*During the current hiatus of collegiate sport action, UChicago Athletics is running a story series 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 – With the passing of each event on Saturday night, the tension and anticipation grew within the Myers-McLoraine Pool. Hundreds of spectators and athletes were packed in tight, and everyone knew what was at stake. The 2020 University Athletic Association (UAA) men's swimming & diving championship would be decided by the final race of the four-day competition – the 400-yard freestyle relay.
The eight-team UAA conference meet has annually featured the best swimmers and divers in all of NCAA Division III, and the competition has lived up to that billing. Emory University has held the standard – the Eagles entered the weekend with 21-straight UAA team titles on both the men's and women's sides.
The University of Chicago sought to break that streak in 2020 while serving as meet hosts for the third time in four years.
"To not have to travel and to be able to sleep in your own bed and be back in your room after each session in a matter of minutes is definitely an advantage," said UChicago Head Coach Jason Weber. "Having the knowledge of our pool – walls, blocks, boards, etc. – is also a major advantage as well. Plus, having the home crowd cheer us on really has proven to be a great motivator for our team as is having the entire team on deck supporting each other."
In his 14th year leading the Maroons, Weber felt confident in his team's depth across the board. The squads featured 16 All-American returners from the previous season, including reigning national champion Byrne Litschgi (men's 200-yard backstroke). The women's diving contingent alone boasted three All-Americans among their ranks. Add in a record-breaking collection of first-years, and the stage was set for UChicago to make a big statement.
Wednesday kicked off with the best possible showing. The Maroon women dominated the one-meter dive in historic fashion, sweeping the top four spots on the podium, led by Agnes Lo (506.65 points). Momentum carried over to the start of swimming action on Thursday – UChicago won four events on the day with four school records, one UAA record and one pool record. The men's 200-yard freestyle relay provided the top highlight of the evening with a record-breaking time of 1:20.58. New school-best marks were also provided by Andrew Chen (men's three-meter dive), Keda Song (men's 200-yard IM) and Morgan Simon (women's 500-yard freestyle).
"The UAA is so competitive – we have a number of teams we are looking forward to compete with, but no one more so than Emory," Weber said. "With the women being so close to Emory at the halfway point, it really provided a boost in motivation and focus. The men exchanging blow after blow with Emory and keeping it close the entire meet was really a lot of fun and kept the team engaged the entire meet."
By the end of day three, the UChicago men and women remained in striking distance of first place thanks to four additional event titles and important points scored across every event. Four more school records fell, courtesy of Arthur Kiselnikov (men's 200-yard freestyle), Justin Park (men's 400-yard IM), the men's 200-yard medley relay and the men's 800-yard freestyle relay. Kiselnikov in particular came within 0.2 seconds of the NCAA all-time record in his 200 free. Women's diving maintained its dominance by grabbing four of the top five spots on the three-meter board. Lo captured the title with 525.90 points.
The drama ratcheted up as Saturday progressed. UChicago's men took first and second places in three events, featuring Litschgi in the 200-yard backstroke, Kiselnikov in the 100-yard freestyle and Jota Iwase in the 200-yard butterfly. Kiselnikov set a new UAA and school record in his event (44.30). On the women's side, Margaret Wolfson captured the 200-yard breaststroke title.
The stakes were clear for the last race of the night. With nearly 3,000 combined points scored, only 8.5 points separated UChicago and Emory in the men's standings. The Maroons needed a win and some help to jump ahead.
With everyone on the pool deck and in the stands locked in, the timing signal sounded and the 400 free relay commenced. UChicago and Emory battled the whole way in thrilling fashion, as the onlookers reached a deafening roar that reverberated through every inch of the Myers-McLoraine Pool. Three agonizing minutes later, the Eagles touched first with the Maroons as runners-up.
"Those are the moments you live for as a coach and athlete," Weber said. "You end up seeing some extraordinary performances when put in those positions. Our men's 400 free relay national title a few years ago is an example of that. There was so much nervous but exciting energy on the pool deck that evening. The B relay team competed so hard to give our guys a chance to win. Unfortunately, at least for me, it was tough to enjoy the final race knowing that if we won and Emory got second – and we were probably the only team that could beat them – we would lose the meet by a half-point. The rest of the team knew too but they didn't let it get them down and they were still as loud and excited watching it. While losing was tough, it was a fantastic moment for the team."
UChicago was well-represented in the final awards. Kiselnikov was selected as the UAA Men's Co-Swimmer of the Year and Men's Rookie of the Year. Lo was named UAA Women's Diver of the Year for the third time in her career. Weber and Assistant Coach Nicole Kaupp earned UAA Men's Coaching Staff of the Year, and Head Diving Coach Becky Benson garnered UAA Women's Diving Coach of the Year.
In total, 26 Maroons collected 51 All-UAA accolades over the four-day meet. UChicago's men totaled 1,579 points to place second in the standings while the women scored 1,481 points to take third.
"All the UAA titles and awards the team earned that weekend were fun to watch," said Weber. "Seeing so many of our athletes determined to perform as well as they could to help the team and reach their goals is what I'll remember most. If anyone got down or wasn't happy with their performance, it was because they thought they let the team down or didn't do enough to help the team. That's the mindset I love seeing in our athletes and something we will need to continue if we want to eventually win UAAs and beat a championship-caliber team like Emory."