Former UM All-American Jaeger bids adieu flashing silver

John Niyo
The Detroit News
Silver medalist Connor Jaeger poses on the podium after the men's swimming 1,500-meter freestyle final Saturday at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.

Rio de Janeiro — Michael Phelps wasn’t the only U.S. swimmer calling it a career Saturday. He wasn’t the only American powering through one last race to win a medal on the final night of competition at the Olympic Aquatics Stadium, either.

A half-hour before Phelps bid the sport farewell with a final gold-medal swim in the medley relay, former Michigan All-American Connor Jaeger claimed a silver medal in the men’s 1,500-meter freestyle event.

And when he’d finished, lowering his own American record in the event, Jaeger, the 25-year-old New Jersey native, acknowledged he was done, too.

“One last rodeo tonight,” said Jaeger, a two-time Olympian who plans to start a real-estate development job in New York this fall. “It was a good way to go out.”

Jaeger, who graduated from Michigan in 2014 as a three-time NCAA champion, spent the last two years in Ann Arbor training with Club Wolverine while earning a master’s degree in business management.

But after finishing sixth in the 1,500 at the 2012 London Olympics while still in college, he came into his own as the top U.S. distance swimmer. A notoriously hard-worker, last year Jaeger shattered Larsen Jensen’s American record in the 1,500 that had stood for 11 years, clocking a 14:41.20 to win the silver medal at the world championships.

At the U.S. Olympic trials in June, Jaeger qualified for Rio in both the 400 and the 1,500, and though he made the final in the 400 this week, Saturday was his specialty.

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Jaeger was seeded second after Friday’s preliminary heats, behind reigning world champ Gregorio Paltrinieri of Italy. And as the Italian star went out fast — he was under world-record pace for most of the race – Jaeger had a dilemma.

“Gregorio really took off, and you just don’t know what’s happening,” Jaeger said. “Like, am I going slow? Thankfully, he was just going really fast. But it’s also comforting that really no one else went with him. So to kind of remain in the pack and have him go do his own thing allowed me to just stay to my own race strategy.”

And that’s something he did perfectly Saturday.

“Pretty amazing race,” said Michigan coach Mike Bottom, who is here as an assistant coach with the U.S. men’s team. “He didn’t let him get him out of his rhythm.”

He also worked his turns well, and midway through the race he began to pull away from U.S. teammate Jordan Wilimovsky, Australia’s Mack Horton and Italy’s Gabriele Detti, the eventual bronze medalist. Paltrinieri finished a few seconds off the world record in 14:34.57, while Jaeger touched the wall in 14:39.48.

“I got a silver medal, man,” he said, laughing. “I really can’t complain. I’m so happy.”

His medal, followed later by back-to-back golds from the U.S. women’s and men’s medley relays gave the Americans 33 medals in swimming this week, matching their record set at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

“I watched Team USA really just crush it this whole week,” Jaeger said, “and it was time for me to hold up my end of the bargain and contribute to the medal count.”

Afterward, an exhausted Jaeger said it was time for a warm-down swim, a good meal, “and then I’m probably gonna go have a little cry later – out of happiness.”

And then, he added, off to get a real job. Asked if he’d have second thoughts about that, he smiled.

“I probably will,” Jaeger said. “It’s gonna be hard. But, you know, Peter Pan’s gotta grow up sometime.”

Twitter: @JohnNiyo