, winning their next 10 dual meets. In the midst of this streak, Wisconsin spent a tremendous 77 days without hosting a home meet. The streak included invitational meets in Minnesota, Texas and Hawaii, and another dual meet against Hawaii.
“I think that is when this team really comes together, the workload is just increased to such an extent that it brings the team together,” Hansen said.
That team atmosphere was displayed upon the team’s return to the friendly confines of UW’s Natatorium. Upon returning home, the Badgers promptly swept Big Ten rivals Minnesota, Illinois and Purdue at the Big Ten quad meet. They then finished off the regular season with wins against UW-Milwaukee and UW-Green Bay, sending Wisconsin to the Big Ten championships with a 11-1 record overall and a 6-0 mark in Big Ten competition.
The Badgers also entered the championships in Minneapolis with a bevy of award winners. The women’s team had six different swimmers claim the Big Ten Swimmer of the Week award, including two by Bethany Pendleton. UW also saw diver Amanda Witte claim the award.
The team also featured two winners of the CollegeSwimming.com swimmer of the week awards. Carly Piper won her award after a stellar Nov. 7 performance against the Indiana Hoosiers, where she piled up three individuals wins in the 200-yard, 400-yard and 1000-yard freestyle events.
Pendleton received her award after her performance in the Big Ten quad meet Jan. 30-31. Pendleton’s weekend included three record-setting wins in the 200-yard and 400-yard individual medley and in the 800-yard freestyle relay, all of which set new pool records at UW’s Natatorium. She also claimed victories in the 400-yard free relay and the 200-yard free.
“Having the honors was huge for us,” Hansen said. “We have a good core of kids now that are capable of scoring nationally. We just need to continuing filling in our team with kids capable of doing that.”
Despite the winning streak and string of awards, the Badgers fell short at the Big Ten championships, managing only a fifth-place finish. While the mediocre finish was not what the team expected, the swimmers and their coach remained unfazed by the outcome.
“When I was at Arizona, we took fifth in the Pac-10 tournament, but we finished second nationally,” Hansen said. “You really have to pick what your focus is. It was hard to be at Big Tens knowing we didn’t have all our firepower because everyone wasn’t ready for that event. But it makes it that much better when you are at the NCAAs and you know you didn’t leave your best swimming at the conference meet.”
Even with the grueling schedule, the awards and the 11-match winning streak, the Badgers clearly saved their best for last. The 135 points scored at the NCAA championships sets a new record for Wisconsin and gave the Badgers something none of the teams that beat them at the conference meet can claim: A top-10 national finish.