Jack Conger. Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick
By David Rieder.
Jack Conger had just swum the best race of his career. He destroyed his American record in the 200 fly by more than a second, finishing in 1:38.06. He was dominant for most of the race, leading by six tenths with 50 yards to go.
But somehow, Joseph Schooling tracked him down and touched in 1:37.97, good for the new NCAA and U.S. Open record. Even his big best time and the Longhorns finishing 1-2, Conger could not hide his disappointment.
In his individual events, Conger has finished second at the NCAA championships three times—in the 100 fly in 2015 and the 200 fly each of the last two years. Schooling won each of those races, and the margins he lost by were 0.04, 0.12 and 0.09, respectively.
In those two seasons, Conger has been one of the most valuable pieces of Texas’ national championship runs, particularly as a versatile contributor on relays. With Schooling typically handling the fly legs, Conger has filled the anchor role on medley relays, and Longhorns head coach Eddie Reese has led him off on the 800 free relay each of the past two seasons.
In total, Conger has been a part of seven NCAA championship relays for the Longhorns, but he’s never won an individual NCAA title.
In his final day as a collegiate swimmer, he has one last chance—and arguably, his best one.
Conger is seeded more than one second ahead of the field in the 200 fly after winning the Big 12 title in the event in 1:39.17. That race was swum without his teammate and rival Schooling, who pulled out of the final after securing his spot in the NCAA meet.
So far in Indianapolis, Conger has finished third in the 100 fly in 44.35, taken 10th in the 50 free and swum on two national championship relays for the Longhorns. Now, he goes in his best event.
Conger and Schooling profess to be good friends, but in the pool, their rivalry is intense. In fact, when Schooling won his first World Championships medal in the 100 fly in 2015, Conger said he was happy for his teammate but frustrated that he had not surpassed Schooling’s time when he swam the race at U.S. Nationals.
Schooling is well down on the psych sheet this year and has admitted that he took it easy in training for several months before mid-December, which could potentially hamper his fitness for the back half of a 200.
That said, Schooling pulled out some impressive splits to squeeze out unlikely victories—like his 25.43 closing split from the NCAA final last year—and he will surely be motivated to win one after a stunning runner-up finish in the 100 fly to Caeleb Dressel.
But Schooling has his individual NCAA championships, five of them now. For Conger, it’s now or never.
Can the Mile Top Last Year?
Short answer: probably not. In one of the wildest strategic races imaginable, three different men had substantial leads in the fast heat of the 1650, and none of them won, thanks to a 24.38 final 50 split from Penn’s Chris Swanson.
Swanson has graduated and moved on, but all three men who had those big leads—Texas’ Clark Smith, Michigan’s PJ Ransford and South Carolina’s Akaram Mahmoud—are back. Mahmoud, especially, will be looking for some vindication after losing a lead of more than 2.5 seconds on the last 50.
Eight men have swum under 14:40 this season, and assuming no one scratches, that will be the field in swimming in the top heat at night. Felix Auboeck enters seeded first at 14:29.25, and he already showed some mettle at the NCAA meet with an impressive third-place finish in the 500 free, with his time of 4:08.95 moving to sixth all-time.
Smith will go for his second win of the meet after already capturing the 500, and a few lanes over will be Stanford freshman True Sweetser, who pushed Smith in a head-to-head duel in December at the Texas Invite. Louisville’s Marcelo Acosta vs. NC State’s Anton Ipsen will be another head-to-head rematch after their ACC championships showdown.
Ransford and Mahmoud will swim in the outside lanes, and then there’s Jordan Wilimovsky, the redshirt senior at Northwestern coming off a fourth place finish in the 1500 free at the Olympic Games.
Who said the mile is boring?
All commentaries are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Swimming World Magazine nor its staff.