Underdogs, by definition, are those least expected to emerge victorious. They might be entering the meet with more losses than wins or may be facing a top team. Regardless, it’s presumed that they must fight harder for every point, must overcome the odds stacked against them for every opportunity. And most often, their greatest opponent is not their competitor, but themselves.
For all intents and purposes, the Cal men’s swimming and diving team is the opposite of an underdog. The reigning national champions rarely enter a meet underestimated. However, the Bears’ success may be partially attributed to their adoption of the underdog mindset. Treating every meet equally — no matter who occupies the other lanes of the pool — allows Cal to strive to be the best.
“Every time we step up on the blocks, … we always respect our opponents as if we’re at (the NCAA championships),” said junior Destin Lasco. “It’s always guns blazing.”
With that mentality, the blue and gold put up dominant performances at the Minnesota Invitational, taking home 14 first-place finishes. From Nov. 30 through Dec. 3, Cal men’s swimming achieved 1,778 points at the Jean K. Freeman Aquatic Center in Minneapolis, good for first ahead of rival Texas’ 1,497. On the diving front, freshman Joshua Thai won the Bears’ first diving event in more than three years, taking gold in the 1-meter and silver in platform.
Beyond showing their strength as a team, winning every relay besides the 800-yard freestyle (in which the team placed second), the blue and gold saw convincing individual performances. In addition to his significant relay contributions, junior Bjorn Seeliger took first in the 50-yard and 100-yard freestyle. The Swedish Olympian also placed second in the 100-yard backstroke behind teammate Lasco.
Besides winning the 100-yard back, Lasco took the 200-yard individual medley title for the second straight year and made waves in the 200-yard back. After missing the A final for the event by 0.19 seconds while testing a new race strategy, the six-time All-American put up a time of 1:39.09 in the B final, which would’ve placed first in the A final and is the second-fastest time on the event in the NCAA this year.
“The motto that I came out of that race not making the A final (with) was like, you live and you learn from your mistakes,” Lasco said. “You always have to be on top of your game, and people are always going to be swimming fast.”
Junior Dare Rose and graduate student Reece Whitley also put up two first-place swims apiece. Rose swept the butterfly events, while Whitley tied Minnesota’s Max McHugh for first in the 100-yard breaststroke and won the 200-yard breast outright.
The Bears’ remaining individual podium finishes came from sophomore Gabriel Jett, who won the 200-yard free, and senior Colby Mefford, who was third in the 200-yard back.
“(A) midseason meet, regardless of how we do, is just a bit of a temperature check in terms of nailing down more process, stroke, bigger stroke details as opposed to super specific performance standards. Times are a byproduct of the work that we have done over the past three months, six months,” Whitley said. “I think as a squad we did really well.”
With Cal’s next meet not until Jan. 20, the team is now in its longest break between competitions during the season. After the holidays, the Bears will capitalize on the time with 15 days at the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Training Center in Colorado, a tradition within the program.
The trip to Colorado Springs allows the Bears to focus on training and to bond with one another. Training at 6,000 feet above sea level also sets the team up to be in “top-tier shape” upon returning to Berkeley, Lasco said.
“It’s quite frankly the hardest training of the year, not only from a mental perspective but from a physical perspective as well,” Whitley said.
Though fans will have to wait more than a month for the blue and gold to compete next, they can expect to see a team with a winning formula: Olympic-caliber training and the grit that comes with channeling an underdog mentality.