Yang, women’s swimming enjoying strength in numbers

By Sean Ahmed

With the roster finally large enough to back the individual talent, the women’s swimming and diving team is making great strides in building a new foundation for the program. This weekend, the six-team field at the Chicago Invite will test just how far the Maroons have come after a couple months of competition and an extended winter-break training trip.

After adding eight new swimmers last year, head coach Sheila O’Connor recruited 11 more for this season, giving the Maroons 25 athletes ready to mount the blocks. That’s a big improvement from the bad old days, when O’Connor had to recruit for both the men’s and women’s swim teams with no pool on campus. As recently as 2002-2003, the women were carrying less than 10 swimmers and divers on the roster. Back then, the swimmers had to participate in the maximum number of events they were allowed to, forcing them to compete out of their specialty events and leaving them with no hope of ever being in contention.

Those sorts of lineup problems are no longer an issue for the Maroons, who have already pulled out two dual-meet wins this year (122–77 over Monmouth and 124–28 over Rose–Hulman, both on October 29) to match last year’s win total. They came achingly close to exceeding that number less than a week later, falling 114–113 at home to Illinois Wesleyan on November 5. More important than the win-loss column, though, is the growing support that team leaders like third-year long-distance swimmer Katherine Yang (see Spotlight) have experienced over the course of their careers.

“Depth in every single event has increased significantly, not only because of the first-years, but also because returners have been willing to try out different events,” Yang said. “Whereas before we would have one or, at the maximum, two people capable of scoring in an event at a dual meet, this year we should have more.”

First-years Kaitlin Roche and Rachel Zarnke, both of whom Yang notes possess dedication and consistently work hard at practice, figure to make a splash in the middle-distance events this weekend and onward. Zarnke has pulled in three event wins this season (one relay), and Roche heads into this weekend seeded just higher than her classmate in the 200- and 400-yard IMs. First-year sprinter Rachel Laws brings a natural talent to the short swims, and her season-best times have her ranked third (100-yard free), fourth (50-yard free), and sixth (200-yard free) in the Chicago Invite’s 20-plus swimmer fields.

Unsung despite producing important points for Chicago, the diving squad of third-year Ashley Bourne and second-year Monica Buckley has also continued to improve. The pair should again be major contributors on the weekend.

For the newcomers and veterans alike, this weekend is being treated as a critical next step on the road to the highly competitive UAA meet, which will take place in Atlanta just four short weeks from now. The three-day meet is a test of not only talent but also endurance, as swimmers are put through a long and grueling schedule.

Though the short-handed Maroons were only able to pull out two event wins in last Saturday’s dual meet at 17th-ranked Olivet College, the team still feels good coming off of an 11-day winter break training trip to Fort Myers, FL, that Yang said was “much tougher this year,” largely thanks to the first-years’ intensity. Being put to the test for either three or five hours each day not only tried the swimmers’ stamina, but it also rejuvenated the team in between meets.

“Ever since Florida, we have come together a lot more,” said first-year Whitney Biber, who holds an event win in the 100-yard backstroke. “Training-wise, we have really progressed. On the training trip we really learned how to push ourselves, and it has carried over into practices here. I think we broke a training barrier and realize how capable we are during practice and meets, and it’s been very beneficial to our progress.”

Based on what she sees this weekend, O’Connor will decide when to begin the tapering process for her team, as she relieves her worn-down swimmers by cutting down yardage and focusing solely on racing for UAAs and postseason competition. The team’s three remaining dual meets will all have the Maroons zeroing in on improving on last year’s eighth-place conference finish.

“It will be exciting to see how well we taper, because right now everyone is exhausted from working so hard,” Biber said. “I think the results will be apparent in Atlanta.”