Yang strives to make splash at league finale: Swimmers look to youth at UAA title meet

By Sean Ahmed

It’s been eight years since women’s swimming last emerged from the basement of the UAA. This year, with significant diving depth and a strong first-year class, Chicago may just be ready to see daylight again.

When the Maroons head to Atlanta this weekend for the conference meet, they’ll have to be prepped to take on the most competitive league in the nation. Four teams—NYU (ranked 7th), Carnegie (8th), Rochester (21st), and Case (24th)—are in the College Swimming Coaches Association of America opt-in top 25, and Emory and Wash U, which finished one-two in last year’s UAA meet, would likely be ranked even higher than those squads if they participated in the poll. Emory is the defending national champion and is a favorite to repeat.

It’s a daunting top six that the Maroons likely won’t be able to challenge, but a seventh-place finish and good individual performances would go a long way to showing that this program is on track to becoming a conference player.

“It’s going to be tough to break up higher into beating teams because you have to have people qualifying for nationals,” said head coach Sheila O’Connor, who has led the program since 1994. “But we still hope to score more points, which we think we can do, and score better in our relays. Our depth should help us there.”

Brandeis will be the main target in the Maroons’ crosshairs, but the Judges’ veteran talent will make it a swim against the current. With a couple swimmers and divers who squeaked into last year’s national meet, Brandeis is slightly further along than the budding Chicago program.

“That’s what separates us at this point—to be competitive in our conference you have to be competitive nationally,” O’Connor said, “Which we will be soon, but we’re playing a little catch-up.”

Graduating third-year distance swimmer Katherine Yang will lead her team likely for the last time this weekend, providing the talent and focus to pace a young Maroons squad. Yang has some previous success to build off of as well; her 11th-place finishes in the 200- and 1,650-yard freestyle events last year were the highest on the team.

Based on the pre-meet seedings, she may have to make up some ground to match last year’s performances. Yang is ranked 21st in the 200 (2:03.17 season-best time), 20th in the 500 (5:24.23), and 13th in the mile (11:03.76). The team’s leading point-getter for the second consecutive season, she has had a solid but, due to her early-season commitments to the job search, slightly off year. The winter-break training trip went a long way to getting Yang back to proper swimming fitness (a tough proposition for a distance swimmer), but she’s taking a step back for her last meet and considering a broader picture than just her own.

“Personally, to make the most out of my last competitive meet with this year’s team,” Yang said. “I am not too stressed about my individual swimming, since this season has been much more difficult in comparison to previous years because of the job search in the fall. It would be nice to end on a good note with fast times, but as of now, I think it’s more important to enjoy being on a team with such a great group of girls and make lasting memories than focusing solely on my individual performances.”

That sort of team-first attitude from Yang will be important to the Maroons’ success this year, both long- and short-term. It will largely be the first-years, the biggest class O’Connor has ever recruited at 11 swimmers, who will determine where this team finishes in the final standings. With Ratner’s turn in the host rotation coming up last year, Yang is the only one who has had to travel to a meet of this scale. Though Emory’s pool is very similar to Myers–McLoraine aside from aesthetics, the hotel and crowd experiences will be on another level.

“It’s a learning experience. You can tell them what it’s going to be like, and a lot of them have been in big meets before because they’re good swimmers,” O’Connor said. “This is almost as fast as nationals. It’s an experience to go and almost be a little overwhelmed their first year—even though I don’t expect them to be, but it wouldn’t be unusual. So our focus has been on getting them to be focused on getting the experience. It’ll be at home next year, and they’ll have been through it.

“Because we don’t have many upperclassmen we don’t have them to say, ‘This is what it’s like.’ The problem with a younger team is you don’t have that same leadership. Katherine can’t do it all.”

O’Connor isn’t telling her swimmers to view this as laying the foundation for next year, believing that the Maroons should already see strides this weekend, but it’s hard to know what to expect at this point. Whereas last year the team had a core of fourth-years—Deb Ayoub, Emily Testa, and Erin Lyons—that joined Yang as the team’s principal points earners and relay squads, this year a much larger and more varied group will be expected to contribute.

First-year Sarah Laws has been a consistently solid option in short-distance events all season, and she should score big in her first UAA test. “A while since we’ve had a really good sprint-style swimmer,” according to O’Connor, Laws enters the meet seeded ninth in the 50- (25.62) and 13th in the 100-yard (55.61) freestyles, and will be critical to relays.

Laws’ classmates Kaitlin Roche (IMs and 200-yard breaststroke) and Rachel Zarnke (100-yard fly) have made big strides the second half of the season and could pace the squad. First-year Callie Brown, who missed the first few months due to soccer, could be a bonus in the meet’s backstroke and medley relay events.

“Callie only joined the team in December, but her backstroke has already helped out the team in smaller meets so far,” Roche said.

Even with average performances from all those young swimmers, the Maroons figure to do better with a significantly improved diving squad comprised of third-year Ashley Bourne and second-year Monica Buckley. Having upped their training with a dedicated coach this year, the pair plans to add not just any points but also significant totals.

At the very least, team morale and dedication is at a noticeably higher level than previous years, and it has been so since the grueling midseason training trip. The coaching staff has tapered training, and today’s final morning practice at Ratner will involve very specific, shorter-yardage sprints designed to have swimmers going at a fast pace but also preserving energy.

“Everybody has put in a great deal of time in and out of the pool preparing for the meet. We have stepped up practice attendance significantly in the past two weeks and this has been a factor in being able to grow closer as a team,” Yang said. “So an expectation for UAAs is to strengthen those ties and build confidence for going into the next season.”

Whether the results manifest fully this year or not, the Maroons know that these are the first, significant steps to a brighter future.