COLUMBIA — Lori Halvorson was cruising.
During the prelims of the first-ever Mizzou Invitational on Friday, the senior's performance in the 200-yard individual medley nearly broke a school record. Halvorson's display was met with a chorus of cheering from MU's male and female swimmers.
The combination of voices was just another instance of how unique the Tiger swimming program is.
MU has the only combined swimming program in the Big 12 conference. The men's and women's teams enter into competitions against other teams of the same gender, but they share the same coaching staff. And along with practicing together, the teams have also formed strong bonds away from the pool.
Several of the country's top swim programs follow a similar format, including Auburn and Georgia. Head coach Brian Hoffer said he thinks the situation is an effective one. The teams have been combined for Hoffer's entire tenure at the school, and he has always viewed it as a positive.
"I feel that it gets more people on the same page," Hoffer said. "Our teams are very similar in terms of talent and in how good we are. So they seem to push each other more."
Members of both the men's and women's teams also feel that the combination of the teams gives them an edge.
While the men's times are faster, the physical makeup of male and female swimmers can create a competitive atmosphere for male athletes during training. According to Hoffer, the larger muscles of male swimmers causes them to tire faster, and the disparities often even out.
"You'd be amazed at how much the women can push the guys in practice," Hoffer said.
"I'll swim with girls in my lane," senior men's captain Jake Hoffmann said. "They help with practice. They help you stay motivated. They're really good motivators, and it helps us out a lot."
The men also provide a constant practice-time challenge to the team's female swimmers.
"I've always trained really well with guys," senior Jill Granger said. "I've always liked to be the girl that beats the guys."
For Halvorson, the practice relationship isn't just about the physical competition. The combination of male and female swimmers can often give practice a lighter feel.
"To be able to swim next to them in practice," Halvorson said, "it's nice to mix it up, and it keeps everything relaxed. There's not as much tension between the girls, as much drama (as there would be if it were just the girls). It's a lot of personalities."
That variety of personalities meshes away from the pool as well. Hoffman claims that some of his best friends are members of the women's team, and both Halvorson and Granger go as far as to say that the relationship is more like that of siblings than teammates.
"I'd say we're definitely a bunch of brothers and sisters," Halvorson said. "Brothers and sisters that get along all the time."
The latter is the vital part.
Most brothers and sisters can't spend a fraction of the time that the swimmers spend together without personalities and habits starting to grate on each other. But from the classroom to the dinner table, there is always an appreciation of company from the other team.
"They do everything together," Hoffer said. "They're eating together, they're studying together, they go to class together, we're traveling together, they're training together."
The connection that many of Hoffer's athletes share provides a definite boost when it's time to compete. During Friday's prelims, the men's and women's teams from several other schools were on the deck, but the cohesion between the MU athletes set them apart.
As senior Bryan Difford closed in on a first place finish in the final heat of the200-yard individual medley, members of both teams were on their feet cheering him in. Whenever there is a Tiger swimmer in the water, no matter the gender, a wall of black- and gold-clad swimmers can be seen lining the pool.
"We create a lot more energy for our teammates when they're swimming with a combined team," Halvorson said. "It's a lot of yelling, it's a lot of excitement. There's no way you wouldn't be able to swim well and beat the person next to you when you have 60 people on your team getting up, getting loud and cheering for you."
"There's a lot of cohesiveness when you have two teams cheering for each other instead of just one team," Hoffmann said. "It really helps in motivating people. The team atmosphere at meets is really high."
While the cheering sections are certainly a help, there isn't a lack of "sibling rivalry" between the squads. Coming into this weekend's meet, the MU women were the No. 20-ranked team in the country, and the MU men were No. 21. The similar talent level and expectations are what push both teams to excel at the same level as their counterparts.
"It's just another opportunity for them to get excited, and for them to get interested in what's going on," Hoffer said. "It's all about energy. When your team has energy and people are swimming fast, it doesn't matter if they're male or female. That energy is contagious."
Hoffer claims that recently his approach to both the men's and women's teams in the practice atmosphere has become more similar than it was in the past, and that has allowed the program to become even more of a single unit.
"For the most part, I think we're just exploring the idea of being the University of Missouri," Hoffer said. "There just happen to be men and women involved."