INDIANAPOLIS — Texas’ swimming team has its fair share of stars. Joseph Schooling beat Michael Phelps in the 100-meter butterfly at the Rio Olympics to win an individual gold medal, and Townley Haas, Jack Conger and Clark Smith all won gold medals on the U.S. 800-meter freestyle relay.
But at the NCAA swimming and diving championships in Indianapolis, it was not a Longhorns Olympian who won all three of his individual events. Instead, it was senior Will Licon.
Texas won its third straight national championship on Saturday, scoring 542 points, winning four of seven events on the final night. Texas set NCAA records in each one of them. In all, the Longhorns won 11 of the meet’s 21 events and broke seven NCAA records and three American records.
But it was Licon, swimming in his final NCAA meet, and Clark Smith who took center stage. Licon took first in the 200-yard breaststroke with a record time of 1 minute, 47.91 seconds. And Smith set an NCAA record in the 1,650-yard freestyle with a time of 14 minutes, 22.41 seconds — just two nights after he’d pulled his groin muscle.
It was an historic swim for Licon, and he said it still hasn’t sunk in.
“When I chose to come to the University of Texas,” Licon said, “I kind of made it a goal, I just don’t want to be another swimmer that comes through the program.”
The senior wanted to contribute, and he did.
“It may (sink in) tonight, tomorrow, a month from now, a year from now,” he said. “I don’t really know. It’s just kind of crazy.”
Licon’s dominance at the NCAAs came after a hard summer. In the 200-meter breaststroke at U.S. Olympic Trials, he missed qualifying for the Rio Games by just 14-hundredths of a second.
“I think that that experience really made him hungrier in a sense and made him realize the bottom level of where he could be,” Will’s mother, Nancy Licon, said. “In other words, when you reach the bottom — emotionally, that was his bottom — he knew, ‘OK, I survived it.’ And I think when you haven’t failed, sometimes it’s scarier because you don’t know how deep the pit is.”
Licon said the summer was motivating. It was hard on him, but he learned from it and grew as a swimmer.
When Licon got back to Texas for his senior season, he didn’t catch any breaks. He injured his groin in September, and was not able to kick for a month. Instead of using his legs, Licon focused on improving his pull.
“That really helped my stroke a lot,” he said. “It could have been a blessing in disguise.”
By the time the NCAAs rolled around, it was impossible to tell he’d ever been injured. He tied for a victory in the 200-yard individual medley on Thursday, and he won the 100-yard breaststroke on Friday.
Along with his three individual wins, Licon swam the breaststroke leg on two of Texas’ NCAA record-setting relays. After each relay he screamed with joy and pumped up the Indianapolis crowd with his arms.
“I feel like I’m a pretty normally reserved person,” Licon said. “But for some reason these relays have gotten into some little level of me that I haven’t really gotten out before.”
Though he will continue his swimming career post-college, Saturday’s 200-yard breaststroke race marked the end of Licon’s NCAA eligibility. As soon as he saw his time after the race, the senior slapped the water and smiled. He pointed at the Texas section and threw up the “Hook ‘em” hand signal.
Nancy Licon snapped a picture and beamed at her son.
After Smith’s race, he remained on the pool deck, in pain. He needed help walking, and a teammate had to stand in his place on the podium.
“I didn’t want to make any premeditated excuses,” Smith said. “I just had a plan to swim the race no matter how I felt.”
Schooling said Smith showed growth from past seasons.
“Last year’s Clark would have given up at probably the 75 or the 150 (yard mark),” Schooling said. “And this year he gritted through, he stuck through despite pain in his groin.”
Smith was not the only Longhorn to break out Saturday night. In his last individual race at the NCAAs, senior Jack Conger won his first national title. He set an NCAA record in the 200-yard butterfly with a 1:37.35.