A historic leap for the Southwestern University Pirates men's swimming and diving team was punctuated by an exhilarating plunge with the entire team, coaches and all, jumping into the pool to celebrate the first Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference (SCAC) Swimming and Diving Championship in program history.
Swimmers lifted Head Coach Jon Duncan on their shoulders inside the pool, cutting loose in celebration over a championship they refused to entertain notions of until that moment on the winner's podium.
Relive the magic as the @SUPirates Men's Swimming and Diving team celebrates its first ever #SCAC championship by making a splash in the pool #SCACchamps #SCACswim #HooRahHooRahHooRah pic.twitter.com/kXdcK6imnE— SCAC (@SCAC_Sports) February 19, 2019
Prior to the season, Duncan placed an embargo on vocalizing championship goals as a means of redirecting focus on the little things; to work on the process of setting a winning culture.
"The focus this year was never about winning a championship," Duncan said. "It was always: how can we get better in our races? How can we move up in different events? How can we improve across the board?"
In the past, conference championships were little more than fleeting thoughts for the Pirates. In a preseason interview with the SCAC, senior Peter Robinson laid out the shift in attitude.
"We're definitely not going to discuss any specific goals, that's just not who we are here," senior Peter Robinson said. "But we do have our eyes set on some very big things with the [first year] class we have coming in and some of the culture changes we've made heading into this year.
"Definitely, setting new standards culturally is going to play a big factor. How we go about our work day in and day out, that's going to define what happens in February during conference."
The foundations of a title team are built in the offseason, where leadership can make all the difference. Southwestern had a lone senior in Robinson but he was a quality one. Coach Duncan originally went to Robinson's hometown of Coto de Caza, California to recruit his teammate. An e-mail sent before the trip caught Duncan's attention.
"I think he was fairly new to the sport. If you just looked at his times coming in, Peter would've been considered a walk-on," Duncan said. "But he's just built for swimming and with hard work and having that enthusiasm, he just consistently got better each year."
As a junior, Robinson got a taste of success, winning the 200 freestyle at the 2018 SCAC championships. That helped embolden him as a leader, encouraging teammates to get into the weight room, maintain nutrition, mentoring younger swimmers in the program on the Southwestern way of doing things; all the little details that add up to better athletic performance.
"The backbone of our team this year was the leadership of Peter Robinson. I don't know if we could've won a conference championship without him," Duncan said. "The kid just loves swimming. He's going to be a coach."
The offseason work brought the team back to start the season in shape, meaning instead of working their way back into peak form from a year ago, the team was able to build upon the previous year to catapult to new heights. Momentum worked like a current, helping to push the Pirates to new times.
Continuity within the coaching staff, bringing back assistant Sarah James, helped, as evidenced by the Pirates winning SCAC Coaching Staff of the Year.
"Sarah coming in and picking up where she left off let us give her more responsibility," Duncan said. "It helped build the trust with the swimmers."
Coaches noticed something different in a winter break trip to Florida as the team moved through grueling practices in peak form.
"It was a pivotal moment. We had some tough practices but everyone was doing amazing work," Duncan said. "It hit us like, 'wow, we've got people stepping up in practice pumping out some times they hadn't done in a mid-season meet.
"Sometimes, when you get into January and have been practicing since September, there is some burnout. But we really didn't see that. At that point, everyone was still enjoying those practices."
To walk into a Southwestern practice was to hear music blaring, uplifting cheers, and a lightened mood contrasted with the serious business of getting better.
Robinson's work from a position of leadership set an example at the top and a deeper roster, both in terms of numbers and talent, meant pressure from below, with each member of the team pushing those in a spot ahead of them. With an ability to score only 17 or 18 swimmers, the 19th and 20th guys pushed those in the 15-12 spots, and those spots pushed 10-8 and so on.
Through it all, the individual competitions within the team never steered anyone from the team's unifying vision.
"Collectively as a team, everyone cared about one another, everyone supported one another," Duncan said. "The culture was different than previous years. Everyone was having fun, everyone wanted to be better, everyone wanted to be there. When you have that, that's what makes a team special.
"Being a team, everyone has a role, whether it's motivator, comedian, or the guy who is going to hold everyone accountable. You have to credit our upperclassmen for mentoring and guiding our younger athletes on what it takes to be a student-athlete here at Southwestern. Everyone really bought in this year."
The team opened with a victory in the 200 medley relay with Carl-Ake Willberg, Alek Argueta, Keith Gill, and Robinson finished with a time of 1:32.40, and then a school-record performance in the 800 freestyle relay with Keith Gill, Todd Coachman, Dylan Neumann and Robinson clocking in at 6:47.84, the second-fastest time in SCAC championship history; taking a first-day lead they'd hold throughout the entire week.
On Day 2, Gill and Robinson set more school records. Gill took gold in the 50 freestyle (20.77) and Robinson finished third in the 500 freestyle (4:39.11), setting another school record.
Robinson defended his 200 freestyle title on the third day, breaking the school mark with a time of 1:40.67. The quartet of Ake-Willberg, Argueta, Gill and Robinson won the 400 medley relay with a time of 3:23.93, another school record.
Trinity University made one final push on the final day of competition, pulling to within four points. Past teams may have strained under the pressure of championship goals; however, this one responded with a championship mindset.
Gill set a new school record in the 100 freestyle (45.72) and Overman finished second in the 1650 freestyle with another one (16:15.98). And in true "last-one, fast-one" fashion, Ake-Willberg, Gill, Coachman and Robinson dug deep to win the 400 freestyle relay with a school-record 3:04.39 to clinch the title.
Jumping in the pool in celebration, the team was finally allowed to speak about championships because, from beginning to end, they prepared like champions and finished as champions!