January 9, 2014

66 Athletes + 4 Coaches = 1 Goal

Team (n.) – a group of people who compete in a sport, game, etc., against another group; a group of people who work together.  Though technically the UMBC swimming and diving team is actually two entities, a men's squad and a women's squad, the 66 combined athletes, plus the four coaches prefer to consider themselves just one team.  One team, with one goal – win a conference championship.

But how exactly do you get 70 people from all walks of life and from 11 countries to buy in to one precise goal?  How about a winter trip to Florida?  Oh, but that trip to the Sunshine State won't be centered around Mickey and Minnie, or even the white-sand beaches that draw millions of tourists every year.  Rather, it's 5:00 a.m. wake-ups, two 2-hour practices each day, and three giant knots.

"Our number one goal for going to Florida is to build team camaraderie and a sense of value in the program," said head coach Chad Cradock, a native of Barrie, Canada, and a UMBC alum himself.  "We want each athlete to feel a part of the team and to create an environment in which everyone can excel."

But couldn't the grueling practices at home achieve the same goal?  A pool is a pool.  25 yards is 25 yards. 

After four years of heading down to training trip, Massachusetts native senior Brian Keane knows the benefits of waking up in Boca Raton and not Baltimore. 

"It's a lot easier to get into the water knowing there is going to be a great sunrise.  Just getting away for a week makes a huge difference. "

Classmate Reed Neuendorf, a native of another state north of the Mason-Dixon Line, New York, echoed his fellow captain's sentiment, noting the extra motivation helps the athletes push through the challenging workouts. 

"The trip allows us to mentally get away from the grind of being on campus," the senior said.  "We get to take a break from school and it really is refreshing to be outside, and not in our indoor pool.  There's more energy to use during the training."

In addition to waking up in a warmer climate, the chance to be with the entire team propelled the athletes through the exhausting week of two-a-days.  During the semester, athletes may miss a scheduled practice due to class and be forced to make it up with only a handful of teammates.   In Florida, however, it's all of the swimmers in the same pool at the same time.  The camaraderie built during the arduous schedule did not go unnoticed by freshman Emily Escobedo.

"There were some brutal practices during the week," the New Rochelle, N.Y. native said.  "In the end, though, it was fun with the whole team there to keep you going.  We were all dying together but still having fun and pushing each other."

To break up the daily routine of two practices per day, a special race was added during the afternoon practice on Jan. 3.  NCAA qualifier and six-time school record holder Mohamed Hussein against… athletic trainer Ryan Fries in a special 50-yd./25 yd. freestyle event.  And your winner?  Ryan Fries, of course!

"There was a little internal rivalry going on between those two and it was a chance to have some fun," Cradock acknowledged.  "Our team takes a light-hearted approach, but also knows when to be serious.  I never second-guessed the decision to have the race."

Knowing the coaching staff's routine in Florida also helped, though the UMBC squad boasts 27 freshmen, plus two new sophomores.  Armed with knowledge from last year's trip, sophomore Catherine Frediani, a local product from Ellicott City, helped guide the newcomers through the process. 

"Last year, I was terrified of the trip," Frediani remembered.  "I had no good thoughts going into the trip, but it was completely different this time around.  It's warm, we have a different schedule than at home, and we get to go to the beach every day." 

So the team does get some time to spend on the beach?  Absolutely!  And while some athletes prefer to rest inside between the 6:00-8:00 a.m. practice and the 2:00-4:00 p.m. workout, a good number like to relax under the warm rays of the Florida sun. 

Again, it comes back to the climate change which senior Johan Rohtla appreciates after growing up in Tallinn, Estonia, where the average high in December and January is around the freezing mark.

"Before college I had been to Florida once, so I knew the climate," Rohtla explained.  "But it's so much easier to practice in nice weather, especially with the full team.  It's great to spend time with the whole family." 

"The practices give us a time to really focus on working hard.  We wake up early and then know that we're ready to go."

With all of this talk about the whole team and family, where do the divers fit in?  Though the diving squad doesn't come up to the St. Andrew's School in Boca every day for 6:00 a.m. practice, a four-hour midday training session in Coral Springs puts them through the rigors as well.  In addition, the Retriever divers have a chance to compete against top-notch competition during the trip.  Sophomore Corinna Darelius enjoyed the challenge of facing quality opposition and the chance to qualify for the NCAA Zones, an opportunity she cashed in on.

"Even though there was nothing new this year, it was a great trip," Darelius exclaimed.  "With four teams competing, it was a greater test to make the cut, but that's the fun part.

"It can be a little scary at times, like when we learn new dives and I might land on my back, but overall it's an exciting time."

So the swimmers and divers are separated most of the day.  How can they possibly become a "family" then?  Through a mixture of nights with free time and organized activities, the UMBC squad receives the chance to all come together and make the trip even more memorable.

With New Year's Eve bowling and final night mini golf already on the annual slate, the captains chose a way to entangle the group further – unwrap a human pretzel.  So the team split into three groups, since 66 athletes couldn't all fit on one thin strip of sand, and worked together to unravel themselves.

"The trip as a whole creates an opportunity to have some great team bonding away from campus and outside of Maryland," Keane reflected.  "Everything that we do outside of the pool is great.  We work hard in the water, but the out-of-water stuff is what really brings us together since we don't always get to do stuff as one group."

Looking back on his four trips down to Florida, Neuendorf couldn't agree more with his classmate.

"Now I appreciate the experience more," the senior stated.  "Looking back, it's easy to complain about the hard practices, but those make it more fulfilling, and now I feel like I'm going to miss it because of all of the people and the time we got with great friends." 

These activities don't just help the Retrievers become closer out of the water, but the tighter bond helps them push through more adversity in the pool as well.

"The trip down here is worth every penny we put into it," Cradock said.  "The trip really helps us build a sense of unity and allows the athletes to come together away from campus."

Equipped with this team mentality, the Retrievers now enter the most difficult part of their schedule.  Though there are only two dual meets set during the 2014 portion of the schedule, the America East and Coastal Collegiate Swimming Association (CCSA) championship meets loom in the near future.  Cradock hopes this trip, in addition to the meets and practices, proves to be the right mix come mid-February.

"The value of training in a positive environment and going hard for an entire week will pay off come championships," stated the Retriever head man.  "They stayed tough for an entire week and are ready for the next step."