Each time a Texas team wins a national championship, the Tower at the heart of campus gleams burnt orange with the number “one” lit on all four sides.
A once-in-a-lifetime moment for most has become more of an annual tradition for the Texas men’s swimming and diving team.
But this year, it means more.
On Sunday night, the Tower was lit in celebration of Texas’ 13th NCAA title — a feat that has distinguished it as the winningest Division I program of all time.
All 13 titles have been produced under head coach Eddie Reese, cementing his legacy as one of swimming’s most iconic coaches.
“I can’t tell you where any of the rings are that we won,” Reese said. “But I can tell you what everybody did and how much they improved that gave us a chance to win,”
And despite being proud of his team, Reese wasn’t partial to the other tradition his swimmers partake in after a win: jumping into the water.
“There was an NCAA rule that said the coach cannot go in the water on the 13th win, but they just said it didn’t matter,” Reese said. “I guess I can live with it.”
The final day of the championships in Indianapolis was nothing but a formality.
Saturday morning, Texas sat at the top of the rankings with a hefty lead, well on its way to victory.
“It never gets old,” sophomore John Shebat said. “Adrenaline starts pumping and you get butterflies in your stomach.”
The four days of competition were a culmination of countless hours of training and hard work. Especially for the seniors with one last glory run.
Senior Clark Smith shattered the NCAA and American records in the 500-yard freestyle. A half a second lead granted him the edge over sophomore teammate Townley Haas, the previous champion.
“It’s nice to go out like this,” Smith said. “Last year, I didn’t have the meet I wanted to. I just remember how I felt watching the final last year when I was the end of my race.”
Senior Will Licon also had his share of records to break. With a win in the 100-yard breaststroke, he became the first Texas swimmer — and fourth swimmer ever — to produce four individual titles from different events: 200-yard individual medley, 400-yard individual medley, 200-yard breaststroke and 100-yard breaststroke.
Licon swept his three individual events, the first swimmer to do so at a single NCAA Championship meet.
The honor hasn’t quite sunk in yet for Licon.
“It’s truly a blessing,” Licon said. “It might (sink in) tonight, tomorrow, a month from now, or a year from now. Honestly, everything I’ve done from the moment I’ve stepped on campus has been for everybody but myself.”
Along with Licon, Shebat, and Haas, senior Jack Conger played an essential role in several of the team relays.
But just like his teammates, he was good on his own.
A win in the 200-yard butterfly made it certain that his name will linger for time to come, even as he departs the team. His time of 1:37.35 was enough to break the NCAA, American and U.S. Open records.
“You want to make sure you fill the shoes of the legends before you,” Conger said. “It’s a huge honor being a part of that elite group Eddie (Reese) has produced over the past 30 years.”
Of the 542 points Texas accumulated, most came from individual events. But everything was done in the name of Texas, for Texas.
At last year’s championships, Haas blew everyone out of the water by setting NCAA, American, school and Big 12 records in the 200-yard freestyle. Though he was unable to eclipse his own time this year, he defended his title successfully.
And to him, that was all that mattered.
“At the end of the day, I won and got the points for Texas,” Haas said. “At this meet, that’s what’s most important. You do it for your team.”
As Licon, Conger, Smith and other seniors get ready to say goodbye to their Longhorn family, it’s hard not to be overcome with nostalgia.
“I can’t believe my NCAA career is over,” Conger said. “I’d be more sad if I wasn’t passing the torch to someone else, but the fact that I have people to give it to like Townley (Haas) makes it that much better.”