Jan. 15, 2014
By Brad Rudner (firstname.lastname@example.org)
In swimming, if you're good at all four strokes, you're swimming all four strokes. Such is the case for do-it-all, team-first captain John Wojciechowski.
Last April, just days removed from helping the Michigan men's swimming and diving team win the national championship, Wojciechowski was back in the water for the start of another rigorous training cycle. Elite-level swimmers are in the water training for 48 weeks out of the year, so this was nothing new.
During that first week, head coach Mike Bottom was coming back from a coaches conference. One of the first things he did was pull Wojciechowski -- "Wojo" for short -- aside and tell the senior-to-be that he was going to be in the sprint group for the rest of his career. Looking up and down the roster, you see various training groups -- the always dangerous distance group, the sprint freestylers, the butterfliers -- but one group that lacked more than others was the backstrokers, specifically someone who could swim the 100-yard backstroke and on both medley relays.
For as successful as the program has been in recent years, the backstroke has been more of a mystery. Of the 346 individual Big Ten titles Michigan swimmers have won, only 25 have come in the 100 and 200-yard backstrokes. That's seven percent.
Furthermore, since 1998, only one U-M swimmer -- Alon Mandel in 2009 -- has won the conference title in the 100-yard backstroke. Only three U-M swimmers have cracked 47 seconds in the 100-yard backstroke: Miguel Ortiz (45.48 in 2013), Mandel (46.47 in 2009) and Sean Fletcher (46.75 in 2013). At this point in the season, there are 20 college swimmers this season that have already broken that barrier.
Following Ortiz's graduation last spring, Bottom knew that the team would need a backstroker in order to best defend its Big Ten and NCAA championships. The person with the answer was right in front of him every day, just in a different part of the pool.
"He was ready and looking for opportunities to serve the team," Bottom said. "He realized the need and stepped up. That's the kind of guy he is."
"I'm done after this season. It's not like I'm trying to make the Olympic team," Wojciechowski added. "Whatever combination of events I can score the most points for the team is what I'm going to do."
With the transition came serious changes in both technique and training. In the water, he was moved out of the middle-distance group to the sprint group where he is overseen by sprint gurus Bottom and Mark Hill every day. In the weight room, he incorporated a new regiment around lifts to get the power and strength needed to be a backstroker. That's not even counting the rigorous course load for the business administration major (he's a soon-to-be three-time Academic All-Big Ten honoree and CSCAA Scholar All-American).
When Wojciechowski is in the water training the backstroke, he's usually right next to Ortiz and Japanese international Junya Koga, both of whom train with Club Wolverine. Being the program record holder in the 100-yard backstroke, Ortiz knows a thing or two about being fast, and he's trying to impart as much wisdom onto Wojciechowski as possible.
"For someone with his experience level, I'm surprised he's going as fast as he is," Ortiz admitted. "He's definitely still learning. He's a little broken down right now, but he'll start to taper, feel better and become more confident that by the time championships come around; he'll be ready to bust out some good times."
One thing the coaching staff has seen with Wojciechowski is consistent improvement year to year. He was primarily recruited to specialize in the butterfly but found himself doing the individual medley within his first three months on campus. Now, with only months, weeks and days until his time as a collegiate swimmer is over, he's working to adapt his stroke once again.
While Wojciechowski may still not quite be a finished product, what he lacks in technique, he makes up for in underwater kicking and on the walls, two things he feels are advantages when he's in the water. His season-best time in the 100-yard backstroke is 47.53 from the U.S. Winter National Championships in December, but both he and Bottom feel that those times will go nowhere but down.
"He's going to get better," Bottom says, defiantly. "If he can final at Big Tens in the 100-yard butterfly and 100-yard backstroke, we'll be very happy with that. If he finals at Big Tens, he'll make the cut for NCAAs, where I think he's got a great shot to final."
In addition to the 200-yard IM and the 100-yard butterfly (two of his more signature events), he'll continue to refine his 100-yard backstroke in the weeks leading up to February's Big Ten Championships, which are coincidentally held in his regular training pool at Canham Natatorium. Coaches will tell you that it doesn't hurt to have a championships meet in your own pool, because the ability to shave even a few tenths or hundredths off times can mean all the difference.
"There hasn't been a point this year where I've felt like, 'Oh, that's really good. If only we can hold onto that,'" Wojciechowski said. "It's pretty hard to come off these last couple of weeks and not improve. I trust our coaches. We stick to the plan and everything works out because the training is good and our team is good."
As far as the relays go, Wojciechowski feels like he's doing damage control. He knows what Ortiz did last year at NCAAs. Right or wrong, he feels it's his responsibility to hold his own, which only ramps up the pressure.
"I don't want to go into a relay where people are thinking, 'We'll have to play catch up after Wojo swims,'" he said. "I want people to be comfortable with the position we're in after I've done my part."
And his head coach agrees.
"If he can be within a few tenths of everyone else after that first leg, we'll be in the hunt," Bottom said. "Look who is behind him. Richard Funk is swimming incredible. Dylan Bosch is swimming very fast in the butterfly and could have Peter Brumm making his way in there, too. And then you have Bruno Ortiz in the freestyle, who I think will be one of the best sprinters in the country by the end of the season."
Bottom says every day is an opportunity to get better. If Michigan is to repeat as national champions and extend its Big Ten title reign by another year, Wojciechowski and his backstroke will need to be a big part.
Friday, Feb. 28. That's the day the conference champion in the 100-yard backstroke will be determined.
Only 44 days to go. You can be sure "Wojo" knows.