Their conditioning was superb, their technique refined, and their competitive juices flowing. It was VISAA championship weekend, after all: the pinnacle, the moment of truth, the final exam.
As they primed themselves to face the best the Commonwealth had to offer, though, Collegiate’s varsity swimming teams needed to summon that extra oomph that would allow them to surpass expectations and outperform the performance list. But what, when all else seemed in place?
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Several days before the final competition at the Jeff Rouse Swim Center in Stafford, Coach Mike Peters had a heart-to-heart with his athletes and issued a gentle, but directed, ultimatum.
“We challenged them to come together and realize we would be much stronger as a full team,” said Peters said. “We talked about how the best teams in the country – swimming, track, anything when you have two genders working together – will always be better when those teams support each other.
“We changed a couple of rules. Kids weren’t allowed off deck except to get their bags. Cell phones weren’t allowed on deck. I asked them to stand and watch every race. For those hours each day, everybody was involved in the meet.”
The result was a culture shift, defined by an enhanced focus on a one-for-all, all-for-one mentality that bridged the boys team/girls team divide and created, in spirit, heart, and soul, one single Collegiate unit.
The results spoke volumes. With Cougar athletes boisterously cheering for one another (and using goose callers to add to the ambiance), both the boys (265) and girls (251) teams (competing in different races, of course, per meet format) placed second in the state behind Norfolk Academy, which scored 319 and 279.5 points, respectively. Collegiate’s boys had entered the Friday/Saturday event seeded third, the girls fourth.
“Individual and relay performances were way better than I thought they would be,” Peters said. “In the end, I’ll never measure this meet by the points they scored. I’ll measure it by the way they felt about it, the way they swam, and the way they cheered for each other. That was way more important than the final scores.”
The tone-setter, in Peters’ estimation, came early Friday when junior Joseph Ascoli swam the 200 free in 1:53.76, a personal best by five seconds.
“Amazing swim,” Peters said. “The girls were fired up. The boys, of course, were fired up. From that point on, it was one team cheering.”
Ten days later, Ascoli smiled while recounting the moment.
“He (Peters) had talked about how if one person had a really good swim, it would snowball,” he said. “I got really excited and pushed myself to see how fast I could go and help the other people go fast.”
But five seconds?
Yeah,” he said. “A lot of it is training to go the pace you want to set in the meet. If you get out fast the first 50, the last 150 is pure adrenaline from not wanting to be passed and widening the gap as much as possible.”
The Cougars racked up several top-level (but not totally unexpected) performances.
N.C. State-bound senior Zach Cram, the state swimmer of the year, won (or shared a victory) and earned All-State and All-American distinction in four events:
- 100 butterfly (state record 48.44)
- 500 freestyle (school record 4:28.66)
- 200 medley relay (with Liam Ryan, Iain Moore, and Stephen Laming, school record 1:33.53)
- 400 freestyle relay (with Laming, Ryan, and Christian Mayr, school and state record 3:06.16)
The girls 200 freestyle relay team (Mackenzie Ferguson, Leslie Albrecht, Sally Ennis, Gabby Chen) finished second in a school record 1:37.49. Ferguson placed third in the 100 backstroke in a school record 56.83. Ryan also swam the 200 IM in 1:53.55, a lifetime best by three seconds, and Chen swam the 100 free in 52.68, also a lifetime best.
“I think it’s so easy to get focused on I-want-to-win-a-championship-so-I-worry-about-time,” said Peters. “Sometimes they think, if I spend this emotion and energy, I can’t get it back. I have to conserve it for my race. My college coach (Matt Kredich at Brown University) used to say that emotion and energy are not a bank account. You can’t spend them. The more you use them, the better you’ll be. I think our kids finally realized that.”
The buy-in brought not only enhanced performances manifested by numerous faster-than-anticipated times but also a feeling of camaraderie and understanding that the total is greater than the sum of the parts.
“At Collegiate, you’re swimming for something a lot bigger than yourself,” Ryan, a sophomore, said. “Realizing that you’re swimming for a greater purpose: for the people watching you and the people cheering you on. When we realized that we would swim faster if we were cheering for each other, the culture just shot up. I definitely think that extra sense of passion affected the way we swam.”