Dominique Bouchard received roses before the Missouri swim team’s meet against Drury, while Cassie Cunningham nibbled on chocolate in between races.
Valentine’s Day hadn’t come early. The roses were yellow, not red, and the chocolate was packed with protein, not encased in a heart-shaped box. Friday was Missouri’s Senior Night at the Mizzou Aquatic Center.
Head coach Greg Rhodenbaugh handed each of No. 24 Missouri’s 15 seniors yellow roses before the duel began. It was a token of appreciation for their commitment and hard work.
After arriving nearly three years ago as an assistant coach from national powerhouse Arizona, Rhodenbaugh saw plenty of talent in need of cultivation, beginning with the current senior class.
"We lost some of them, but most bought into a change in culture," he said. "Before, they had never had a lot of traction on the national scene. It’s now much more about championship swimming."
In the 20 years prior to his arrival, Missouri had garnered little success. Steady improvement crested last season, which reaped three individual All-Americans, a 19th place finish on the men’s side, and a 14th place finish on the women’s side at the NCAA Championships.
Rhodenbaugh praised two seniors on the women’s team in particular -- Bouchard and Cunningham -- who grew up more than 1,700 miles apart.
On Friday, Bouchard, a North Bay, Ont. native and a two-time Big 12 Conference 200-meter backstroke champion, finished first in that race with a time of 2:00.07 seconds.
Striving for a first-place finish in the 200-meter backstroke at March’s NCAA Championships after finishing second and third in 2011 and 2012, Bouchard said the "change in culture" Rhodenbaugh brought with him has "helped the team do a 180."
"We’re completely different," she said. "We’re more focused on the swimming aspects of being a Mizzou Tiger than the social aspects of being a Mizzou Tiger."
Rhodenbaugh expressed admiration and appreciation for Bouchard, the team captain.
"She has been a huge factor in turning this program around and taking it in the right direction," he said.
Rhodenbaugh also offered praise for another senior pillar on the women’s team, Cunningham.
The Austin, Texas native earned first team All-America honors as a member of Missouri’s 200-meter freestyle team that won the Big 12 Championship and finished seventh at last year's NCAA Championships. She finished first in both the women’s 50-meter and 100-meter freestyle on Friday, posting times of 23.25 and 50.84 seconds.
"Cassie brings a ton of energy," Rhodenbaugh said. "She’s not really afraid of anything. She gets up behind the block and it’s kind of a party for her."
Cunningham said that the program immediately elevated its expectations after Rhodenbaugh took over.
"The goal wasn’t to be good anymore but to be excellent," she said.
Although Bouchard and Cunningham conclude their swimming careers as Tigers in March, each believed the program would continue on an upward trajectory with Rhodenbaugh at the helm. Bouchard predicted both the men's and women's teams would be ranked among the top 15 in the nation within a few years.
"He’s definitely the best thing that’s happened to this program," Bouchard said.
Both the Missouri men's and women's teams defeated Drury, a Division II school, on Friday.