They don’t call it March Madness for nothing. As winter NCAA Championships get underway, it’s easy to see why many people are so enthralled with the magic that comes from watching collegiate sports.
My version of madness, however, does not involve a basketball court or filling out a bracket. My madness lies in the swimming pool at the University of Minnesota Aquatic Center where two Horizon League standouts in Oakland’s Tricia Grant and Milwaukee’s Emily McClellan were competing on the biggest stage for college student-athletes. The NCAA Swimming and Diving Championships are hot, crowded and have the aroma of chlorine but do not fail to entertain as some of the best athletes in the country race against each other and most notably, the clock.
On Thursday, day one of the Championships, I entered the arena in my Horizon League polo with a sense of pride to represent the League on such a big stage for the sport of swimming and diving. After I found my way around the media room, I ventured to find my assigned seat for the event. After passing by nearly every table along the pool seating area, I finally found a nametag with ‘Horizon League’ printed on it. My seat, however, was behind a large pillar that restricted me from viewing 90 percent of the competition pool but on the brighter side it was in perfect alignment with the diving well.
This was the beginning of my view from behind the pillar.
Milwaukee’s McClellan was first to compete in the preliminary round of the Championships in the 200-individual medley where she finished with a time of 1:57.84, just shy of her own school and League record. The time she posted placed her at 28th and was over a full second faster than her time in the 200-individual medley at the NCAA Championships last year in Indianapolis.
But for McClellan, the best was yet to come.
Meanwhile in the diving well, Oakland’s Grant was preparing to compete against 38 other divers on the 1-meter board. Over the course of six dives, the junior totaled a score of 250.25 in her debut at the NCAA Championships. Her score was good for 31st place overall.
And for Grant, the next day proved to be better.
When I headed down to breakfast Friday morning on day two of the Championships, I found myself in conversation with the waiter in the lobby. He asked me about why I was in Minneapolis and what conference I worked for. In the midst of the small talk, he continued to ask about the student-athletes we had competing over at the pool and apologized for us only qualifying two for the Championships.
I immediately replied explaining how having two student-athletes at the Championships is a big deal for a mid-major athletic conference and how proud the League was of their accomplishments all year.
Little did he know, having two student-athletes at the Championships was nothing to apologize for.
The preliminary rounds of day two brought even more energy to the atmosphere in and around the pool. As I settled into my seat behind the pillar, I got ready for the day by making my presence known in the Twitter world and checked out the heat sheet for the rundown of the day’s events.
After nearly an hour and a half, it was finally time for McClellan to hit the pool in the 100-breaststroke. Alongside the large Milwaukee fan base, I watched her dive into the pool and dominate her heat to post a time of 57.81. The roar from the crowd after her swim was by far the loudest of the day and those that came out to support her comprised of the biggest cheering section in the entire Aquatic Center. That cheering section, mind you, was solely for one student-athlete.
The time not only broke a school and League record, but placed her first going into the night’s Championship finals.
After the completion of a few more events in the competition pool, it was time for Grant to compete in her second diving event of the meet in the 3-meter springboard. Looking more confident and composed in her second NCAA event, the junior standout accumulated higher scores and a better overall place than just a day ago. Overall, she scored a total of 297.90 points to place 25th in the field.
If you’ve never seen Grant dive before, her presence alone before, during and after each dive is enough to intimidate even the most confident opponents in the field.
Grant marks the first Horizon League and Oakland diver to ever compete at the NCAA Division I Championships. She has not only made a huge impact on the League record books this season but will also have another year to compete and expand her mark on both Horizon League and NCAA diving.
There was a different energy in the Aquatic Center walking into Friday night’s finals session. As I settled down into my seat I couldn’t help but notice the vast amount of people wearing Milwaukee shirts around me in support of McClellan. I was spotted by many of them from wearing my Horizon League polo and gradually found myself making small talk and giving high-fives to them as they passed. It was going to be a great night for McClellan, her family and friends, Milwaukee and also the conference.
Describing it as a great night I found out later on was a huge understatement.
Just minutes before the 100-breaststroke A-final, I gathered around the Milwaukee fans with my iPhone out ready to take pictures and tweet throughout the race. From the parade of competing swimmers out to the starting blocks, to the beep sound to begin the race, anticipation built throughout the entire venue.
The race was off and with each passing 25 yard segment, McClellan fought for the lead with Texas A&M’s Breeja Larson. The final lap brought roars from the crowd as McClellan touched the wall with a time of 57.76. The time was good for second-place behind Olympic medalist Larson but was also the third-fastest time posted at the NCAA Championships in the event’s finals history. Larson re-broke her own American record in the race with a winning time of 57.23.
To top it off, McClellan broke the Horizon League and Milwaukee record with her performance in the 100-breaststroke.
And it got better; her second-place finish earned the senior First-Team All American honors for the first time in her noteworthy career.
At the end of two days of competition, Milwaukee, i.e. McClellan, accumulated 17 points at the meet, moving the Panthers into 29th place overall to place them ahead of 16 other universities.
On the final day of competition, I made sure to say hello to the Milwaukee fan base and settle in for another exciting day of action in the pool. This time as I situated myself in my seat behind the pillar, people began to recognize the logo on my shirt. The Horizon League was no longer a mystery conference at the meet but one where two student-athletes had made names not only for themselves and their respective schools but also represented the League in the highest regard possible.
McClellan competed in the 6th heat of the 200-breaststroke where she finished 3rd with a time of 2:07.33. The time was the fifth fastest of the day, placing her in lane 2 of the A-finals that night.
In the final collegiate event of her career, McClellan hit the water and did not disappoint. In a race against tough competition comprising of Olympians and America record holders, the senior held her own to finish seventh with a time of 2:06.98. The time was better than her preliminary swim and just shy of her own Horizon League and Milwaukee record.
For the second-straight day, McClellan was named a NCAA First-Team All American.
For the third-straight day, McClellan had the largest cheering section in the Aquatic Center.
Of 51 schools that scored at the NCAA Swimming and Diving Championships, Milwaukee, i.e. McClellan, finished with 29 points to place the Panthers 26th overall. She alone topped scores from Big Ten foes Michigan and Ohio State as well as Missouri, LSU and Alabama out of the SEC.
Pretty impressive for a swimmer out of the Horizon League.
Even more impressive out of a swimmer that almost didn’t compete collegiately.
If there is one overarching lesson to be learned from my three days at the University of Minnesota Aquatic Center it is that limits only exist if you allow them to. Grant and McClellan represented the conference at the highest collegiate level in swimming and diving. Before the meet, I doubt many people in the world of swimming could immediately recognize the universities of Oakland and Milwaukee or even the Horizon League, but they were surely talking about them after.
I know this because I heard their conversations, all from my seat behind the pillar.