January 17, 2006

With lineup recovered, women prove themselves in critical tune-up: Swimmers pointed in right direction after Chicago Invite

The women’s swimming and diving team had one last invite this weekend to prepare for UAAs early next month. Despite being exhausted from training, they took their chance and swam with it.

In the two-day, three-session Chicago Invitational this past weekend, the Maroons ended up taking a solid second place overall with 909 points, falling to 17th-ranked Olivet College (1167.5) but edging out Loras (904) in the seven-team competition. The usual suspects—including third-year distance swimmer Katherine Yang, first-year sprinter Sarah Laws, and first-year middle-distance swimmer Rachel Zarnke—turned in great performances to lead the Maroons, but a number of others improved personal-best times and took their heats, giving the hosts the depth to tally big in the

“I was very pleased. We knew it was going to be tough because we didn’t back off training at all. We knew we were going to be tired,” head coach Sheila O’Connor said. “I challenged the team to step up and show us what they had. Last week with people sick and missing we didn’t swim very well at all, so we needed to see where we were at.

“And we responded.”

The 200-yard freestyle relay and 500-yard freestyle kicked off the meet, and a pair of Chicago swimmers led efforts in both events. The Maroons’ A squad—composed of Yang, Laws, first-year Whitney Biber, and second-year Ellie McNeil—pulled in 38 points for their team, coming in fourth with a time of 1:47.72. Both Yang and Biber followed with good performances in the first individual event, pulling in a total of 35 points with third- (5:27.40) and eighth-place (5:40.62) finishes in the 26-swimmer field. It was Biber’s first collegiate swim in the event.

Laws also had a great weekend, posting third-place finishes in two sprints. The naturally talented newcomer posted a season-best time in the 50-yard free (25.62) and, in the Saturday evening session, finished a quarter-second behind second in the 100-yard free (56.10).

Those performances gave Chicago a solid start Friday night and a much more encouraging outlook than the previous weekend had.

“We swam tremendously Friday night and came back Saturday morning and had some very good swims,” O’Connor said. “I know we were dragging at the end, but we were still able to swim some season-best times.”

The swimmer who was most likely to need an oxygen tank at the end of the meet was the one who showed the most significant personal improvement on the team. Second-year distance swimmer Allyson Smally improved on her season-best 1,650-yard freestyle time by 49 seconds, touching the wall at 21:09.38. She even followed that 10th-place finish in the mile with a 2:45.59-run in the 200-yard backstroke.

“She’s been getting better and better all season,” O’Connor said. “This year she’s just taken on a whole new level. All her swims this weekend were great, racing over 3000 yards. She was just absolutely spent.”

Yang’s mile time of 18:36.96 was good for second in the event.

First-year Rachel Zarnke also turned in a great second-day performance, pulling in third place in the 200-yard butterfly with a time of 2:24.58. That followed her solid swims in Friday’s 200-yard I.M. (2:24.12 for seventh place) and Saturday morning’s 400-yard I.M. (5:06.99 for sixth). Her classmate Kaitlin Roche helped pace her, grabbing one spot better in both of those events with times of 2:23.31 and 5:04.23.

What may have been the deciding advantage was Chicago’s diving squad, consisting of third-year Ashley Bourne and second-year Monica Buckley. The two combined for 76 points on the invite, with no other team earning more than Illinois Tech’s 48 points.

Looking to preserve their swimmers’ energy and have them hitting peak fitness come UAAs and regionals, O’Connor and her assistant Sue Templeman have begun tapering, scaling back workouts from the tough two-a-day swimming and weight-training schedule. The coaching staff has six different plans that they will apply to swimmers depending on their events, experience, and personal needs. Having already seen her swimmers survive the toughest winter break training trip in O’Connor’s time as well as last weekend’s marathon, she says she’ll taper but won’t be afraid to push her young squad.

“We’ll start by backing off the weight training, and we’ll have one group drop off doubles. Within two weeks, we’re only going to have one practice a day,” O’Connor said. “It’ll really allow the women to recover right away even though we’ll still be training hard in the one practice. They’ll be good and rested by the time conferences come around.”

The Maroons have three dual meets left, beginning with the two in this Saturday’s Wheaton (IL) Triangular. All events between now and the February 9–11 UAA meet will be tune-ups for the real deal.