Winter has traditionally been a difficult time of year for swimming. After easing into things in the fall, the Maroons crank up their training regimens over break and then dive headlong into a top-notch non-conference dual meet slate. All of this in preparation for the season-ending UAA meet—with three top ten teams, it is the nation’s toughest swimming conference.
Behind a new coach and a confident and talented group of swimmers, this year’s Chicago squads may have just the right formula to start the New Year with a bang.
Returning to Myers-McLoraine for the start of their winter schedule, the Maroons welcome back some familiar faces as they look to get off to a strong start at this weekend’s Chicago Invitational. The South Siders faced all but one of the six competing schools earlier this season at the Maroon Invite, where the men took first place and the women finished a strong third. It is also the final invitational before Chicago plunges into a difficult stretch of dual meets against powerhouses Carthage, DePauw, and Wheaton.
As Chicago reopens its season, there will be a lot of familiar faces at Myers-McLoraine, with lone newcomer Olivet likely to present the biggest threat in the pool to both squads this weekend. Matching up similarly to Luther, the second-place finisher at the Maroon invite, the Fighting Comets have several NCAA-caliber swimmers on the men’s side and will, at the very least, make things interesting.
“We’re gonna try to get into more of a rhythm [than go for top times] just because we’ve been out of competition for so long,” said head coach Jason Weber, who, in his first season at the helm, steered both squads into the national rankings. The men currently sit 21st, while the women made the rankings for the first time in their program history, debuting at 17th before dropping out.
“Some people are going to be a little rusty in terms of competing and going race pace. But I do think we’re going to be putting up some very fast times, just because we’re coming off our training trip, so they’ve got some of their best training behind them, and they should be ready to go fast.”
Although out of action for more than a month, the Maroons have been anything but strangers to hard work in the pool this offseason. During winter break both squads embarked on a ten-day trip to Sarasota, Florida as part of an annual tradition. The location changes from year to year, but the trek is always aimed at improving speed and endurance, as well as building mental toughness by bringing the athletes to the threshold of their abilities before easing up. Within a more relaxed setting than the typical academic day at the U of C, Weber was able to push his charges to the limit, past the point that in-season training allows.
“Compared to what we usually do it’s almost twice as hard. The amount of yardage, the amount of work you do, it’s just so much more intense,” Weber said. “They probably did about three weeks’ worth of workouts in twelve days.”
Sharing the pool in Sarasota with other college teams, as well as the local YMCA, shortened recovery times between workouts and restricted to some degree the effectiveness of the training sessions, but the Maroons enter the second half of their season an improved team in no small part due to the 10 days in the Sunshine State.
In comparison to previous Maroons teams, the 2007 editions of both the men’s and women’s squads stand out for their depth. The talented newcomers of years past are experienced veterans now, and a new crop of underclassmen has emerged in their stead, giving Weber and the Maroons plenty of flexibility in who swims what events. Second-year Shane Carlson, who as a first-year set school records in five events, has spent much of the season swimming in new events as the coaches take advantage of—and work on—his versatility. Other swimmers like fourth-year captain Pat Seastedt and third-year Zach Ergish have found themselves in similar positions.
The women, while younger and not as deep as the men, have reason for optimism as well. The loss of team MVP Katherine Yang (A.B. ’06) has been offset by the arrival of an outstanding freshman class, led by first-year Cassie O’Neill. O’Neill, the squad’s best hope at an NCAA bid, has been outstanding in the 100 and 200-meter breaststroke events.
While the school records that were rewritten last autumn have for the most part stayed put this year, the increased versatility of Chicago’s pool sharks could pay off with a renewed assault on the record books and possibly some NCAA appearances in the not-too-distant future.
For Chicago, the road ahead is strenuous, but the rewards will be more than worth it. Already, recruits have begun to take notice of the men’s lofty national ranking and the women’s appearance in the polls as well, giving hope that the future will be even brighter for the program. As swimming continues its ascent, Weber and the Maroons could begin to see their progress reflected in the tough-to-crack UAA standings.
“I really think [the] men should get at least fifth—at least fifth. I really think we’re a better team than Case, who were fifth last year.…It’s really gonna depend on how the other teams swim, and what their strategy is.”