Swimmers engage in a peculiar ritual on the eve of important meets, akin to a spiritual experience.
It is called shaving down and swimmers--men and women benefit equally from this process--get a physical and psychological edge from smooth legs, arms and backs shaved after months of razor neglect. Even some scalps come clean.
“We’ll shave a few heads, the whole shot,” UC San Diego Coach Bill Morgan said by telephone from Brunswick, Me.
On the dawn of the NCAA Division III swimming and diving championships in Brunswick, the UCSD men’s team is shaved down, rested, tapered (swimmers gradually decrease their training yardage for maximum performance) and ready to take on the challenge of the season.
The Titans will spend the next three days attempting to dethrone Kenyon College of Gambier, Ohio, winner of nine consecutive Division III NCAA men’s championships.
Kenyan, in central Ohio, has established itself as a swimming mecca. (Kenyon won last week’s women’s championships with 631 points, 332 1/2 more than runnerup UCSD.)
“They’ve set the standard for Division III swimming,” Morgan said. “They’ve just had tremendous success. They have a community and an athletic department that gives them a lot of support. They could win Division II.”
UCSD freestyler Richard Daniels, a team captain and 1988 All-American, would like to stop the Kenyon streak.
“Hopefully, we’ll put an end to it,” he said. “It’s been an unspoken goal. We’re looking forward to it. It’s demeaning to see them win time and time again.”
Sophomore butterfly specialist Jeff Vance wants to sneak up on Kenyon.
“If you tell someone you’re going to beat them, then that’s more to their advantage, not ours,” he said. “We want to be more like the silent storm. We can’t go in with a cocky attitude. They eat that up and use that. Other teams have said that and not come through. I think we have the best chance to beat them, and they know that.”
While Morgan would like nothing more than to see his team prevent Kenyon from winning No. 10, he is adamant that the Tritons can not be obsessed with the Lords.
“We’re not focused on beating Kenyon,” he said. “There are 16 swimmers who make the (championship and consolation) finals in every event. Say Kenyon has two swimmers in each final; if all we’re doing is focusing on beating Kenyon, then what about the other 14 swimmers in every race? It will take a total team effort based on depth, not superstars. If it happens, it will be because we didn’t focus on beating Kenyon.”
But he likes his team’s chances. More importantly, his swimmers like their chances.
Daniels said the Tritons in a good position in any case.
“We have nothing to lose, and they have everything to lose,” he said. “We’ll let them worry and do the guessing, we’ll let them look over their shoulder.”
Daniels, a junior, has made the trip to nationals once and is looking forward to the opportunity to redeem himself after a poor performance last year. His best finishes were sixth in the 800 freestyle relay and 18th in the 200 freestyle.
He is seeded eighth in the 200 freestyle and will swim the 50 and 100 as well. He didn’t qualify for a final last year.
“It should be a lot more fun this year,” he said. “We’ve all worked out hard, it’s all in the mind now. We have a lot of confidence now, a quiet confidence. We know what we have to do, and we have the ability to do it. We just have to give it our best shot.”
Brad Thomas, a long-distance freestyler seeded fifth in the 1,650 and 11th in the 500, said UCSD needs to swim close to perfectly.
“Everyone has to have a perfect meet,” he said. “Everyone has to swim out of their minds.”
The Tritons have been third for six consecutive years, finishing a point behind second-place Clairemont-Mudd last year for their best performance to date.
UCSD returns 13 swimmers from that meet.
“We are the most experienced team UCSD’s ever had at nationals,” Morgan said. “We’re not the heavy freshman/sophomore team we were last year.”
Schools are limited to the number of athletes they may qualify and take to nationals. By early February, UCSD was just one short of the maximum 18, also having qualified diver Dan Osgood.
“It was the earliest we had qualified so many swimmers, and we made cuts without a shave and taper,” said Morgan, UCSD’s men’s and women’s swim coach since 1977. “We qualified 21, but we could only take 18.”
Thomas is one of the those who qualified early, something he said should give him a better meet this year. Last year he finished 10th in the 500 freestyle and 14th in the 1,650 freestyle.
“Last year was not a complete effort,” Thomas said. “I had a double taper, that definitely hurt. This year I put in a ton of time, and I hope it will play off. Winning nationals would be the highlight of my college career.”
Morgan has advised his team that if they are within 30 or 40 points of Kenyon after today’s events, they are on the right pace.
“Don’t panic if we’re down by 30 after the first day,” he said. “I told them if they’re within 40 after the first day, we’re OK. We’re much stronger the last day, and (Kenyon is) much stronger the first day.”
And to win?
“For us to, God forbid, win,” Morgan said, “we can’t make any mistakes. At this point, the guys are excited, they’re looking forward to it, they want to swim now. Not every one feels this way when they get to a meet like this.”
Said Thomas: “If everyone keys in on his event, we’ll do it. Attitude is a huge factor and everyone’s enthusiastic. There’s not a pessimist out here.”
Morgan said the team needs top performances from the top-seeded 800 and 200 freestyle relay teams, Dave Sacco and Thomas in the distance events and Daniels and Jeff and Jason Vance in the 200 freestyle, 100 and 200 backstroke and 200 butterfly.
“They’ll have to come through for us in the finals,” Morgan said.
Swimming at the Division III level may not get as much attention as Division I, but these athletes are just happy to swim competitively.
“I didn’t want the conference meet to be my last,” Vance said. “I wanted to go to a national meet where it would be fast. Division I cuts are like Olympic Trial cuts, and I didn’t think I was quite fast enough to make nationals for Division I.”
Said Daniels: “The competition is the most important thing. I enjoy the level I’m at. If I was swimming Division I, I wouldn’t be going to nationals. I’ve heard all the stories about Division I. If you get a scholarship, you’re under a contract. You have to make the cuts. Here, you have more freedom, you go after your own goals.”
And one of those goals is to advance to the position they are in today.
“I still don’t know how they do it,” Morgan said. “They’re all good students and they stay up all night studying and then come to practice. They just don’t quit.”