COLUMBIA - When more than 30 million viewers tuned in to watch Michael Phelps claim his eighth gold medal in Beijing on August 17, they saw Olympic and athletic history. MU senior diver Kendra Melnychuk, however, saw her chance.
Dating back to last season, Melnychuk,one of the captains of this year's Missouri women's swimming and diving team, and her teammates had discussed the possibility of starting a student cheering section for the team. Melnychuk saw Phelps' performance in Beijing as an opportunity to capitalize on new interest in the sport and make their idea a reality.
"We actually go to a lot of the soccer events throughout the fall, and we always get their free T-shirts for their student fan groups," Melnychuk said. "So it was brought to our attention, 'Why doesn't swimming and diving have one?' With all the publicity with the Olympics and everything and how well swimming and diving did, I just thought it was a good time to start one."
The result was H-ZOU-O, the student cheering section that will debut at Missouri's Show-Me Showdown meet Saturday at the Mizzou Aquatic Center at the MU Student Recreational Complex.
While H-ZOU-O is finally going to be realized this weekend, Melnychuk says there was a sizable gap between the idea stages of the process and the final product. After spending the past three years in the program, Melnychuk understood where swimming and diving fits into the athletic department's budget. The resources she had to work with were limited compared to the school's larger programs.
"We needed a financial base," Melnychuk said. "We had nothing. It's hard to ask the athletic department for money just because we're a non-revenue sport. We don't bring in any money. It doesn't cost anything to get into our meets or anything."
Melnychuk found her first break with swimming and diving alum Chris Marks, who is also a co-owner of Sonshine Graphics in downtown Columbia. Marks put Melnychuk in contact with various other supporters, provided vital financial footing to the group and, along with his staff, came up with the T-shirt idea that Melnychuk knew would be important in helping lure supporters.
After ensuring the group would be a possibility, there was still the problem of getting people to join. That's where Kelly Goldthorpe came in. Goldthorpe, a freshman from Illinois, was a swimmer in high school and was interested in getting involved with the swimming team. In the dining hall one day, she spotted MU swimming coach Brian Hoffer, gave him her card and told him to let her know if there was any way she could help out with the team.
In mid-September, Melnychuk called Goldthorpe, and the two started planning how to market the group to their peers. Goldthorpe started by making a Facebook group.
"That's critical in the college world to get publicity for anything," Goldthorpe said.
Melnychuk then had members of the swimming team go around town and put H-ZOU-O fliers in places they felt would be the most visited by college students.
"We wanted to match them up with our demographic," Goldthorpe said. "Which would be where college students eat, or where the athletes go. We're really trying to reach as many people possible in that way."
After having initial doubts about how well the group would be received, Melnychuk said she is pleased with its progress. The Facebook group has 466 members, and Goldthorpe said she is hearing the group come up in conversations.
"I thought it was going to be a little bit difficult at first to try get people involved and get people excited," Melnychuk said. "I don't think people realized the number of students on campus that swam in high school or swam club when they were younger that are really interested in swimming and diving but just have no idea when our meets are, or how they work, or where they are. My goal was just to create awareness."
Melnychuk understands that while the swimming and diving program will never draw the crowds seen at Faurot Field, to her, the slightest interest is worth the effort sheand Goldthorpe have put in.
"Even if we can get a quarter of that," Melnychuk said, "that's 100 or so people that we didn't have cheering for us before."