COLUMBIA — With just eight swimmers, Stephens College has one of its smallest swimming programs this season.
"Coaching here is a lot different than coaching anywhere else," said Stars coach Laura Wacker, who usually has 12 to 15 swimmers on her team. "The swimmers come from a variety of backgrounds, and that can make it a fun but challenging season."
With the small number of swimmers, the team shares a tight bond. The relationship Wacker and her swimmers have is refreshing because they are comfortable around each other and want to share their lives with each other.
Sometimes the swimmers might give Wacker a hard time during practice, but she knows it's all in fun. At a recent workout, Wacker had the team do an individual medley set, an event in which Emily Younghouse does not compete. Younghouse, a junior, told Wacker the workout might be her least favorite, and Wacker replied with a smile and a simple "thank you."
The exchange is an example of how comfortable the swimmers feel joking around with Wacker.
Jaimie Link, a junior at Stephens, said the relationship between the team and Wacker can involve talking about boyfriends and other things happening in their lives.
"She can give you a new way to think about things," Link said. "She is a really good motivator and wants us to succeed in every aspect of our lives."
Wacker said she enjoys working with the girls but admits, at times, it can be a challenge to get them motivated.
"You have to know each girl and find out what motivates them," Wacker said. "Part of the art of coaching is finding out what motivates each kid. I probably know some of these girls better than their parents or their teacher knows them."
By having a smaller team, Wacker said she is able to work with each swimmer's individual needs, but there is common ground, too.
"Food seems to be a good motivator for all of them," Wacker said. "If how they do determines what restaurant we eat at after the meet, it's pretty much a done deal."
The team ate at Mark Twain Diner in Hannibal this past weekend when they had a meet there. They didn't perform as well as they wanted, but Wacker said there aren't a lot of choices on places to eat there.
The swimmers see each other outside of meets and practices. At Christmas break, the team came back to campus early to train and got together to help at a Stephens basketball game, determining attendance figures and other things.
"We are all pretty good friends outside of this," senior Jennifer Alander said.
Wacker said she knows she has a good group of athletes when she sees them hang out together outside of practices.
"Once they have that bond they don't want to let each other down," Wacker said. "They enjoy themselves and get along well and have bonds that will be well beyond their college years."