Jan. 8, 2010
By Herb Benenson
With one swimming event remaining at the 2009 NCAA championships at Texas A&M's Student Rec Center Natatorium last March 21, California held a slim one-point lead over Georgia in the race for the team title. All that stood between the Golden Bears and their first national crown was the 400-yard freestyle relay.
Finish ahead of the Bulldogs, and the banner would be raised in Berkeley. A loss, and Cal would have to settle for second place.
But before the swimmers could enter the pool one last time, the platform diving competition was on the schedule, an event that would have no effect on the final team score. So instead of stepping up to the blocks right away to settle the outcome, Cal, Georgia and the other relay squads waited 45 minutes for the start of their race.
With so much on the line, such a delay could have caused havoc on fragile nerves. The Bears, though, found their own unique way to relax.
Virtually the whole team broke out in dance.
'Had it just been the four of us hanging out, we probably would have freaked,' said junior Erica Dagg, who was scheduled to swim the third leg of the relay. 'The whole team made it really fun. It was pressure filled, but at the same time, we knew it was just like another race.'
'We do it as part of our training,' sophomore Sara Isakovic said of the dance. 'It's a good workout. When we are just hanging out or warming up in the morning before we get in the water, we do some of the movements.'
The tactic clearly worked. Not only did Cal beat Georgia by three places, the Bears set a U.S. Open record with a time of 3:09.11, nearly a second and a half ahead of runner-up Stanford. More importantly, the quartet of Hannah Wilson, Liv Jensen, Dagg and Dana Vollmer sealed the national team championship for Cal.
The fact that the title was determined by a relay should come as no surprise to followers of Golden Bear women's swimming. For years, Cal has been one of the top relay teams in the country. In fact, the Bears are one of only five schools in history to win an NCAA trophy in each of the five relays - the 200, 400 and 800 free relay, and the 200 and 400 medley relay.
'I think there's a lot of pride on the team in being on a relay,' head coach Teri McKeever said. 'In our culture, it's an honor and a responsibility. It's more than just you. You are truly representing the team.'
For some, such as Dagg, just making a relay is an objective that can often eclipse personal acclaim.
'My main goal was to get on one of the relays,' Dagg said. 'It was a driving point for me. That got me through my hard practices, always that end point of being on one of the relays. Everyone on this team is fast. There are seven or eight girls all within a tenth of a second who could be on the relay.'
On its way to the NCAA title last spring, Cal captured two of the relays. In addition to the 400 free, the foursome of Isakovic, Wilson, Jensen and Vollmer set a U.S. Open-record time of 6:52.69 in winning the 800 free relay on the second day of the three-day meet. The Bears, who have also won the past six 800 free relays at the Pac-10 championships, have claimed three national crowns in the event since 2004.
'The 200 free is like an endurance sprint,' said McKeever, referring to each leg of 800-yard race. 'It's longer and a lot of things can happen. There's definitely a sense of pride because there are people who have characterized our program as a sprint program. But the 800 free relay is probably the one we've had the most success in.
'When I look back at last year,' she continued, 'the 800 free relay was our most impressive team performance. Until 2007, no women's team had been under seven minutes. When you take that kind of time off, it's pretty awesome.'
Relays, although they constitute only five of 21 events at a championship meet, are doubly important mostly because, well, points are doubled. At NCAAs, a relay win is worth 40 points compared to 20 points for individual races.
On its way to accumulating 411.5 points to win the team title, the Bears got 174 points out of their relays, which included runner-up finishes in the 200 free and 400 medley relays, and a sixth-place finish in the 200 medley relay.
Coaches vary on their strategy for putting together a quality relay team. Some like to set teams well in advance and practice exact exchanges in pursuit of perfection. Others tend to mix and match throughout the year. McKeever said she often won't come up with a unit until it feels right.
'I like there to be a bit more flexibility,' McKeever said. 'Sometimes, those are tough choices, and you end up making gut decisions.'
For example, by the third day of the '09 NCAA meet, McKeever realized that Wilson was getting tired from all her previous races and decided to rest her in the morning prelims of the 400 free relay, substituting Tara Thomas in the lead-off leg. At night, Wilson returned and covered the 100 yards in her opening sprint in 47.91, just 0.06 off her career best and setting the stage for the victory.
To help ensure her team is prepared for such last-minute changes, McKeever often won't reveal the order of a relay until well into a dual meet during the regular season. The strategy helps McKeever figure out which swimmers can handle the assignments, block out distractions and focus on the task at hand, much like a baseball relief pitcher who has to perform on sudden notice.
'You have to deal with what's going to happen right at the moment,' the 18th-year Cal head coach said. 'Can you flip that mental switch?'
Many swimmers also have to learn how to cope with approaches to different legs and dealing with either being ahead or forced to swim from behind. McKeever said Vollmer liked being at the end to provide a knock-out punch, but she often used Natalie Coughlin, a three-time NCAA Swimmer of the Year, in the second spot to push the Bears in front and put pressure on other teams to catch up.
Regardless of the order, Golden Bears understand the privilege it is to be selected for one of the team's relays.
'Knowing the history this school has, it is a Cal relay,' Jensen said. 'I'm representing this university on that relay, and it's unbelievable how amazing that feels.'