June 2011 cover SCAN"St. Catherine University St. Catherine University
June 2011
 
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High Five!

How the Wildcats swimming and diving team set a deceptively impressive goal — and met it.

The 2010-2011 Wildcat swimming and diving team

BY CHRISTINA CAPECCHI | PHOTOS BY BRIAN TOLCSER

At the finish of the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (MIAC) championship, St. Kate's swimming and diving team morphed into a screaming, jumping knot — a tangle of wet arms and soaked hair, swimsuits and street clothes. Eventually, the student-athletes contained their euphoria enough to approach the award podium and pose beside their respective step, each woman raising a jubilant hand and holding up five fingers.

Fifth place, baby!

To those who'd say "fifth" is no cause for celebration, consider what the Wildcats achieved:

  • The 2010–2011 swimming and diving season was St. Kate's best in 25 years, marked by time drops, personal bests, shattered records and conference honors.
  • The team broke 12 school records, more than half of all those recorded in the books.
  • Seven women were named All-MIAC performers.
  • Sarah Moody '12 was named MIAC Diver of the Year.

Coaches Nicole Hempler and Shana Erickson shared the title of MIAC Coach of the Year.

Eleven teams competed in the February conference championship, and the victors, MIAC powerhouse Gustavus Adolphus College, earned more than twice as many points as the Wildcats, but no matter. "I think we were more excited than Gustavus," says Hempler, associate head coach.

Just a decade ago, the team had finished last in the conference, earning 118 points, its lowest score since 1976.

Then the Wildcats made a pivot, staging a slow and steady ascent. In 2002, Hempler, 32, began coaching. Her friend Erickson, 31, came on in 2005, initiating a more aggressive recruiting program. As the coaches gelled, so did the team. Their conference rankings kept rising, powered by consecutive gains in the past four years: eighth place, seventh place, sixth place and now, fifth place.

Nailing that fifth place was the ambitious goal the team set for itself at the start of the season. It was printed on purple sheets and taped inside the women's locker doors. Seeing those purple pledges after a 6 a.m. practice made a difference, says Steffanie Jurusik '13, who set three school records on individual swims and three school records on relays. "It reinforced what we were all practicing for," she says.

It quickly became clear that the College of Saint Benedict would be the team to beat to get to fifth. "After we saw what they brought on with recruits, we were like, 'It's not going to happen,'" Hempler says.

"No way," Erickson adds, shaking her head.

Team Bonding

Building relationships became as important as building muscle mass. In Erickson's first year as head coach in 2010, having served under Hempler for five years, she surprised the swimmers by calling for "social kicking," a technique that allows swimmers to work their exercise routine while adding a lane mate to chat with en route.

"That was one thing, in my own experience, that was pretty foreign," Hempler says. "Team bonding? Why do we need this? But the girls told me, 'No, when we know each other better, we can work more effectively.'"

Erickson also enforced more rigorous weightlifting and a ban on candy. "Our coaches really pushed us to work harder than we did last year," says Allison Witt '13, who helped set four school records this season. "We helped each other get through it."

Spurred by Witt's playlist of Katy Perry, Justin Bieber and M.C. Hammer, the Wildcats put in more yards at practice, trading stories and stresses between sets. They poured on the cheerleading during meets, positioning vocal teammates along the sides and at each end of the pool.

The rewards came in many forms, from better race times to little cartons of organic chocolate milk from the coaches. The women broke all but one of the school's relay records. "The team chemistry this year was awesome," says Witt, a crucial link in those relays.

The chemistry was obvious, says Athletic Director Eric Stacey: "The team came together as well as any team I've seen at St. Kate's." Stacey also praises the team's academic performance. The Wildcats averaged a 3.3 GPA, qualifying them for a Team Scholar All-American Award from the College Swimming Coaches Association of America. Moody, the star diver majoring in social work, has a 3.58 GPA. She's juggling 18 credits, two part-time jobs and an internship. The key to navigating her crazy schedule, she says, lies in her green planner — and an ability to be present to the moment. "I try to leave everything [else] out of my mind and concentrate on what I'm doing," she says. Standing at the edge of the diving board, her back to the water, Moody is completely focused during competition. "I can block out noise pretty easily," she explains. She says a few "cue words" in her head, the first two being "chin up." A ducked head, she explains, slows a rotation.

A gutsy competitor, Moody didn't hesitate to learn a difficult new dive mid-season, an inward two-and-a-half somersault tuck. She didn't even bother trying it out on the practice mat. "I just threw it," she says. "Fear drives a lot of it. When you throw it, you just go for it."

Goals and dreams

The Wildcats have accrued a wealth of wisdom this academic year, including the focal point of their season: Set and achieve a meaningful goal, no matter how insignificant it may sound to outsiders.

Moody says the singular focus on a goal accounts for her steadily rising GPA. Witt says it's prodded her to acknowledge her dream of spending a year doing mission work in a third-world country. "That's scary to me, but it's something I really want to do," she says. "It's not impossible."
And Jurusik says she's better at celebrating small steps, like her recent acceptance into St. Kate's nursing program.

St. Kate's swimming and diving team enjoys a particularly strong alumnae base, thanks to the size of past teams and the continuity of coaching. "I'm delighted," says Suzanne Heidelberg Anderson '83, a Hall of Famer who set two school swim records that were broken this season. "Where you land is not as important as how well you manage what you have to work with."

Coach Erickson recently downloaded pictures from the MIAC championship, marveling over a snapshot where Witt was in third place and Jurusik in second. "It was like, 'Wow! They're in our uniform," she smiles. "This is us!'"

Jurusik set a personal best and a school record at the MIAC meet. "I saw my time and I looked at the girl next to me and I said, 'Are the clocks wrong?' I didn't realize how much the practices had actually helped me up to that point."

She's already looking to next season, daring to imagine a fourth-place finish. "As a team," she says, "we might try for it."


Christina Capecchi is a Twin Cities-based freelance writer.

 
Amy Hagen

Powerful swimming helped Wildcat Allison Witt '13 set four school records this season.

Sarah Moody '12 was named MIAC diver of the year.

Swimmer Steffanie Jurusik '13, left, believes that early goal-setting helped her team shoot up in conference rankings.