March 16, 2011
By Brad Rudner
For all intents and purposes, the 2010-11 season was supposed to be a rebuilding year for the University of Michigan women's swimming and diving team.
With only one senior swimmer on its roster (Natasha Moodie), head coach Jim Richardson knew he had his work cut out for him.
Even with a young and relatively inexperienced roster, he didn't feel like the team was making the type of progress and improvement that his teams were accustomed to making four or five years ago. During the summer, Richardson decided to make a change.
Nine months later, the change seems to have paid off in a big way.
"We could stop right now and I'd be thrilled," Richardson said on March 2, the day the official selections for the NCAA Championships were released. "We've had some people make quantum leaps. I still haven't run the numbers yet, but I'd bet my mortgage that this is the best we've swum in three to four years."
So what gives?
For starters, the entire training cycle was altered. Instead of training in short-course yards, which is the traditional distance for collegiate competitions, Richardson employed long-course meters, which is used in international competitions. One lap in a short-course pool is 25 yards, as opposed to a 50-meter lap in a long-course pool. That's a 15-percent increase in energy output.
Developed by Richardson and former Michigan men's swimming and diving head coach Jon Urbanchek in the mid-1980s, the long-course training system is a capacity-based model with a good speed component to it, giving the swimmer an opportunity to both go farther and faster than before.
Prior to this season, Richardson hadn't incorporated long-course training into his team's cycle in years. With an Olympic year upcoming, he decided it was best to revert back to some "old-school ways" and give his swimmers a head start.
"Just because it's old school doesn't mean it's bad school," Richardson said. "As important as the Big Ten or NCAA Championships are, we want our swimming program to take advantage of every opportunity in international competitions, whether that's the Olympic Games or Pan-Pacific Championships or something in between. That's always been a part of the history of this program. That's why we have the rings down on the wall. That's why we have the countdown clock."
The second part of the new training cycle shifted towards building greater density during workouts. That means less time spent on the wall. That means that while the quality of the swim goes down, aerobic capacity is built at an increased level.
"At the beginning of the year, you can really feel it in your shoulders when you swim," said junior Alexa Mehesan. "Now, though, it's starting to pay off. We're more efficient in our strokes and it helps bring our races home at the end."
One component of that is dryland training, which has two components itself -- cardiovascular fitness and strength training. In addition to workouts in the pool, Michigan swimmers run, bike or use a machine, such as an elliptical or Stairmaster, as well as lift weights. The focus is on the quadriceps muscles, or "the aerobic factories," as Richardson calls them.
From early September to early January, Richardson estimates 85-to-90 percent of Michigan's training cycle was long course. With a little more than one month separating Michigan from the Big Ten Championships, Richardson gave his swimmers more rest, hoping they would be refreshed and capable of putting up their best times of the season.
They did. While Michigan finished sixth at the Big Ten Championships, its lowest finish ever at a conference meet, it doesn't accurately depict how well the team swam over the four-day period in mid-February.
Two conference champions were crowned -- junior Caitlin Dauw in the 100-yard butterfly and the 200-yard freestyle relay team of Dauw, Moodie, Mehesan and freshman Deirdre Jones. By comparison, Michigan had only one conference champion each of the past two seasons: Caroline Rodriguez in 2009 (100-yard butterfly) and Margaret Kelly in 2010 (200-yard individual medley). In addition, the Wolverines set three new school records, recorded 28 NCAA consideration times and swam 60 season bests. The team likely would have finished fourth if it didn't DQ the 400-yard medley relay.
"I don't worry about the sixth-place thing," Richardson said. "That's the kind of thing record keepers pay attention to. Some people would look at that and say, "Well, Michigan is slipping," but for the people who pay attention to the sport and follow improved performances, we were one of the most improved teams in the country. "
Speaking of improved performances, after Big Tens, Michigan was ranked fourth in the Avidasports Performance Rankings. It's a system that weighs two separate metrics: performance (as measured by the relative ranking of a team's swims based on other collegiate programs) and improvement (as compared to their previous best times).
"We wanted to find a way to track improvement over the course of the season during competition," said Bill Burnett, Vice President of Sales for Avidasports, based in nearby Harper Woods, Mich. "The Avidasports Performance Rankings ranks teams that post the best overall improvement of an athlete's time compared to in-season best times."
The only three teams ahead of Michigan that week were Florida and Tennessee (two of the top four teams in the Southeastern Conference) and Colgate, which ironically is coached by former Michigan swimmer and assistant coach Fernando Canales.
"We were right there with two of the very best teams in the country," Richardson added. "To be with that group of people, considering all of the teams that swam that weekend, speaks to the fact that our swimmers are improving. Any way you cut it, we are one of the eight-best teams in the country as far as overall improvement goes. That's what I pay attention to."
For most, the Big Ten Championships serves as the final meet of the season, but it wasn't the last meet for everyone. Michigan will be represented by six swimmers -- Moodie, Dauw, Jones, Mehesan, sophomore Mattie Kukors and freshman Angela Chokran, and junior diver Amanda Lohman -- at the NCAA Championships, running from March 17-19 in Austin, Texas.
Earlier this season, Richardson was just hoping for a couple of his swimmers to qualify for the national meet. He'll have more than that.
"For a young and inexperienced team like we have, that's pretty good," Richardson said. "Four of the six people we are taking have never been there before, so getting them the experience certainly bodes well for our future. The task now for them is to swim faster times at the meet than they did in trying to qualify, which I think they can."
The future looks incredibly bright for this team. As long as the team continues to move forward in its progression, and build on the improvements they have made as a team this season, there's no reason to think that they can't challenge conference powerhouses Indiana and Minnesota for the Big Ten championship in 2012, something the Wolverines haven't won since 2004.
"We are going to continue to work smart and work hard, and if we do that, I'll take the results that we get," Richardson said. "We need to be sure that in the pursuit of championships, we can't compromise our culture."
"This is one of the best teams we've ever had at the University of Michigan," Richardson added. "The fastest? No, though we did set three new school records. There has not been a better team in the 26 years I've been here than this group of young women. They are fabulous. We enjoy coaching them every day because they get it. They are all going to represent this university well when they leave."