Buoyed by underclassmen, men seek to rewrite the record books: Swimmers look to youth at UAA title meet

By Tim Murphy

Head coach George Villareal thinks the best is yet to come for men’s swimming. For the rest of the UAA, that’s a scary thought.

After a record-breaking regular season which saw first-year Shane Carlson set three new individual marks, the Maroons are looking for a best-ever finish at the UAA championships in Atlanta Thursday through Saturday. After a 5–4–1 dual-meet record in the regular season, Chicago will seek to capitalize on the improvements that they have made over the course of the past few seasons.

“We started something good last year when we got sixth place,” Villareal said. “I think we can get a fourth or a fifth this year. Every year this team is going to get better. I don’t think we’ll be satisfied until we’re one of the top three teams in the league.”

None of the team’s recent successes seemed possible three years ago. That year, only five swimmers made the trip to Fort Lauderdale for the team’s winter training camp, and the Maroons ended the year with eight athletes on the roster en route to an eighth-place finish at the UAA meet.

This season, 24 athletes took the plunge, and the requisite 20 swimmers will make the trip to Atlanta. The program’s metamorphosis is due in large part to the efforts of Villareal and the athletic department. Since taking over in 2003, Villareal has made great strides in bringing the best student-athletes he can find to Hyde Park. The opening of Myers-McLoraine pool in his first year of coaching didn’t hurt either.

“The pool is probably one of the more important factors [in the team’s success],” Villareal said. “First, the University is an important factor in drawing the people that we do. Second, the direction that I am taking the program [is a factor], and then it doesn’t hurt that we have the pool. It’s the first thing the recruits see when they come here. We sell them first on the educational opportunities, and then on my program, and then the pool.”

Villareal’s recruiting has paid dividends with the arrival of swimmers such as second-year Zach Ergish and first-years Shane Carlson and Alex Stabell. The team has built up a solid nucleus of young talent to go with the older and more experienced upperclassmen. With the youth movement serving as a foundation, the Maroons have finally begun to taste something other than chlorine in the water: success.

“I think it’s mostly a function of the fact that those were my first two recruiting classes. We had nowhere to go but up,” Villareal said. “They [the first- and second-years] definitely made a difference.”

“Coach Villarreal has done an amazing recruit job,” Ergish said. “He has attracted great swimmers and continues to do so. The team is constantly growing and becoming stronger, which enhances the unification of the team towards a common belief. The best is still yet to come because of the development that this team is showing and the potential that it has.”

This weekend’s UAA meet will be an opportunity for the Maroons to prove to the conference just how far the team has come. If the team is to place in the top five, they will have fierce competition from Case and Carnegie Mellon, not to mention Villareal’s alma mater, the perennial champion Emory Eagles. Yet despite the stiff challenges, Chicago has kept its eye on the prize all season.

“We have been training hard for the past four months for this meet,” Ergish said. “Everything that we have physically and emotionally been through leads us up to these few days.”

In recent years, the coaching staff has utilized technology and alternative forms of conditioning to improve on traditional training techniques. The swimmers are regularly videotaped using underwater cameras in order to help them improve upon and correct their form. In addition to the videotaping, the coaches have emphasized the conditioning of the mind. At selected practices, each member of the team mentally rehearses his race, stroke by stroke. At the end of the session, the coaches tell each member of the team what their “time” was.

“It works out well,” Villareal said. “We found that mental preparation can work almost as well as a practice. When they’re up on the blocks, they know they’ve already gone through the race in their head.”

In addition to the unorthodox training methods, the team has also tapered its performance in order to be at its best at the end of the season. The distance, duration, and effort required in each effort have been gradually reduced over the course of the year. While this meant that the times towards the end of the dual-meet season were slower, it should pay off come Thursday.

“We’ve just been working on our dives and our foot turns,” first-year Anthony Kim said. We’re perfecting our stroke so that this weekend, most of us will be getting our best times of the season.”

If all goes well in Georgia, the Maroons could break as many as eight school records. Carlson, holder of the school marks in the 1,650-, 1,000- and 500-yard freestyle events, could very well lower his own marks this weekend. Third-year James Vacarro (50-yard free), Ergish (200- and 400-yard IM), and the 400- and 800-yard freestyle relays are also looking to make history.

“Shane definitely has the potential to break his records in all of his distance events,” Kim said.

After the team’s success in the regular season, Chicago will hope that its success carries over into the postseason. A strong finish in Atlanta would go a long way toward showing the rest of the league that the Maroons have arrived.

“We believe that we have the capability to excel in many events this year,” Ergish said. “Fourth place is a reasonable goal, especially if everyone puts out their best effort and we all have strong swims.”