Every senior hopes for a storybook ending when they get ready to compete for the last time, and that’s just what Penn men’s swimming senior Chris Swanson got at this weekend’s NCAA National Swimming and Diving Championships.
On a weekend already made historic by the number of Quakers participating at the meet, Swanson became Penn’s first ever national champion, winning the 1,650-yard freestyle in a time of 14:31.54 in incredible come-from-behind fashion.
The senior started off on Thursday by picking up an 11th-place finish in the 500 free, and his time of 4:15.73 was good for a new Ivy League and Penn team record. This eclipsed his own mark of 4:16.13 which he set four weeks ago at the Ivy League Championships. Swanson also earned himself another All-American honorable mention, his first in the 500 to go with consecutive recognitions in the 1,650 in 2014 and 2015.
The highlight of the weekend and of the senior’s career came on Saturday in the finals of the mile. Entering the event, Swanson had recorded the fifth fastest time in the nation at 14:40.18, a time he swam at Ivies where he broke the Penn and meet record.
Last year Swanson finished 11th at NCAAs in this distance, just short of his goal of becoming an All-American, an honor bestowed upon the top eight finishers. This year, it looked as if Swanson was destined for a second-place finish after trailing South Carolina sophomore Akaram Mahmoud for most of the race. However, Swanson closed the last 50 yards in a blisteringly fast time of 24.38, eating into Mahmoud’s lead the whole time, and touched in a time of 14:31.54, good for a school record and Penn’s first-ever national championship.
“His entire race was perfect, and he could not have gone out there and executed the race plan that we had any better,” coach Mike Schnur said. “With 300 meters left, we didn’t think he was going to catch [Mahmoud], but there is no stopping Chris at the end of the race, and it was pretty incredible to watch him pull even and win.”
According to Swanson, something beyond just the will to win helped him through the final yards of the race.
“I always know that if I look over at my teammates at the end of the race that they’ll really get me through it in the end, and that’s what they did,” Swanson said. “They were going wild, I’ve never seen them jump around so much.”
Swanson’s time was .12 seconds faster than Mahmoud’s, the smallest margin of victory ever in the NCAA 1,650 championship. It also was the 12th fastest all-time swim in the event’s history — only .25 seconds slower than the 11th fastest event time, set earlier this year by Clark Smith of Texas.
For the final chapter in an impressive season, Penn sent six total swimmers down to Georgia Tech in Atlanta to compete in eight events at this year’s NCAA Championships. Penn’s four individual bids was the highest among all Ivy League programs this year, and also marked the most competitors Penn has sent to the championship since 1971.
Senior Eric Schultz rounded out his incredible career at Penn with three individual races in the 50, 100 and 200 freestyles. The senior swam to a 44th-place finish in the 50 with a final time of 20.11, finished 40th in the 200 in 1:37.00 and capped off the weekend with a 22nd-place finish in the 100.
Penn’s underclassmen were also well represented. Sophomore Alex Peterson made his NCAA debut in the 500, 400 individual medley and 1,650, touching in 4:22.97 to place 45th in the 500, clocking a 3:48.15 for 27th place in the 400 IM and finishing 30th in the mile with a time of 15:14.42. Freshman Mark Andrew also competed in two individual events, placing 36th and 32nd in the 200 IM and 400 IM events, respectively.
Andrew also combined with Schultz, freshman Thomas Dillinger and junior Kevin Su in the 400 free relay to place 23rd in a time of 2:56.07.
“It’s a great experience for these guys to get to race in this atmosphere so early in their career, the same way guys like Chris have,” Schnur said. “It’s a very difficult environment, but guys like Mark and Alex are going to be back here next year, and it’s awesome that they’ve already gotten to have this opportunity to race the best guys in the country.”
However, the weekend truly belonged to Swanson, who, despite already being considered the best swimmer in Penn history, found a way to add to his legacy.
“I don’t think anyone really expected those results,” Swanson said. “As great as it is for me, it is also great for [the Penn swimming community]. They’re just as excited as I am, if not more.”
While the collegiate racing season may be over for Penn, several athletes from the men’s and women’s sides will be gearing up for the Olympic Trials in June, where swimmers like Swanson will get one last chance to go for glory.
“There’s a chance he can end up in the final heat at trials, with the chance to be one of the eight fastest guys in the country.” Schnur said. “Chris is a guy who though who will swim till his heart gives out, so it will be exciting to see him get in the pool for one final time.”
Even though Swanson has become the fastest collegiate mile swimmer in the country, he hesitates to depict himself as the swimming great he is.
“I feel like people like the underdog, the little guy.”
But as the program’s first ever national champion, Chris Swanson is an underdog no more.
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