Inter-class dynamic propels women’s swim team: With freshmen ready to compete, swimming team grows stronger

| Senior Sports Editor
Mary Butkus | WUSTL Photo Services

The jump from high-school to college athletics typically involves a bit of a learning curve, and that’s certainly true for most student-athletes here at Washington University. Whether it’s a quarterback trying to learn head football coach Larry Kindbom’s playbook or a point guard attempting to understand head women’s basketball coach Nancy Fahey’s system, there’s typically a bit of an adjustment period for most sports. And that could, in theory, limit what underclassmen are able to do on those teams.

But there are also sports in which that’s not quite the case. Take the Wash. U. swimming and diving team. Freestyle and butterfly are the same as they were in high school: 25 meters are 25 meters in any pool. With some exceptions, not too many team-specific adjustments need to happen in swimming to let the talented newcomers succeed.

And those talented freshmen on the 2012-13 team are a big part of the improvement that the swimming and diving team has shown this year, both in terms of results and attitudes.

“They’ve had a great team spirit to them as well; they’ve been enthusiastic, they’ve been motivated, they train hard [and] they’ve acclimated themselves really well,” head coach Brad Shively said. “Certainly they’ve got some good numbers, and it’s not hard to tell when you’ve got talented swimmers in the pool. But they’re really competitive, and they’re funny, and they joke around a lot.”

But it’s still not a seamless transition. While the strokes themselves may not change, any given coach may try to tweak a swimmer’s stroke in a particular way.

“Each coach has a different coaching style, so their practices are going to be different, the way they look at your stroke is going to be different, and they may ask you to change things up and do different things,” freshman Kristalyn McAfee said.

There are also some technical changes. McAfee noted that the team’s thrice-weekly weight training was an adjustment from prior training habits.

In any event, the class of 2016 has felt good about the impact it’s had on the team’s successes so far this season.

“Every new class of swimmers has a certain vibe or style that they bring to the team, and it changes the way that the team interacts,” freshman Amanda Stadermann said.

“I feel like we’ve brought a new sense of competitiveness this year—a good, friendly competitiveness,” McAfee added. “There’s been a lot more races in practice just because you want to race each other, not because you really want to beat them, but just because [it’s fun].”

The group—which makes up almost one-third of the team, according to McAfee—has seen a sort of symbiotic relationship growing with the team’s upperclassmen. On the one hand, its enthusiasm and achievements have enthused the squad.

“I feel like there’s a spike in energy this year,” McAfee said. “After seeing the freshmen work really hard and do well, they’re kind of like, ‘Oh, I can do this as well.’”

But that relationship works both ways, and Shively highlighted how the veterans and upperclassmen help the newcomers get acclimated—not just in terms of swimming but in terms of time management and the general skills needed to balance academics and athletics.

“The leadership on that team, I think they’ve done a really good job making sure that everybody feels like a part [of the team] and feels like they can contribute,” Shively said.

McAfee backed that sentiment. “I feel like I’ve been able to grow as a swimmer just because I expect more out of myself after watching people around me also expect more out of themselves. When I see someone doing really well in the pool and with their classes, I hold myself to the same standards, because we have the same time commitments.”

That working relationship has helped the team grow, and it all came to a head on Dec. 1, when both the men’s and women’s teams won the Wheaton Invitational for the first time ever.

“I think that boosted a lot of energy, and [let us know that] we can do really well at UAA [conference] and at nationals,” Stadermann said.

According to Shively, the successes at Wheaton almost worked as a form of validation.

“I think until you’re an environment like that, where you kind of have the pressure of a big meet, you don’t really know,” Shively said. “And I thought we walked away from that meet and probably thought a little bit better of ourselves than we did prior to that meet.”

That meet—which featured event winners from all four years between the men’s and women’s teams, including eight events won by freshmen or relays that had freshmen—helped make it known what the team could do behind this incoming class.

“I think that’s what you get with young swimmers. You get a bit of unknown,” Shively said. “You don’t necessarily know what they did in high school, and they’re in college and you’re not so sure because you haven’t seen it yourself. And when they start doing those things and start having really good swims…and now when you see them doing these things with us and for us, that gives you a lot of enthusiasm, too.”