Team chemistry a strength for MU swimming

Monday, February 25, 2008 | 10:29 p.m. CST; updated 12:25 a.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008
Captain Joe Wilson, left, Gilad Kaufman, center, and captain Jake Hoffman, right, of the men's MU swimming and diving team stretch at their afternoon practice at the Student Recreation center. The team heads to Austin, Texas Tuesday morning for the Big 12 Championship.

COLUMBIA — The Missouri men’s and women’s swim teams huddled together before their races were set to begin at a home meet on Jan. 26 against Iowa. As the Iowa swimmers lined up behind the blocks, the Missouri swimmers joined in a large circle, arms interlocked, and chanted in unison, “M-I-S-S-O-U-R-I!”

The cheer is one of many the team has performed at meets this year and is a small symbol of the team chemistry that will propel this season’s teams, already the most successful in the program’s history, into the Big 12 Conference Championships on Wednesday.

“Our biggest strength is our unity,” said junior Lori Halvorson, a women’s team co-captain. “The all-for-one, one-for-all motto is what keeps us going. It helps us win dual meets. We’re all behind each other, wanting each person to swim just as fast as we do.”

The team’s bond is one that began to form all the way back in September, when the coaches held three team-building activities: a bonfire, a trip to Rock Bridge Memorial State Park and, perhaps the highlight, the “funtathlon,” two days of competition not involving swimming.

“At the beginning, with a big freshman class, it takes something like that to unite the team,” Halvorson said. “After that, everyone really connects. It’s a really crucial thing. And it’s definitely something we still talk about.”

Coach Brian Hoffer said the goal of the activities was not only to “pull them together as a program” but alsoto have the athletes begin “knowing each other as people, not just athletes.” He and the other coaches reinforced that philosophy by picking the athletes’ roommates on trips, ensuring the team members continually mixed.

“We approach it as a team sport,” Hoffer said. “Of course it’s individual, but we believe that that’s the way to go. The reason we’ve won meets this year is our depth, not by winning every event.”

The coaches’ urging, though, ended up being unnecessary. The swimmers started planning their own gatherings by themselves.

Junior Jake Hoffmann, a co-captain of the men’s team, said the team has held meals together throughout the year, while Halvorson said the team has done activities together on the weekend, such as playing football. The women’s team also held meals at each other’s houses at the beginning of the season, where they would play games and teach the freshmen the team cheers.

That bonding is a direct cause of what Hoffmann said is the team’s strength: “the fact that we are a team.”

“In my opinion, we’re the best team in the Big 12 in that respect,” Hoffmann said. “It’s watching each other, helping each other and critiquing each other, cheering for each other. That’s been key for us all year.”

Hoffmann and Halvorson said that mentality is evident both in practice and at meets.

“It shows up a lot in practice,” Halvorson said. “If we’re doing a hard set, people will be yelling across the pool, encouraging people. You’re always hearing or seeing someone there for someone else. It keeps the team going and makes a positive environment.”

In meets, by cheering “every time someone’s in the water” and “keeping the energy level up,” Hoffmann said the team creates an atmosphere where “the energy is palpable. You can feel it; you can see it in each other’s eyes. It gets you fired up to swim fast.”

The team-first attitude is further reinforced among the women by drawing three “tiger stripes” on each swimmer’s left arm for meets and touching a sign that reads, “We want it more,” before exiting the locker room.

“It helps you realize it’s not all about you,” Halvorson said. “You have to be there for the team to know what swimming is all about.”

The Big 12 Championships will be held Wednesday through Monday in Austin, Texas, and Hoffmann was confident that the work the team has put in the pool together would carry over to the team’s biggest meet of the season.

“We had some themes at the beginning of the year. We support each other. We cheer every time someone’s in the water,” Hoffmann said. “Those are things that have never been part of the program, and they’re showing through in the end of the year ... We’re bringing the best team to conference that’s ever been part of this program.”

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