On the last day of February, just before the madness of March was set to begin, Leap Day marked a pivotal moment for two sports at the University of Kansas: basketball and swimming. The men’s basketball team was the projected overall number 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. On that same day, the KU women’s swimming and diving team had its best performance ever at the Big 12 championships. Despite that accomplishment, men's basketball still managed to steal the spotlight. Greg Echlin has more.
Pandemic Pulls Plug on KU Swim Season, Draining Pool Full of Dreams
By Greg Echlin
LAWRENCE, Kan. (KPR) — February 29. The eve of March, when all the madness will begin. Leap Day 2020 became a pivotal moment in the history of two sports at the University of Kansas: basketball and swimming. The KU men’s basketball team was projected to be the overall No.1 seed in the NCAA tournament. Although Kansas never got the chance to dance, the men's basketball program still managed to steal the spotlight. That afternoon at Kansas State’s Bramlage Coliseum, despite the prospect of a lop-sided Jayhawk victory over the struggling Wildcats, there was much to be anticipated. Mainly because of the game-ending scuffle in their previous meeting, January 21, in Lawrence. Both schools agreed that it would be appropriate for players to shake hands before tip-off. And so they did. “What happened over there at our place was an embarrassment to both teams and both schools,” said Jayhawks coach Bill Self after KU’s much-closer-than-expected 62-58 win over the Cats. “Certainly no place for it.”
But on that very same day, with virtually no fanfare, the KU women’s swimming and diving team had its best performance ever at the Big 12 championships. The Jayhawks finished second behind eight-time defending champion Texas. “Last year was our first year for over 700 points (754.5) and this year we crushed it. We were over 800 points (831),” said KU swimming & diving coach Clark Campbell, who finished his 18th season at the helm for the Jayhawks. The juggernaut Longhorn program finished with 1,012 points. To underscore their strength, consider this: In the 24 Big 12 Swimming and Diving championships, the Longhorns have won all but four women’s titles. “We’re up against a Goliath,” said Campbell. “Texas is one of the premier programs in the country. They attract Olympic-caliber athletes.” For all that KU accomplished in swimming and diving that day, Campbell, a native of Coffeyville and a KU grad, knew his sport would still take a back seat to basketball. Because in Lawrence, all things live in the shadow of the school's Blue Blood basketball program, steeped in rich tradition and 100-plus years of history. “This is a tough market,” said Campbell with a laugh. “Kansas is known for basketball and that’s what our fan base understands. We get it.”
After KU held on to beat K-State that day in Manhattan, the Jayhawks learned that TCU pulled off an upset victory over Baylor, which was ranked No. 2 in the AP rankings after KU knocked off the Bears a week earlier (when BU was ranked No.1). Baylor's loss allowed KU to leapfrog past the Bears and take first place in the Big 12 standings. “It’s been kind of a long grind through the conference season,” said Bill Self after KU officially clinched at least a share of the conference title four days later against TCU. “Especially if you start out behind, and the team in front of you never loses.”
The news of what the KU men’s basketball team accomplished that Saturday didn’t circulate among the swimmers and divers until after the Big 12 Swimming and Diving championships concluded later that evening. “Once it (the conference championships) was all over, we talked about it for sure,” recalled KU swimmer Kate Steward, who won her second straight Big 12 title in the 200-yard breaststroke. “Our friends back home were talking about it.” Steward’s only regret is that the accomplishments of the KU swimming & diving team were, well, you could say... submerged. “I totally understand that everybody loves watching KU basketball. I do, too,” said Steward, who’s back in her hometown of Bartlesville, Oklahoma, for the rest of the spring semester because of the campus shutdown due to the coronavirus. “But it is sometimes a little bit of a letdown when nobody knows what’s going on and nobody knows the accomplishments that swimming has had.”
As a precaution against the spread of COVID-19, the Summer Olympics were postponed too. So Steward will wait until next summer for the Olympic trials in Omaha that she’ll be swimming in for the first time. She met the trials qualifying standard more than a year ago in the 100 and 200-meter breaststroke. "It’s just another year to get stronger, so I’m not super down about it,” said Steward when asked about the postponement. “It was a bit of a shock, but there’s only so much we can do about it.” What’s most disappointing to Steward is swimming’s chance to escape the shadow of KU basketball. “Swimming in the Olympics is always huge,” she said. Steward says she swims her best when she doesn’t feel pressure and she’s just having fun. At the Big 12 championships, she had a blast. But like so many other athletes this time of the year, Steward was hoping the fun would carry on into the summer. Unfortunately, the coronavirus changed all that, altering Steward's plans and so many other things in life. At least, for Steward, a KU sophomore, there's still hope. And the promise of another season.
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