Through thick and thin, Yang left mark in pool

By Joe Katz

Being number one isn’t always all it’s cracked up to be. Leadership requires hard work, dedication, and sacrifice. It’s about the expectations from the squad and the consequences if you fail—not just the accolades.

This winter, Katherine Yang learned how lonely it can be at the top.

With the women’s swimming program denuded of juniors and seniors graduation losses and a number of members quitting, the graduating third-year found herself the unquestioned head of a program on the rise. Yang was faced with the responsibility to help guide and mold a team composed largely of first-years while still keeping an eye on her own times, and she had to do it all without the peer network she had come to count on during her first two years with the Maroons. Yet the squad’s captain came through with aplomb and loads of success in the water while setting a model for others to follow.

“The emotional mentality of the team was so different. I like all the freshmen, I like all the girls on the team, but it’s a little different when the people who make you love to show up aren’t there any more,” Yang said. “It was a season that in all respects could have turned out for the worse.”

Having spent her freshman and sophomore seasons training with last year’s tri-captain trio of Deb Ayoub (A.B. ’05), Erin Lyons (A.B. ’05), and Emily Testa (A.B. ’05), this year was quite a culture shock for Yang. A wave of her classmates made the decision to leave the team within a month of the first practice this winter, leaving her as the most experienced member of a young squad by far. Coaches and teammates alike looked to her to provide leadership, not an easy task considering the bevy of classes and on-campus interviews she faced as a result of her attempt to graduate early. In her final season, Yang was forced to rise to a whole new challenge.

“There’s always the temptation to maybe skip a few practices, not put as much energy into it. There’s always that temptation not to work as hard as you can, but knowing that I was the captain and had to take care of things, that really helped me push through the hard fall,” she said. “I was able to get through it and make it even if my friends weren’t there. I thought, well, I’ll just make new friends.”

Despite the challenges of balancing a captainship, her own personal goals, a job search, and course work, the third-year took it all in stride. The pressure of helping to acclimate her dewy-eyed teammates to college pools proved to be a blessing in disguise, pushing her to set a high standard for herself even as a number of swimmers chose to leave the squad. Yang returned to the pool deck, and her persistence, toughness, and good attitude rubbed off on her teammates.

Katherine “never shies away from hard work in practice,” head coach Sheila O’Connor said. “She’s a quiet leader, not a jump-up-and-down, rah-rah cheerleader type, but she’s a lead-by-example, support-your-teammates type.”

For the first time in eight years, the women’s team was able to rise out of the basement of the tough UAA conference with a seventh-place finish at the league meet paced by a tremendous performance from their captain. Though some relay disqualifications on the part of eighth-place Brandeis certainly helped matters, the tone pitched by the veteran was vital in helping many of the first-years along.

“One of the main goals for the season was to bring the morale up on the team, because it’s so easy, it’s so easy for the team to sink into a negative state, it’s so easy for the team to fall apart. Seeing upperclassmen quit makes people think maybe there’s something wrong with the program, or it’s too difficult for them,” Yang said. “My focus wasn’t on the points I scored or the times I set because they aren’t going to help the team next year, that’s done. It may be up in the record books, but it’s not going to motivate anybody. My ability to motivate the team throughout the season despite my difficulties, helping maintain the team morale, that will turn out to be my legacy.”

“Even when Katherine went out to race with less yardage in practice than she wanted to have, she was able to pull through. She had the attitude that things don’t have to be perfect for you to go out there and still race and win,” O’Connor said. “I think to watch Katherine do that was good for first-years.”

Leaving a strong impact in her final season, she helped develop some of the rookies who will be charged with leading the program to levels previously unheard of for women’s swimming at the University of Chicago. Two of the rising pool sharks Yang named as future leaders of the team, first-years Kaitlin Roche and Rachel Zarnke, had nothing but praise for the squad’s top swimmer.

“Katherine was incredibly dedicated. Even when she was interviewing for jobs and had tobe downtown at 9 a.m., she still came to practice beforehand,” Roche said. “As a teammate, [she] was a great motivator. While she wasn’t incredibly outspoken or demanding, she led by her actions. She used this opportunity to push the whole team harder by pushing herself. I think all the younger swimmers have realized that this program is really developing thanks in large part to Katherine.”

“She showed us all how to remain committed at practice and to focus on our goals. Katherine always strove to be the best she could be at every practice, which paid off for her in the end,” Zarnke said. “I know that everyone on the team benefited from knowing her. We all love her and will miss her.”

But Yang’s importance to the team cannot be reduced to her strong work ethic. She was the leading points-scorer on the team for the second year in a row this winter, a distinction that earned the captain her second straight team MVP award. Throughout her career, she was the “go-to distance swimmer,” frequently representing her squad in the brutal 1,650-yard freestyle and winning more than her share of the longer events. While the legacy left by Maroons All-American distance maven Margaret Pizer (A.B. ’97) prevented her from setting any individual program marks over her Chicago career, she proved her versatility by swimming a leg on two record-setting teams. The 400-yard freestyle relay her first year and the squad at UAA this February both busted program marks.

Her last showing for Chicago was certainly one of her best. Aside from her record-setting relay effort, Yang recorded three individual top-16 finishes at the league meet February 9–11.

“I think my mental intensity was a lot higher this year. If I wanted a certain place, a certain time, I feel like I would do anything in the pool to get there. I just wanted it so much more this year,” Yang said.

“She continued to improve every year. What we really worked on this year was to leave her swim in the pool. She’s learned from this year how to channel that and intensify her training a little bit. She definitely would have continued to get better next year,” O’Connor said.

While it’s tempting to envision how strong this team would be with Yang pacing the charge to the wall next year, the captain has chosen to trade in her bathing suit for business duds ahead of schedule. Completing most of the requirements for an economics degree by last fall and hoping to avoid paying for another three quarters, Yang is set to walk with the Class of 2006 next week. She leaves Hyde Park to make her foray into the finance world after wading through interviews and landing her top choice.

“My biggest regret in terms of athletics is not being able to be here for that coaching change, the combination in the two teams. I feel like that would really help me grow as a swimmer, both socially and athletically,” Yang said. “On the other hand, I swam with Sheila for so long, I can’t imagine being here without her as my head coach. It might just be fitting to leave now.”

With O’Connor having resigned to join her husband John after his acceptance of the men’s soccer head coaching position at the University of Rhode Island, a new chapter lies ahead for the women’s swimming team. The squad will share a head coach with the men’s squad next year. Count the women’s captain among those who applaud the move, which she hopes will help her teammates give the sport more of a priority. The desire for greater enthusiasm on the part of the women’s team is a critical element for Yang, whose experience with the premature departure of teammates has left an impression on her ideas about what’s next for this program.

“Maintaining freshman needs to be the team’s goal in the future. So many freshmen who’ve come through have quit in the first month, and so many of them were outstanding swimmers who could have helped us a lot,” Yang said. “We need that dedication.”

As the swimming program at the U of C continues to evolve, everything may become a little easier. But if the team still needs a reminder of what it takes to persevere when the going gets tough, they need look no further than their outgoing captain.