Paul Powers only has to do one thing to achieve a state of serenity before each race.
He looks over at his University of Michigan swimming teammates.
Taking comfort in the fact they know what he is about to do makes the task a little easier for the North Hall High graduate and Wolverines’ top veteran freestyle swimmer. And again, the strategy paid off during Day 2 of the Big Ten Championships on Feb. 23 in Columbus, Ohio.
Powers, in a span of 18.80 seconds, not only won the 50-yard freestyle event for the third-straight year, but also set a career best and conference record by five-hundredths of a second.
Powers, of course, was as ecstatic as ever, first holding up three fingers at the pool’s edge to signify the three-peat in the 50 free, then slapping the water’s surface for one more big splash in front of his cheering teammates and the crowd.
Powers’ finish was also the third-fastest time — behind Florida’s Caeleb Dressel (18.46) and Texas’ Joseph Schooling (18.76) — recorded in the NCAA this season.
“He really pumped the team up. When he won, broke the record, he was really able to bring this team to a real high,” said Michigan’s swim and diving coach Mike Bottom.
And when exiting the pool, he pointed to his mother, Beth, in the stands, who let out a distinctive cheer that is always easily recognizable by her oldest son. His father, Randall, made the trip the following day to watch Paul swim in the conference championships.
“I can always hear her,” Powers said of his mother. “It’s so awesome to finish my race, and I see her. Having my family there, they’ve always been so supportive.”
Teammate and the Big-Ten Freshman of the Year, Felix Auböck, joined Powers atop the podium on Day 2 when he took 500-yard freestyle event with a time of 4:10.63, the third-fastest recorded in the Big Ten and in school history.
The Wolverines finished tied for second behind Indiana with 1,382 points.
Powers dominated this specialized event in each of his three years at Michigan. He is the first conference swimmer since storied Olympian Matt Grevers (2005-07) at Northwestern to three-peat in the 50 freestyle.
But it hasn’t been easy — far from it. Powers often finds himself playing catch-up in a sport that continues to get faster.
“You would think that winning as a freshman would be really hard, and then once you’ve already won twice, winning it the third time would be easy,” Powers said. “But it’s gotten so much more difficult to win the 50 again and again because so many people in the Big Ten and around the country are just swimming so fast.”
And there’s never a moment where he forgets, especially after setting the milestone by less than two-tenths of a second ahead of Indiana’s Ali Khalafalla, who beat Powers in the preliminaries to nab the No. 1 seed.
Talk about a narrow margin of victory against an opponent who has practically been at Powers’ side with second-place finishes the last two seasons.
“They told me afterwards ‘man we didn’t think you were gonna win it again,” Powers laughed.
Powers and Khalafalla will likely face each other once again in 2018.
“It’s almost like, as the world’s getting faster, it’s getting more and more difficult. But that makes it even more sweet,” he added.
Since joining Bottom’s team in 2014, Powers has been immersed in a “Michiganized,” and team-driven atmosphere, much different from his standout years with North Hall’s swimming program alongside his younger brother Ty, who now swims for the University of Tennessee. Paul won nine (five individual, four relay) Georgia High School Association titles and was a three-time All-American as a Trojan.
Now at Michigan, every team meeting and workout is centered on improving the person next to you, according to Powers.
“Paul no longer swims for Paul,” Bottom said. “When he beats his chest, he beats his chest and points at the team because he scores points for the team. He’s got a new motivation to swim fast.”
Powers has made the most out of his opportunities in his swimming career by familiarizing himself with the international stage. He was a competitor in the 2014 Junior Pan Pacific Championships, and previously the 2013 World Junior Championships. Powers was even one of 35 swimmers chosen to represent Team USA at the 2016 FINA World Championships last December.
Powers credits his more recent successes to past and current teammates who molded him into the swimmer he is today. Former training mate C.J. Fiala was the inspiration for Powers’ calm disposition at meets. And in his freshman season, Powers learned even more from teammate Bruno Ortiz, another freestyle swimmer who was a soft-spoken leader on the team.
“His only objective was to make me faster,” Powers said of Ortiz. “He was always an interesting guy. He was very quiet, but you could always tell that if you didn’t give it your all, he would definitely let you know.”
The lessons learned from Ortiz have been exhibited in the form of five NCAA All-American selections, and now seven Big Ten Conference titles in both individual and relay events. Powers has followed suit by taking on that same role with a freshman teammate this season.
As for academics, Powers has learned valuable time management skills when balancing his curriculum as a mechanical engineering major on top of devoting up to 30 hours to swimming per week in Ann Arbor. A potential internship with either Apple, Tesla or Lockheed Martin awaits Powers this summer.
“At times, it gets a little overbearing, especially getting into junior and senior-level classes,” he added. “It takes a lot of outside work. Most Saturday’s and Sundays are spent working on engineering projects.”
The next big step for Powers beyond being one of eight swimmers to advance to the NCAA Championships on March 22 is to land a spot on the U.S. National team in 2020. He has twice attempted to make the Olympic team, the first as a 16-year-old, and his second last June where he finished 10th in his specialized event.
“The great thing about competing in the 50 free is that he’s really close. He’s just a few tenths away from making the Olympic team,” said Bottom, who is in his ninth year at Michigan after coaching athletes in six Olympics, including a stint as an assistant for Team USA in Rio de Janeiro.
As for that motivation to keep chasing his Olympic dreams, Powers says it again goes back to the unwavering support of his teammates.
“Swimming is a sport you put so much time to, and yet your race can be over — in my case — 18 seconds. You slave for 30 hours a week just for those 18 seconds,” Powers added.
“It’s so much time, but everyone goes through the highs and lows. In the lows you’re like, ‘man I don’t know if I want to keep doing this.’ But then you realize that your best friends are on the team with you. If people ask, the reason why you swim is the team you’re around. ...The team makes practice so much more enjoyable than staring at a black line for those 2½ hours.”