Zupan breaks into top 20 at swim NCAAs

by Gayne Kalustian | 3/30/14 5:17pm

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Nejc Zupan ’14 was the only Ivy League swimmer to finish in the top-20 of two different events.
by Gayne Kalustian / The Dartmouth

Austin, Texas — When co-captain Nejc Zupan ’14 sported green and white for the last time at the NCAA swim and dive championships this weekend in Austin, he went up against enormous packs of vicious Wildcats, jaw-snapping Gators, snarling Wolverines and the overwhelming hosting sea of burnt orange.

Though far from home, the lone Big Green swimmer was the only Ivy League swimmer to break the top 20 in two different events at the meet, placing 13th in the 100-yard breaststroke after a dramatic swim-off loss and 18th in the 200-yard breaststroke.

“He has been an amazing athlete,” coach Jenn Verser said. “He came in with a very positive attitude and an amazing work ethic and shared that with his teammates.”

On the first day of the three-day meet, Zupan, who has been battling injuries all season, dropped his third event — the 200-yard individual medley — to focus on the breaststroke events. He finished fourth in the event at the Ivy Championships despite being the two-time defending champion, emphasizing that a name in the Ivy League record book as a three-peat champion isn’t as important as performing well in his main events.

He did not want to risk getting injured and jeopardize his performance in the breaststroke events, he said.

Zupan, who is the Ivy League record holder in the 200-yard breast stroke and placed eighth in the event at the NCAA tournament last year, finished 18th in the preliminaries with a time of 1:54.63. His 2013 Ivy record of 1:53.95 would have placed him in the B final this year at NCAAs.

During the meet, Zupan suffered from groin inflammation, which started after he swam his first preliminary 100-yard breaststroke on Saturday. The injury came after a record-setting time of 52.44 that far surpassed every time in the event in Ivy League history, shattering Princeton University’s Jonathan Christensen’s 2012 record of 52.86.

With his time in the preliminaries, Zupan tied the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor’s Richard Funk for eighth place and the final spot in the A final. Twenty minutes after the preliminary swim, Zupan and Funk went head-to-head in the pool in a swim-off to determine the final qualifier. Funk emerged victorious, edging Zupan by .89 seconds, and would go on to take third in the event overall.

The unexpected additional race in a sport which comes down to expending strength and energy, Zupan said, was an unpleasant surprise but something that must be handled.

During the swim-off, Zupan said, he was hurt by the absence of a large Big Green fan base. The Wolverines brought 13 swimmers, whose friends and families took to their feet and cheered while the two were in the water. The other Ivy League schools in attendance — Columbia University, Harvard University, the University of Pennsylvania and Yale University — banded together to support each other throughout the meet but could not compare to the support of his teammates in Hanover, Zupan said.

“It’s hard to motivate yourself when you don’t have the team to pick you up,” he said. “A lot of the racing itself is very mental, so if you don’t have the mental support it’s hard to get to that level. Hopefully, Dartmouth will have a huge team and fan base soon.”

The Big Green emphasized its support from afar. James Verhagen ’16, who narrowly missed NCAA A cuts in the 100-yard backstroke, pointed to Zupan as an inspiration for himself and the team.

“He is such a great swimmer,” Verhagen said. “He’s given up many of his own personal ambitions for individuals and for the team. I think this NCAA’s was just the end of a great season and a great career. We’re very proud of him and he’s done an awesome job.”