Paced by youngsters, women nab best finish in eight years: Touching the wall, swimmers set marks at UAA meet

By Sean Ahmed

It may appear to be just a baby step up in the standings, but last weekend’s seventh-place finish made it clear that women’s swimming has made big strides over the course of the year. So clear, in fact, that many are already looking forward to a return trip to the UAAs.

For the first time since the 1997-1998 season, the Maroons emerged from the basement of the nation’s strongest conference, stealing the seventh position from Brandeis by five points. Though graduating third-year Katherine Yang played the expected starring role in her last career meet, a cast of first-years grew from supporting roles into instrumental performers as they broke one program relay record on their own before teaming up with Yang to knock off another one on the final day.

“The program is only going to go up from here,” said Yang, who also added three top-16 individual performances. “The team is young, so the returners—especially the freshmen—will be able to carry the momentum through the next three years. Getting seventh place is a huge achievement on the part of both the coaching staff and the team. [Head coach Sheila O’Connor and assistant Sue Templeton] did a great job training us during the season and keeping the mental focus during taper.”

A number of swimmers posted season- or personal-best times on Thursday, the first of three days in Atlanta, but the marks were still lagging from where O’Connor hoped to have them. Yang showed the biggest improvement early on in the 500-yard free, dropping five seconds and climbing five spots from her 20th seed to pull in 15th (5:19.63). That time was a college-best for the third-year. First-year sprinter Sarah Laws also grabbed 15th in the 50 free (25.61).

After a disappointing 200-yard free relay, where the Maroons finished last in both the A and B heats, O’Connor decided to juggle her relay lineup for the 400-yard medley. Her four first-years responded to the change, and it may have been just enough to get Chicago in the fast lane. Callie Brown (backstroke), Rachel Zarnke (butterfly), Kaitlin Roche (breaststroke), and Laws (freestyle) teamed up for a 4:17.08 mark, good for fifth place and 28 of their team’s final 165 points. The performance also etched the four newcomers’ names in the school record books, as it beat the previous program best by less than a second.

“I just knew that we did well at the relay. I looked up after I touched and realized I dropped some time. Kaitlin dropped four seconds, Rachel dropped some time, and Sarah did her usual thing,” Brown said. “When we got to the hotel and at dinner Sheila announced we had broken the record, it wasn’t expected. That wasn’t what we were trying to do. We just went out there and swam.”

“Once we had a couple good swims and people relaxed and got excited, you saw more than anybody else the first-years saying we can swim here,” O’Connor said. “They carried the momentum, which you don’t really see out of first-year classes. That’s a big step coming into a college program and having to be a leader in that sense. The upperclassmen saw that and kind of said OK, we’re doing pretty well.”

Those first-years were off and running on the final two days. Laws added an 11th-place finish and six points in the 100-yard free (54.85) with her earlier two points from the 50 free. Roche finished 14th in the 200-yard breaststroke (2:34.59) and 16th in the 100-yard breaststroke (1:13.44). Zarnke’s 1:02.60 mark was good for 13th place in the 100-yard butterfly and 2:20.49 swim claimed 14th place in the 200-yard butterfly.

Roche just missed qualifying for the finals in the 400-yard I.M. with her 4:51.13 mark in prelims, but the swim sent a signal to her teammates. Seeing the first-year drop 12 seconds off her season-best time, the Maroons knew they were ready.

“It was one of those swims that got everyone saying we’re ready to swim fast, we’re ready, we’ve tapered,” O’Connor said. “We weren’t overwhelmed.”

“The team grew much closer over the weekend—inevitable when everybody is together for so long,” Yang said, “but I could sense that the bond grew even stronger when we realized that we could beat Brandeis and that every point counted.”

Brown would reappear among the scorers in the meet’s final event, teaming up with Laws, Yang, and first-year Whitney Biber to break another school record, this time in the 400-yard free. The squad’s time of 3:46.22 bested the previous 3:46.99 mark set two years ago by Yang, then-third-years Emily Testa and Erin Lyons, and then-fourth-year Nikki Voelkel.

Despite the fact that Chicago lost four points of their lead to Brandeis over the final A and B relays, symbolically it was a fitting end to a very successful meet. Yang was able to break a record that she had set as a first-year but with a markthat she knows will likely fall in the near future to some of the swimmers who teamed up with her this past weekend. It was a proper passing of the guard to the 19 first- and second-years that will lead next year’s program.

“Setting the school record in the 400 relay was kind of the crowning touch to go out on a high note, her and three first-years,” O’Connor said. “For her sake, she’s got another school record, and with three first-years on that relay, she knows it probably won’t last forever but it’s a good finish.”

Yang also made a mark in two other individual events, placing 12th in the 1,650-yard free (18:23.40) and 15th in the 200-yard free (2:01.60). After a slow start largely due to a job search that held back her training program, Yang quickly got back into the swing of things and even improved on last year’s performance in a meet that was by all accounts much faster. Last year Yang only scored in two individual events, this year in three.

“I went my best college time in the 500, was close in the 200, and personal best in the mile. We broke the 400 free relay record that I broke my first year,” Yang said. “So I couldn’t have asked for a better way to end.”

While it may not be Yang’s team anymore, it will undoubtedly still have her mark on it, as the first- and second-years build on this year’s experience to continue to go to new levels.

“Our biggest thing that we learned this year as far as the future is concerned is that they are capable of a lot more than they thought they may be capable of,” O’Connor said. “We heard them talking after the meet about next year—‘I want to do this. I want to do that.’ The excitement is that this isn’t our peak.

“They also know that to compete at this level, they have to take their training to the next level.”