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Girls with Gills

Carl Rosen

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Photo Credit: Ali Blumenthal

The swimmers stepped up to the blocks. Each one had their own pre-swim ritual, whether it was saturating themselves with pool water, jumping up and down, or swishing some pool water around in their mouth. Some of the athletes surveyed their opponents — sizing up those to their immediate left and right, hoping no one would catch them in the act. No matter what, though, everyone eventually looked down and focused on the transparent blue water.

“Swimmers take your mark,” pierced the air, and everyone froze perfectly still in a compact position on the block, waiting for the buzzer to set them free.

Swimming is not a sport for the faint of heart. UNF’s swim team has morning and afternoon practice, six days a week, totaling up to 20 hours per week. They practice the sport rigorously to find the fleeting moments of individual triumph.

This past weekend’s meet against Georgia Southern, Jan. 26, was UNF’s final home meet of the season, which also meant that it was Senior Day for UNF’s senior swimmers. There was a ceremony before the meet to honor the team’s three seniors. Their names were announced and the seniors were presented with flowers.

After UNF beat Georgia Southern 142-101, seniors Sara Evans and Katie England reflected on what it was like to be a swimmer at UNF.

Evans smiled and laughed as she said, “It’s been rough — it’s been really rough here, trying to manage all that [swimming] and still get good grades to graduate on time.”

Evans may have had a smile on her face, but she meant what she said. Four years of practicing hard, taking on a full school schedule and attempting to be socially involved — all at the college level — is no easy task.

For Evans and senior Katie England, this meet was the beginning of the end of an era. England has been swimming competitively for 15 years and Evans for 17 years — having committed to this way of life not long after retiring from diapers.

Both girls said that UNF’s swim team coaching staff played a major role in their successful four years with the team.

Because swimming is ultimately an individual sport, it takes a lot of effort from the coach to be able to cater to each of their swimmers’ needs. A swim coach must insert themselves into the swimmer’s life, inside and outside the water.

Some swimmers like pep talks and others like to be left alone. Some like to swim distance and others are sprinters. There’s so many variables in the sport, and that must be factored into coaching style.

UNF’s head swim coach of 13 years, Beth Harrell, has kept this in mind throughout her career. Harrell and assistant coach Monique Salles-Cunha work together to make sure the team is on track.

“Monique [Salles-Cunha] and I work really well together. We think a lot alike,” Harrell said. “We have the same coaching style and the same philosophy, so it’s helpful. Both of us can be lighthearted and both of us can be intense. We’re really good at playing good cop/bad cop, and switching those roles around.”

Except for being intimidated at times, Evans and England had nothing bad to say about their coaching staff.

“My first two years on the team, I thought Beth [Harrell] was very scary,” England said. “We didn’t talk a lot, but the more and more I get to know her the more I see that she really cares about us. She wants to get to know you as a person and not just as a swimmer, so she takes the time to find out how you respond to certain things, and what it’ll take for you to succeed.”

Harrell and Salles-Cunha’s mix of sweet and sour has earned them the admiration of their swimmers, even when the coaches need to get serious with them. “They know that when I get on them that I still care about them, and that I’m getting on them for a reason,” Harrell said.

Evans said that the duo’s coaching styles are exactly what UNF needs as an upcoming program. “Monique [Salles-Cunha] is intense. She’s really intense. She’s probably the most intense coach I’ve ever encountered,” Evans said. “But, she wants us to do well, and her intensity balances out Beth’s [Harrell] relaxation and care. So, it’s like the best of both worlds.”

For some swimmers, the sport is a way of drowning out the sound in their lives; social pressures, schoolwork, financial difficulties, etc., all fall by the wayside when their heads are submerged underwater. But for others, swimming is something that amplifies the noise and creates even more anxiety, because of pressure to do well, or because of the physical exertion.

The water has a tendency to scream at times, and to wreak havoc in a swimmer’s brain — especially when a team’s success depends on one good swim. It’s so much easier to get a bad jump off the blocks, or miss the wall on a flip turn, than it is to do everything right. But there is no feeling like the feeling of a perfect swim: when things just go right, and the time reflects that.

For Evans, no place is louder or more intimidating than the pool. “The most nervous that I ever am, is during swimming,” Evans said. “It’s pressure — it’s just that all eyes are looking at you — that really makes my nerves just jump. You know the coach is looking at you, but they’re not talking — you know what they’re saying, though, just with their eyes.”

Despite the pressure, Evans did well in her final home meet at UNF. She placed first in the 200 individual medley with a time of 2:09:57, out-touching teammate sophomore Bridget Woods by three-hundredths of a second.

Photo Credit: Ali Blumenthal

On the contrary, England said the pool is a place of comfort. “It’s a good release from life, to come and swim for two hours — just to escape from the world that’s not the pool,” England said. “You don’t think about classes, you don’t think about exams coming up, you don’t think about anything besides just swimming and focusing on that.”

Regardless of what the pool means for them — anxiety, tranquility — the girls were all smiles after their win against Georgia Southern. And it’s these moments of team camaraderie and victory that keeps this team so focused and determined. It’s these triumphs that have the swimmers coming back for more.

Because of these moments’ temporality, a thirst is created — a need to find that feeling again — and they become willing to work even harder to find it: so hard that 6 a.m. practice sounds easy.

Even after beating Georgia Southern, the girls had only one thing on their mind: Conference. Each one of them was determined to hit practice hard this week in order to do well at the biggest meet of the year, Feb. 21-23.

“I look at a practice as leading up to the end goal, which is Conference, and swimming the best we can…,” Evans said.

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