Once-stagnant swimming moves from rags to riches

By Kate Fratar

Good things don’t happen over-night. Men’s and women’s swimming didn’t rise from the bottom rung of Chicago athletics in a single season, but the 2007–2008 campaign has seen the labors of the past couple of years finally pay off.

With potential All-American talent on the women’s side and a top-10 ranking in dual meets for the men this winter, swimming looks like a proven powerhouse. But that hasn’t always been the story. It was just two years ago that the Maroons were finishing at the bottom of the UAA tank. Yet thanks to aggressive recruiting, a new training regimen, and the luxury of state-of-the-art Myers-McLoraine Pool, the South Siders are pulling off their breakthrough season.

“I have definitely felt a positive change in attitude and morale from the women’s team, and a real excitement and sense of belonging that I think has been somewhat lacking in previous years,” fourth-year Blake Langdon said. “While improving in my second year, I think the program really started to turn around in my third year when the two teams were combined under an awesome coaching staff.”

While the new coaching staff marks an easy turnaround for swimming, the men started setting the groundwork for a stronger program with the emphasis placed on recruiting by former head coach George Villarreal.

“As a first-year, everything seemed to feel like something was on the rise,” said fourth-year Zach Ergish, who joined the squad for 2003–2004 under Villarreal. “Stories of losing seasons and squads under 10 were no more after posting a winning record and a sixth-place finish at UAAs. After finishing the season, all everyone could do was aim for higher.”

Current head coach Jason Weber has kept up the focus on attracting top prospects and especially made it a priority for the women’s side when he took over the reigns for both squads for the 2006–2007 season. Before gaining rookie swimmers like last year’s NCAA-hopeful Cassie O’Neill and this season’s phenom Ellie Elgamal, the women had struggled both in attracting new teammates and retaining the ones already on the roster.

“It was growing,” Weber said of the program during his time as the men’s assistant coach. “I was sort of fortunate to get hired at the time I did. The team was really ready to take off. And the women I knew could really improve with just some recruiting.”

For budget reasons, the majority of D-III teams share the same head coach, and Chicago had been one team before the opening of Myers-McLoraine in September 2003. Those were also the days when the Maroons commuted in vans to practice in a few lanes as they shared space with recreational swimmers around local pools.

“I’ve only heard stories of where they swam before, but I’m glad I wasn’t around,” Weber said jokingly.

With the comfort of practicing in their own backyard, the Maroons have been able to put in much more effective workouts as Weber continues to implement his training philosophy shaped by years of club experience and competing for D-I Brown. The ample space allows the team to break into small groups for close work with coaches to concentrate on building skills. Lately Chicago has also introduced more video to help athletes see where they need to tweak their technique in the water. This is all on top of more rigorous dry land and weight sessions.

The Maroons have also cranked things up with an attitude change. Weber has brought in a bit of D-I intensity, raising attendance and dedication for a more serious atmosphere while still trying to remain flexible.

“When I first got hired here, it took me a little while to get used to the atmosphere,” Weber said. “The priorities are still the same, academics first, swimming second, but the dedication level and the intensity was a lot lower than I was used to.”

So far, the Maroons are thriving under the higher expectations. Last year both squads improved on their UAA standings, with the men taking fifth and the women finishing sixth, both for the highest ever in program history. Topping it off, then–second-year Alex Stabell and then–first-year Cassie O’Neill were on the bubble for making NCAAs. Both missed the cut, but this year the South Siders have a particularly strong chance of getting some representation with rookie sensation Elgamal.

At the forefront of a squad bolstered by newcomers, Elgamal has already left a distinct stamp on Chicago. The San Diego native set a school record in her first meet, clocking a time of 2:10.03 in the 200-yard butterfly to wipe out the old mark by more than four seconds.

Since then she has continued to lead the class of 2011 with six other new program standards and two NCAA provisional-qualifying times. Other rookie standouts include Sarah Wynn and Charlotte Richman, who have consistently placed at the front of the pack to lift the Maroons to 6–2 in dual meets.

“This year, our first-years are even stronger in number, dedication, positive energy, and speed, which has helped make this season even more of a success,” Langdon said.

While the men lack a clear candidate for attaching All-American to his name, the team has been powered all season by its extremely deep roster. The strength up and down the lineup has propelled the Maroons to a 7–0 mark in dual meets, a 4–0 record against top-25 teams, and earned them the 10th spot in D-III rankings. They leapt 14 spots from their 24th place in the top 25 of the December 12 polls to become the highest ranked Chicago squad.

The best news is that there are no signs of slowing down for either squad. The better they get, the more top talent they’ll bring in to become what is increasingly looking like a new dynasty. Already some D-I swimmers have shown interest in joining the maroon and white.

“The team knows about the past, the years of trying to get a winning dual meet record, and coming in last in our conference,” Ergish said. “Everyone is aware of where we were, but now we seem to focus much more on where we will be.”