ASHEVILLE, N.C. – There’s a saying, “Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.” That saying held true for the 2016-17 UNC Asheville women’s swimming team as the Bulldogs adopted a “Have fun to swim fast, swim fast to have fun,” mentality this year and it paid off in dividends and a rewritten record book.
“This year’s team, they clearly performed best when they were having fun,” head coach Elizabeth Lykins said. “Our most successful meets – when we beat North Florida, FAU, Brenau – we swam fastest when we were having fun and having that opportunity was what really made it worthwhile. (Our swimmers) were goofing around, doing cheers and all the fun stuff during meets, but to be fair, they were putting in the work, too. They knew when they had to get ready to race also, and they would say, ‘Hey, I have to go warm up now. But I’ll be behind your block cheering you on.’ They took care of themselves and they had fun doing it.”
The Bulldogs wrapped up the fifth year of the program’s existence at the Coastal Collegiate Sports Association (CCSA) Swimming and Diving Championships in late February with a seventh-place finish, scoring 133 more points than last season. Included in the team’s overall strong performance were 29 season-best times and 44 lifetime bests.
Among those fast times were seven individual school records, five freshman records and two relay records.
“It’s great to see our upperclassmen setting lifetimes bests as well as our younger swimmers because it can be a little frustrating when seniors or juniors have already done the best that they’re going to do,” Lykins said. “We have had seniors and juniors post lifetime bests every year that our program has been around when we’ve had seniors and juniors. So, that’s been really fun and it’s been a great recruiting tool. You expect your freshmen to post lifetime bests because they’re in a new environment with a new coach, new teammates and new training techniques. Everything about it is new for freshmen, so in general you get a little better response. But if you can have team members who have been on your team for a year or two continue to improve, I see it as a huge sign that something is going right. When things go well, it’s because the student-athletes have put in the work.”
To have a well-rounded team where everybody competes and everybody contributes sets the Bulldogs up to continue to makes strides and grow. UNC Asheville graduates just three seniors and saw the four freshmen come in ready to compete. And in between those two classes, the sophomores and juniors stepped up into leadership roles that saw them contribute to the team’s success in big ways.
The seniors, who started with a much larger class, will be missed. Reid Jackson, Erin Riggs and Emily Sawyer are only the second four-year class in program history, and all three have made big contributions during their time in Asheville. That includes setting fast times, but more importantly, the trio set an example for the type of student-athlete Lykins and assistant coach Daniel Dozier want to recruit.
“Our recruiting philosophy is great people, smart students and fast swimmers, in that order,” Lykins said. “Our student-athletes fit the program and they fit our university. Their academics speak for themselves and we have noticed that if you’re not successful in the classroom, you will struggle in both other areas, in your friendships and relationships and you’ll struggle in the pool because you’re going to be focusing on the wrong things. Everyone returning next year, from top to bottom, are all great people, they are all smart students and they are all fast swimmers.
“This year was a special class of seniors in that they are just our second class of four-year graduates in the program’s history,” Lykins continued. “They started out with a much larger class and finished with three, so it’s special for these three to make it all four years. Obviously, we had an incredible freshman class as they set five freshman records. Other than our first or second year, that might be the largest number of breaking records for one incoming class. Our sophomores are starting to develop. I think many of them, coming in as freshmen last year, had to learn what it means to be a collegiate swimmer on a team. Many of them stepped up, including Sydney VandenBerg, Jessica Woolfe, and Morgan Rulevich who came in and did great jobs as freshmen, but all three dropped time during their sophomore years as well. Elizabeth Conte also had huge improvements on the year. The class in general did a really nice job of improving. Finally, the junior class really came into their own this year and became true upperclassmen. Two captains are in the class and six class members scored in the CCSA Championships. These seven are a huge class of contributors. It’s really fun to have every class contribute to our success this year and make it a full team effort.”
Lykins is pleased with the effort her swimmers put in this season and the successes they shared have her excited for what is to come. As a still fairly new program, the Bulldog swimmers are still working to mold the program and are creating a fun culture that allows all involved to grow and succeed in the pool and outside of it.
Photo Credit: UNCA