Women's Swimming
Long Hours in the Pool Lead to Lasting Friendships

Practice at Freer Hall
Practice at Freer Hall

Jan. 25, 2007

by Sam Miller, Illinois Athletic Media Relations

It's a few minutes after 6 a.m. on a chilly Monday morning. Most of the campus may be sound asleep, but not the Illinois women's swimming and diving team.

"Sometimes we see people coming home when we're going out, but it's very dead," freshman diver Kyla Bachtell said. "There's not very many cars on the road or anything like that. Everyone is sleeping."

If the team is not completely awake yet, the Freer Hall pool and head coach Sue Novitsky will take care of the wakeup call. Novitsky is up by 4:30 a.m. six days a week and arrives between 45 minutes to an hour ahead of the 6 a.m. practice.

Not far from the pool there is a white board where Novitsky has prepared the day's practice schedule.

For nearly 20 minutes, the team swims continuously, barely stopping to touch the wall at each end of the pool. By the time two minutes of rest come, the 34 team members have various reactions.

Some fix their eyes straight ahead, some smile and look side to side at their teammates to gauge their reactions, others appear as if their minds are momentarily wandering. All know that this is just the beginning. Back and forth, back and forth, 25 yards in roughly 37 seconds - relatively slow compared to the expected 31-second competition speed.

"You guys are capable of doing this. You just need to decide to do this. Work you legs, c'mon ladies," Novitsky says while diving coach Chris Waters goes through a separate workout with freshmen divers Nikki Spillone and Bachtell. This morning each diver takes turns on a trampoline, jumping high in the air before landing with a flip.

An hour later, at approximately 7:30 a.m., the team comes to life. "C'mon, girls! Let's go ladies!" several teammates cheer.

The end may be in sight, but practice is not over. "Don't finish poorly," associate head coach Steve Farnau says as he walks back and forth to meet his swimmers at both ends of the pool.

Finally, the last practice set arrives, and the swimmers appear to be well-aware that the 8 a.m. end is near. Thunderous pounding reverberates through the pool as arms and legs strike the water. Time expires on the practice clock, and teammates exchange cheers in lieu of high fives across the lanes. Slowly the team emerges from the pool, sore but satisfied.

"You join the sport because you want to get better and you have a competitive edge in you," senior diver Jackie Bain said. "At every practice, you just want to get better, and it's frustrating when you don't get better. There's days when you're like `I'm tired, this is hard,' but once you get going during practice, it's not that bad."

More than three years after she started her Illini career, senior swimmer Leigh Ann Tracy says there is no comparison between now and when she first started.

"I honestly think that Sue and Steve are the best coaches I've ever had because every practice you get out knowing that you just became a better swimmer than you were the day before," Tracy said. "I've improved so much here at Illinois, more than I ever thought I would have."

Whatever Novitsky, Farnau and Waters are doing this year is working even better than in the past, teammates say. "I think that this year we definitely have the strongest, most united team that we've ever had," Tracy said.

"At the beginning of the year we were worried about it dividing us since we were practicing at different times and split up, but I think it's actually brought us a lot closer together because we have to try harder to be together all the time."

Freshman swimmer Amy Johnson agrees with Tracy. "The team is really tight," Johnson said. "I've never been on a team that supports each other so much."

"It's really nice to know that you can count on any of your teammates for anything. Just the idea of 30 girls who have your back, especially walking into a university of 40,000 students where you don't know anyone, you feel like you have someone there."

Currently in her seventh season of coaching, Novitsky says that despite the fact that the 2006-2007 Illini squad is the youngest she has coached, it may be the best she's worked with in terms of their team unity and as far as event depth.

"The seniors are a very strong class, not just performance-wise, but performance-wise and leadership-wise, so I knew they could come in and get the job done. I challenged them at the end of last year and said, `With the large group it could go either way really fast. I know which way I want it to go, but it can't just be me.'

"I needed them to step up and get it done and show (the freshmen) what needs to be done. They've done an amazing job with it and have been absolutely fabulous."

Waters is in his first season at Illinois after coaching at several schools in the past. "While at Syracuse, Missouri State and Tulane, I had to contend with many situations related to facility issues. We have some of these same issues here at Illinois, but we also have the support of our administration to help us remedy them as well as possible."

As they continue through the season, through the early mornings and long practices, at home and away, the swimming and diving team knows one thing for certain - they have one another.

"You create a really interesting bond with your teammates that you don't create with friends you meet because you're making the same sacrifices as your teammates," Bain said.

"A lot of your friends don't understand that. They're like, `Well, why can't you go out tonight?' I'm like, `Because I have practice at six in the morning,' and they're like, `You can still go out.' I'm like, `No, I really can't.' A college sport, you love it, but it's always a job. You're there, you work hard to get your stuff done, and you're expected to get your stuff done."

And if you get your work done, you might realize that there is another reason why you're doing it - why you keep doing it. The coaches' dedication provides strong motivation.

"I think that even more than just coaching swimming, the coaches have so much passion for what they're doing here," Tracy said. "Other coaches might think of it as their job, but to them, this is like their life. They put everything they have into it."