On a bright Berkeley afternoon in late September, coach David Durden started preparing the Cal men’s swim team for the unfamiliar role of the underdog.
Six months had passed since the team’s biggest win in 31 years. One of the most talented classes in college swimming history had gone, leaving the defending NCAA Champions without five of the six swimmers who won events at the national competition. As the offseason eased into regular season, the Bears’ future didn’t look bleak so much as ambiguous.
As the book opened on 2011-12 season, few believed the architect of Cal’s first championship in three decades could construct another championship title so quickly.
“The main storyline outside these walls is that we’re not in a position to compete for a national title,” said Durden, days after his squad thrashed Cal Poly in the season’s first meet.
“Of course,” he added, “Our goal is to always compete for a national title.”
Six months after the season began, Durden left his squad’s doubters looking like fools. Cal peaked when it mattered most, taking home its second NCAA title in two years on March 24. Though never ranked higher than No. 6 throughout the season, the Bears proved that perception doesn’t always match reality. You can never count out the defending national champions.
“A lot of people talked about how many people we lost off of last year’s national championship team,” said Durden, who was named Coach of the Meet. “But actually we had 12 guys returning who brought a lot of experience.”
Durden’s philosophy for his swimmers has always been simple: swim your best at NCAAs and don’t worry about regular season results.
You could call it strategic procrastination. The Bears’ lackluster regular season had little bearing on their performance in March; early season performance isn’t necessarily indicative of postseason success.
Cal consistently defeated its unranked opponents, but the squad struggled against high-ranked competition. The Bears fell to Auburn at the Bulldog Invitational in December, and dual meet losses to Arizona and Stanford in the ensuing two months weren’t even close. The four opponents would all finish in the top six at NCAAs.
Only after the Bears’ second-place finish at the Pac-12 Championships — in which 18 swimmers qualified for NCAAs — did it become clear Cal was more talented than its 4-2 dual meet record indicated. Though Stanford won the meet for the 31st year in a row, Cal outpaced then-No. 1 Arizona and a talented USC squad.
“I think we’re just quietly doing what needs to be done to compete for a national championship,” said Durden after Cal’s second-place finish.
The Bears definitely competed for a national championship, but they sure didn’t do so quietly.
Cal started off the championships with a bang, winning the first event of Day One — the 200 free relay — with a thrilling finish, the top four teams separated by just 0.14 seconds. With three freshmen and a sophomore on that relay team, Cal’s group of first-time champions was the youngest in the field.
“We have top-notch freshmen,” said senior Mathias Gydesen. “And a lot of greatness to be unleashed.”
The Bears continued their assault on the leaderboard throughout the three-day competition, garnering strong performances from a variety of swimmers. Sophomore Marcin Tarczynski, who had never finished higher than third in a postseason event, won the 200 IM, setting a school record in the process. Cal swimmers won six events and finished second in five more.
“We just had some great swimming,” Durden said. “We’re just really happy with the consistency with which we swam.”
Tom Shields, the only Cal swimmer to win events at last year’s championships, stole the 100 fly and 100 back. In a meet where events were often decided by hundredths of a second, the eventual Swimmer of the Meet blew his competition out of the water in the fly, winning by 1.01 seconds.
Going into the 200 fly, the meet’s penultimate swim, the Bears needed two high finishes to clinch the team title. Shields was poised for his first career victory in the event when his teammate, freshman Will Hamilton, passed him by. When Shields looked up, the two Bears had finished first and second. Cal had its second straight NCAA Championship.
“All the hard work was over,” said Hamilton. “This was the easy part.”