Return to glory: No. 1 Cal men’s swim brings home national title

Karen Chow /File

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“If you’re not first, you’re last.”

While the iconic quote by the great Ricky Bobby downplays the feat of being second best, it also captures the magnitude of being THE best.

So as most Cal students were sunbathing, relaxing and partying, the No. 1 Cal men’s swim and dive team finally got the first-place finish it had been chasing for the past five years, defeating No. 2 Texas to capture its first NCAA title since 2014.

The Bears snatched the win away from the Longhorns, beating them by 85 points. Needless to say, Cal seemed to be the obvious winner before the meet was even over.

“We had an A finalist in every event. I can’t remember being a part of a team that has done that,” said Cal head coach Dave Durden. “I think that really propelled us forward in every event to know that we were in the game. We had a dog in the hunt in every single event, so that was fun to experience that and be a part of that.”

The Bears’ depth has been one of their greatest strengths throughout the entirety of the season. Additionally, the senior leadership has been an invaluable part of the team.

As he has done all season, senior Andrew Seliskar shined at NCAAs, winning three individual events in the 200 individual medley, 200 freestyle and 200 breaststroke. As if three titles weren’t enough, Seliskar broke former Cal swimmer and 2016 Olympic silver-medalist Josh Prenot’s 200 breaststroke record. It’s no surprise that Seliskar won the College Swimming Coaches Association of America, or CSCAA, Swimmer of the Year award at the end of the meet.

“It hasn’t been easy for Andrew, and even this season wasn’t easy,” Durden said. “It’s easy to swim fast when you’re on a roll. It’s very difficult — when things aren’t necessarily going your way — to manage those things, and Andrew has gotten better and better at that through his four years. He’s a very smart, mature, young man who’s done a good job over the last four years, and that four years of experiences really came to fruition and helped him manage the last 3 1/2 days.”

To compete at a level as high as the NCAA championship, experience is critical and extremely hard to make up for. In addition to Seliskar, senior Nick Norman placed third in the 1,650 freestyle for the second year in a row, followed by sophomore Sean Grieshop. Another sophomore showed up for Cal — Ryan Hoffer won the 50 freestyle.

Junior Zheng Wen Quah moved up from his sixth-place finish in 2018 to place third in this year’s 200 fly. Quah was followed by sophomore Trenton Julian, who took sixth, and senior Mike Thomas, who finished 10th. The 200 backstroke featured two strong finishes by Cal swimmers with sophomores Bryce Mefford placing third and Daniel Carr getting fifth.

It’s easy to think of swimming as an individual sport, but it’s clear that it took a team effort for the Bears to win the title. Their ability to compete across all events and place high in most display the team’s strength as a unit.

“I could name off the impact that each one of our guys made on this team — and no one less important than another,” Durden said. “All of them stand out, and that’s the beauty about a team championship when it’s hard for me to name some moments or some swimmers or some athletes that really helped us in this addition of this national title. For me to say that all of them helped, that says a lot about this group.”

While the athletes are the ones who compete, it also takes a special kind of coach to build a team at that high of a level. This 2019 championship will be Cal’s fourth under Durden, with the other three coming in 2011, 2012 and 2014. It’s easy to always say that the swimmers’ experiences have been vital, but it’s also clear that Durden’s experience in coaching world-class athletes has played a huge part in the team’s success this season and in all the years past. So, it seems more than deserving that Durden won the 2019 CSCAA Coach of the Year for the fifth time in his career.

“Success turns into celebration at the end of the meet, celebrating a national title,” Durden said. “There is that kind of exhale, kind of that big phew — man, I’m glad that worked and I’m glad that we finished that season in that way.”

Individual titles are great, but an NCAA championship is what every team strives for. There’s nothing better than winning with teammates who have been beside you every step of the way, as they are the only ones who can truly understand how incomparably special a moment such as this is.

Taylor Choe covers men’s swim and dive. Contact her at [email protected].