At this point in time, most members of Chicago's young swimming team have known nothing but the glass arches and long lanes of Myers-McLoraine Pool, the squad's home since Ratner's opening in 2003. But for three of the Maroons's best swimmers, it's easy to recall a time when the swimming program was without a permanent home and couldn't practice on campus.
Fourth-year captains Deb Ayoub, Erin Lyons, and Emily Testa have personally witnessed and led the growth of the women's swimming team, coming all the way up from being humble first-years practicing at Olive-Harvey College's and Dyett High School's pools. Today, largely because of how much easier on-campus facilities have made both practicing and recruiting, the Maroons have held their own in a UAA field that is one of the nation's deepest. The preeminent triumverate of Chicago women's swimming, Ayoub, Lyons, and Testa have excelled in the short- and middle-length meets and have consistently been the leaders the squad turns to for top individual and relay performances.
"Having Ratner has completely changed my experience as a swimmer and as an athlete at the U of C," Lyons said. "It has been great to finally be able to have competitions, particularly UAAs at home, and to have my friends be able to come out to support me. We have been able to get more practice time, and have cut out all of the travel time, which took away from swimming, school, and social activities."
For Lyons's roommate Ayoub, it's easy to see why the swim team has grown so much since the early morning practices at Olive-Harvey and Dyett her first year. "It's a lot easier getting people to show up to morning practices when you have to be at the pool at 6:30 a.m. instead of getting into a van at 5:30 a.m. to drive out to the middle of Washington Park," Ayoub said. "It is also nice to have home meets and have our friends and family show up and cheer for us. It's more fun."
Aside from requiring some obscenely early wake-up calls, using the public pool at Olive-Harvey led to some unanticipated consequences for training routines. Unbeknownst to coaches and swimmers alike, the dimensions at Olive-Harvey were not up to regulation standards.
"Halfway through our first year, we had to switch pools to train at Olive-Harvey's facility for a week," Testa said. "When we showed up for practice that Monday, we started the workout, but no one in the distance group was making the intervals. The sprinters, meanwhile, had a set of no-breathing 25s, and they weren't making those either. After about 15 minutes of wondering how on earth we'd lost so much ground in 48 hours, we came to the realization that the pool was 25 meters, not 25 yards. We were all relieved to know we hadn't somehow regressed to our pre-season fitness levels."
Ayoub, Lyons, and Testa feel that their closeness as swim captains and on dry land is partly attributed to the trials of swimming in a community pool for two years.
"Despite the enormous inconvenience [practicing off-campus] causes, I think it really held us together, at least the few of us who stayed," Ayoub said. "Together, we've seen the team grow and change many times, and it's been a lot of fun, the whole way."
"Ratner has definitely changed the social dynamics of the team as well," Lyons said. "As a first-year, we spent a lot of time traveling together, and the team was pretty small, but we were so close. This gave me great support and this also happened to be my best year performance wise.
"Two years ago the men's and women's teams split, which definitely felt weird at first, but has made the girls really close. Ultimately, I am not sure if it was the best decision, but I love the girls on our team and would not change a thing about it."
The three helped carry the burden for those girls in the water. In the UAA Finals held in February, Ayoub, Lyons, and Testa each placed in the consolation finals. Ayoub earned 14th place in the 200-yard individual medley (2:18.60), while Lyons finished 14th in the 1,650-yard freestyle (18:54.49) and Testa posted a 15th-place effort in the 100-yard freestyle (57.08 seconds), coming together for the final time to lead the team that they helped build.
Whatever path Ayoub, Lyons, and Testa take, it looks as though this trio will stick together.
"Sometimes it's hard to believe I've been swimming with Erin and Deb for four years; the time's gone so quickly," Testa said. "As we've seen the program go through this time of transition, it's been quite a unique experience."
Like their friendship, the program looks likely to continue its growth, according to Lyons, the former tri-captain, who graduated a quarter early and is currently living in Rome. Lyons led this year's young team, which added eight new members from last year. The Myers-McLoraine pool has given both men's and women's swimming more visibility on campus and from other college teams.