LITSCHGI NCAA TITLE HIGHLIGHTS
*During the current hiatus of collegiate sport action, UChicago Athletics is running a new story series throughout the spring and summer called "Maroon Moments", which will highlight some of the top performances and most pivotal contests from the last two years across all Maroon athletic teams.
CHICAGO – From 2014 to 2018, the University of Chicago swimming and diving teams were models of consistency on the national stage. During that five-year stretch, the Maroon men and women each placed in the top 15 of the team standings at the NCAA Division III Championships.
The 2018-19 season felt a little different. UChicago had been building consistently towards an even bigger breakthrough, and qualified a school-record 30 student-athletes to the 2019 NCAA Championships.
"I think we were a closer and more confident team and hoping to place inside the top 10 for the first time," said Head Coach Jason Weber. "This was the first year we had as many men focus solely on NCAAs (not rest for UAAs), so we were all eager to see how we'd perform. Our divers had a resurgence under Coach Beck [Benson] and we were all excited to see how well they would do, and felt confident all four women could score on both boards."
That confidence was ultimately rewarded. The Maroons produced their best placements ever at NCAAs as the women finished sixth and the men took eighth in the team standings. A national title in the backstroke was won. All told, 24 Maroons collected 52 All-American awards.
In his 13th year leading the UChicago programs in 2018-19, Weber knew what was required physically and mentally for his athletes to perform at the national meet, which stretches over four days of competition.
"We train all season for these specific multi-day/session championship meets," Weber said. "Many of our invites and competitions throughout the year also focus on this schedule and pushing ourselves to compete in multiple events in each session/day. Having to do prelims/finals for all relays is what can be really tough for the top swimmers in multiple relays and events, so it's important that we have positive energy and enthusiasm every session to help motivate and push our athletes."
Heading into the meet, UChicago's women were not ranked highly in their individual events and relays. The women's diving contingent could help get the team into the top 15, but the swimmers would need to step up their performances to get into the top 10. That's just what happened. The women scored points in four of their relays and senior Hannah Eastman went out with a bang, earning All-American honors in six different races. Sophomore Gillian Gagnard posted the top women's swim result of the weekend by taking sixth in the 200-yard backstroke.
"Seniors Daria Wick and Hannah Eastman had some extraordinary relay swims that propelled those relays to score many more points than projected and break school records in the process," Weber said. "Hannah, Hadley Ackerman and Gillian Gagnard had breakouts meets and dropped significant time to score valuable points as well."
The diving portion of the meet saw the Maroons submit a dominating group performance. A school-record four divers qualified for NCAAs on both boards, and they delivered with a combined eight All-American finishes. Junior Agnes Lo wrapped up her record-breaking season by finishing national runner-up in the three-meter dive and third in the one-meter dive. At the meet's conclusion, Head Diving Coach Becky Benson was selected as the Women's Division III Diving Coach of the Year by the College Swimming & Diving Coaches' Association (CSCAA).
"It is an unbelievable feeling to know that your entire team qualified for the NCAA National Championship meet," Benson said. "And then to watch all of my kids own their power, support each other, and encourage their competitors during the meet is priceless."
On the men's side, UChicago delivered high placements in multiple events. The 200-yard freestyle relay was the highest-placing relay, taking fifth overall while the 400-yard medley relay finished sixth. Individually, junior Lance Culjat put up his best meet performance ever. After taking seventh in the 100-yard breaststroke and 11th in the 200-yard IM, Culjat came within a half second of a national title, grabbing runner-up in the 200-yard breaststroke.
On the final day of the meet, it was Byrne Litschgi's turn to provide a historic moment. The Maroon junior came into the meet as one of the favorites to win the men's 200-yard backstroke. Weber was feeling quite optimistic about his chances to achieve that feat.
"I was more confident about Byrne's races and his national title hopes in the 200 back than I have been and probably will ever be about any other swimmer or diver, mainly due to his confidence," Weber said. "He always shows up in the biggest moments and loves to compete. He also has so much confidence in himself and his abilities so if he told me he was going to win based on how he felt and how he was competing, then I believed him."
Litschgi looked good in the prelims, swimming the top time in the event by more than 1.2 seconds. In the 200 back final, a huge boost on the third length gave him plenty of cushion to handily clinch the NCAA championship. His winning time of 1:44.04 beat the field by 0.89 seconds. In the process, Litschgi became the third Maroon swimmer to claim a national title in school history.
"Byrne's race plan, and what we had talked about and trained for during the season, was to go out strong and controlled, around 50 low and then attack the third 50, which is usually the 50 that most swimmers drop off in the 200," Weber said "He had another gear that 50 and really extended his lead, which I'm sure made it tough mentally for any of his competitors to overcome. At that point, we all knew he would win but it was still so exciting to see him win and be the first male individual to win a title in 30 years. It really pumped up the team and gave us motivation to finish the meet strong."