AUSTIN -- It didn’t happen for Michigan’s Connor Jaeger in Thursday’s opening day of the 2014 NCAA Division I Men’s Swimming and Diving Championships.
The defending champion in the 500-yard freestyle finished third behind winner Cristian Quintero of Southern California, at Texas’ Lee and Joe Jamail Swimming Center, while Florida’s Dan Wallace finished second.
“I think seeing him behind me, gave me more strength every turn,” Quintero said.
Moments of victory, or loss, aren’t realized in situ.
“You never know how fast you’re going,” Jaeger had said Wednesday, by way of explanation. “But meets like this aren’t about doing a best time. It’s about beating people. That’s what you need to be good at.”
A two-time NCAA individual champion a year ago, the senior from Michigan is expected to be a huge cog in the Wolverines’ quest to repeat their 2013 NCAA title.
“Connor is one of those athletes that you just don’t coach very often,” Michigan head coach Mike Bottom said.
Despite Thursday’s disappointment, the guy known as “Jaegs” isn’t finished. Jaeger swims the mile – in which he’s seeded first – on Saturday. He’s also a member of Michigan’s top-ranked, 800-yard freestyle relay team, which competes Friday.
This is years and miles removed from a New Jersey childhood where a 6-year-old Jaeger learned to swim thanks to his family’s beach-club membership. As a 9-year-old, he swam his first competitive events for the same beach club then segued into training at the Central Jersey Aquatic Club. Eventually, high-school competition beckoned.
The latter earned him recruiters and scholarship potential, with college the logical academic and athletic next-step. And, he knew he’d like to be a Michigan Man.
“I was really impressed and almost fascinated,” he said of a Wolverines’ mystique. “I had these images of really tough guys coming out of this arctic pool – I had this romantic image of Michigan and swimming at Michigan.”
Reality, in the form of a recruiting visit, confirmed both the coaching and team unity that he preferred; also the academics. Jaeger’s a mechanical engineering major who says Michigan’s engineering program was another attraction.
“I felt at home right away,” he said.
Aided by teammates, Jaeger has added to his home during the past three seasons, using his engineering chops to design two training devices for Michigan’s Canham Natatorium. One device pits a swimmer against a rack of weighted pulleys.
The other device, according to Bottom, is, “a tow machine that pulls swimmers across the pool at a certain velocity and you can program in the velocity.”
Those team-building and real-world applications of classroom principles are what distinguish Jaeger, who’s one of Michigan’s three team captains.
“Not just an engineer but an inventor,” Bottom said. “He’s put together some pretty fun stuff for the team. He’s a leader. He’s academically great. He’s in the community. Over and over again, he walks out in the community to make sure that he is a champion for the different causes that are around him. Any time he gets a chance to do that, he stands up for people who need standing up for. He’s a great man.”
For an Olympian, two-time U.S. National Team member and two-time NCAA champion, the Jersey boy also is modest. Bottom recalls an incident during the 2012 U.S. Olympic trials, where – as a Michigan sophomore – Jaeger was attempting to earn an Olympic berth in the 1,500 meters, where he had little experience at the time.
Seated poolside with associate Michigan head coach Josh White, Jaeger’s personal coach, Bottom recalled a preliminary swim curiously extended.
“He comes into the 1,500 finish and he flips the turn and continues to swim, and he swam another 75 meters after that turn,” Bottom said. “And when he finished and realized it, he laughed at himself, and still continued to rejoice in the fact he’d made the final.”
It was only Jaeger’s fifth competitive attempt at 1,500 meters. But, Bottom said Jaeger’s innate distance ability and loose mindset contributed to an eventual second-place finish in the 2012 U.S. Olympic-trial final. And, Jaeger finished sixth in the event in London.
“Racing is like you’re not thinking about a pace or a time, or anything,” he said. “And on that last lap you’re able to put your head down and just try to beat that person. And sometimes being a good racer helps you go fast, obviously, because if you’re racing somebody fast, you’re able to just focus on beating somebody for eight laps.
“The racers are the ones it just helps them push, or not think and not feel the pain and just swim.”
Jaeger’s strengths, per Bottom, are “a great engine” and a high pain tolerance.
“It’s a long time of pain,” Bottom said. “In the mile, he probably starts to hurt around 900 [yards] and he’s got 750 more yards of hurt that he has to push not through, but he has to actually carry with him. That’s something that really does characterize Connor. He doesn’t give up. He doesn’t quit. He does understand that life is not easy and he is going to make the most of it.”
Jaeger certainly intends to, during his NCAA swan song in Austin.
“I know there’s a lot of people in the country that wish they were at this meet,” he said. “And that makes me appreciate it that much more.”