During the first weekend of spring break, while most students filtered off campus for two weeks of family time and standard college break debauchery, men’s and women’s swimming and diving remained in Williamstown. As various residential and dining halls grew quiet, the pool was a buzz of activity. For three days, the Ephs worked on perfecting those last dives, sprints and turns before they boarded a plane to the Div. III Swimming & Diving National Championships in Indianapolis.
Making the NCAA championship is no easy task. With fast qualifying standards, the NCAA tries to cap participation at 16 swimmers or divers per event. This exclusive selection process makes it even more impressive that the Ephs brought 13 men and 12 women to the combined men’s and women’s championship meet, making this national team one of the biggest in Head Coach Steve Kuster’s 13-year tenure. Having such a large team holds many advantages. In addition to being a loud cheering section, the Ephs feed off each other’s successes. Consolation finalist Christian Gronbeck ’15 said the team component to the typically individual sport was his favorite part of the championship. “I thought the meet was really exciting because it was very team-oriented,” he said. “Each college was its own unit and incredibly supportive of each other. We weren’t just there for ourselves, but there for the team.”
While exciting and unforgettable, swim championships can be a grueling affair. Every day during the four days of competition the Ephs would wake up at 6:15 a.m. and drive to the pool for a wake-up swim. After loosening their muscles and stretching, the athletes would return to the hotel for a quick breakfast before heading back to the pool. The Ephs would then jump in the pool for a second warm-up before changing out of their practice swimwear into tight-fitting, seamless and often alarmingly revealing “tech suits.” Then it was back into the pool for a third warm-up before their event. After the morning preliminary session concluded, the swimmers warmed down in the pool and grabbed a quick sandwich on the way back to the hotel. Then it was naptime for two hours before getting up and doing it all over again for those lucky enough to earn a night swim at finals. After the evening session, there was a meeting with Kuster and a mediocre pasta dinner around 10 p.m. And of course, before bed, both men and women would engage in the customary shaving and re-shaving of legs, arms, backs, stomachs and the like. After everyone’s bodies were appropriately lathered with moisturizer to prevent razor burn, the Ephs dutifully set their nightmare 6:15 a.m. alarms again.
But for the swimmers and divers, the shaving of legs, the seemingly endless dry season and the morning workouts are a small price to pay for the elation that comes with participating at NCAAs. The massive NCAA banners alongside pool records set by Michael Phelps reminds the Ephs that they have reached the epitome of competition in their sport. And for many, without the pressures and expectations of winning a conference crown over rival Amherst, NCAAs are a time to throw caution to the wind, lower expectations and just have fun. Sometimes that mental attitude can be the best way to avoid physical stress and overthinking the race. Swimming is a sport of muscle memory and visualization can sometimes do more harm than good. Tom Vieth ’13 said it best when pumping up the relay squad before the men’s 800 freestyle relay: “Alright, boys, time to turn the brain off and just swim.”
When Kuster sat the Ephs down before they left for Indy, he laid out two main themes: “believe” and “team.” Kuster reminded the swimmers that believing follows a simple logic: “I believe that I can swim fast; I believe that I will swim fast; we believe that we will swim fast.” In swimming, what separates the good and the great is merely those who believe they are great. Training is usually comparable, and many swimmers are the same size. So why does one swimmer touch the wall first? Because they believe.
With the theme of “team” comes atmosphere and attitude, two key dynamics that keep the flow of positive energy alive. But for the Ephs, “believe” and “team” are complementary. One follows the other. Sitting in the stands, the Ephs were clearly visible from the side of the pool. They were cheering for each individual, clapping in unison and standing as close as possible to the lane. The men and women together formed one single, impenetrable unit. One team. And why was this team so successful? Because they believed.
The themes of “believe” and “team” were present throughout the meet and formed the basis for success in the water. When Logan Todhunter ’12 broke the national record in the 200 butterfly, the entire team broke out in the enduring “We are … Williams” chant. And of course no one can forget the look of pride on Kuster’s face as he smiled vibrantly toward the podium, mouthing the words: “I believe.”