Blake Pieroni didn’t have to look at the scoreboard to know what had happened on the opening night of the NCAA men’s swimming and diving championships. All the Indiana senior had to do was listen, letting the cacophony at Jean K. Freeman Aquatic Center tell him he had become the first man to swim 200 yards in less than 1 minute, 30 seconds.
“After I finished, I heard everyone going crazy,’’ he said. “I was like, ‘Uh-oh, I think I got it.’ I couldn’t be happier.’’
Pieroni wasn’t the least bit disappointed that the Hoosiers could not sustain the lead he gave them in Wednesday’s 800-yard freestyle relay, finishing second to North Carolina State in the first event of the NCAA meet. The Wolfpack broke its own NCAA and U.S. Open records with a time of 6 minutes, 5.31 seconds, getting a superb anchor leg from Justin Ress to overtake Indiana for the victory worth 40 team points.
The Hoosiers were second in 6:06.01, and Texas was third in 6:07.59. The Longhorns, with a foursome composed entirely of Americans, set a U.S. record.
Pieroni’s time of 1:29.63 on the leadoff leg also was an American record. He expects the fast swimming and raucous atmosphere of opening night will be the rule, not the exception, during the remaining three days of the NCAA meet.
“I’ve been thinking about trying to break 1:30 for over a year,’’ Pieroni said. “I think those barriers are going to be broken a lot this week. I think there’s a lot more to come. It’s going to be exciting.’’
It already was on Wednesday, as the color and chaos of this mega-meet filled the snug quarters of the Gophers’ pool. Nearly every inch of deck space was occupied by many of the 270 swimmers and divers from 46 teams. They crammed into the metal bleachers flanking the water, wearing their school colors — and in Tennessee’s case, coonskin caps.
The only moment of silence Wednesday came during the few seconds when the leadoff swimmers leaned forward on the starting blocks, waiting for the signal to take off. That first splash set off an eardrum-piercing array of sounds: whistling, hollering, chanting, whooping, clapping and hands slapping against the NCAA banners at the pool’s edge. That demonstrated the first rule of college swimming fandom: If your ears aren’t ringing, you’re not doing it right.
“My favorite part is the 10 minutes before the meet starts, when all the parents are dueling it out, screaming ‘Roll on you Bears, N.C. State, let’s go Cards,’’ said Ryan Held, who swam the second leg of the Wolfpack’s relay. “That’s what I thrive on. It’s just white noise [during the race].’’
The athletes gave performances worthy of that wall of sound. The Wolfpack trailed Indiana by .74 of a second heading into the final 200, setting up a thrilling duel between Ress and the Hoosiers’ Ian Finnerty on the final leg. Ress ripped through the first 50 in 20.29 seconds to seize the lead and hung on.
The Gophers, the 20th seed, scratched and will start competition Thursday with the 200 free relay, the 400 medley relay and two individual events: Bowe Becker in the 50 free, and Nick Yang in 1-meter diving. Thursday’s schedule also includes the 500 free and the 200 individual medley.
Pieroni noted that the Hoosiers broke their school record in the 800 free relay by 5 seconds, indicating just how fast this meet could be.
“You can’t be disappointed with a 6:06.0,’’ he said. “North Carolina State is a great team. 6:05 is insanity.’’