Swimming program grows with additions of coach, home pool

By Carlee Tressel

Members from both the women’s and men’s swimming squads had consistently strong showings this season. But the real story of the University swim team season sits just south of 55th Street, glassed in and sparkling for all to see.

The opening of the Myers-McLoraine pool in the new Ratner Athletic Center made quite a difference in the Maroons’ swimming programs. The players and the coaches agreed that having a place to train and compete on campus was crucial to the teams’ improvement.

“We trained at seven pools in seven years,” said Sheila O’Connor, head coach of the women’s team. “So this new place has been phenomenal.”

This season was O’Connor’s ninth year coaching at Chicago, and she was as pleased as anyone to see the plans for a pool finally come to fruition. She claim that in the past she had to tack on an extra 40 to 60 minutes of practice to account for her team’s commute to and from off-campus practice facilities.

Besides convenience, third-year swimmers Erin Lyons and Emily Testa noticed certain intangible benefits the new pool provided.

“This year has been incredible with the new facility,” Lyons said. “It has really transformed the way we train and has made us slightly more visible on campus.”

Testa, recently voted the team’s most valuable player by her teammates for the third straight year, also noticed how training on campus improved the team.

“I think simply having a ‘home pool’ and real locker rooms made the team come together, as we thought of ourselves more as a team rather than as a group of swimmers,” Testa said.

O’Connor praised her dedicated trio of third-years, which includes Lyons, Testa, and Deb Ayoub, for their leadership on a team composed mostly of first-years. O’Connor says she was impressed by the toughness of Ayoub who “came out with some great times when the team really needed her.”

O’Connor looks forward to Ayoub’s final season, confident that she will “pull out all the stops” in both her breaststroke and butterfly races.

Even though this past season was the beginning of the process of building and improvement, the women’s team posted some commendable results. They had wins at two dual meets early in the season, nearly getting a third as they fell to the talented Grinnell team by only 16 points in late November.

The team also took first place at both of their home invitationals, but placed third and fifth at larger competitions and eighth at the UAA conference meet. Despite a last place team finish, the 400-yard freestyle relay team had a victory of their own. The team of first-year Katherine Yang, fourth-year Niki Voelkel, Lyons, and Testa set a new team record of 3:46.94. All members of the team set and beat personal best times throughout the season.

The men’s swimming team had a similar experience in terms of wins and losses this season. They picked up two solid wins at home, but dropped decisions in other dual meet competitions.

Although they also finished eighth at the conference championship meet, first-year head coach George Villarreal noted that the dedication and spirit of his team will set up his swimmers for drastic improvement and success in the future.

Naturally, he was pleased with third-year Northe Saunders’s stellar showing at the UAA conference championship. Saunders won the 100-yard freestyle title and qualified for the Division III national championships in three events: the 50-, 100-, and 200-yard freestyles.

He continues to train with Villarreal in preparation for nationals, which will be held at Principia College from March 18 through 20. Saunders’s current training program differs from an in-season plan in that coach and swimmer “are fine-tuning his stroke for 6 races, not 13,” explains Villarreal.

Saunders’s efforts this season do not overshadow the performance of his teammates, however. According to Villarreal, first-year Nate Roberts showed tremendous improvement in the 100-yard breaststroke.

Villarreal also recognizes the efforts of second-year Dan Timke in the 500-yard freestyle and 200-yard butterfly, two very tough races. Villarreal emphasized how important Timke’s dedication and leadership-by-example is in improving himself and the team.

Both coaches acknowledged that growing programs like theirs have plenty upon which they can improve, but some setbacks are unavoidable. For instance, both teams cited injuries and illness, specifically right before the UAA conference meet, which slowed a few of their swimmers.

In addition, both teams had to work through inexperience. Neither team’s roster is very large, and both are remarkably young. The majority of the men’s team is composed of underclassmen, and there are no graduating fourth-years. The women’s team is mostly first-years.

Only three members of their team had ever been to the UAA conference meet before this year.

Youth is not a bad thing, of course, and the younger swimmers will continue to gain experience with every competition. The men’s team knows they have some names to watch next year in Roberts, Justin Lee, and Bucky Banks.

The women’s team also has a wealth of young talent as shown by the performances of Ameryn Kreiner and Abby Sheldon.

Believing in the maxim of “If you build it, they will come,” O’Connor and Villarreal hope that the new facility and the current swimmers’ dedication to rising in the UAA standings will help bring in talented recruits. They want to increase their numbers and ready their teams for a thrilling UAA competition next year.

The Maroons will host the conference championship next year. The event will be a major opportunity for the swimming program to get increased publicity.

“The meet is very big, with 300-plus student-athletes and many fans,” third-year swimmer Dennis Connolly said. The atmosphere for the UAA meet is very energized and exciting to watch even for people who are not very familiar with swimming.”

Connolly, who has been on the team since he arrived at Chicago, knows what it’s like to bus to a practice site in the early morning hours. He also knows that, for him and the other swimmers of both teams, the new facility is rewarding but merely a beginning. “The fact that our big meet will be in front of a home crowd for the first time ever will spur everyone on to some great swims and out of the depths of the UAA,” he said.