What the casual viewer may see from a swim meet is the amount of intensity one 20-second heat can produce. One may also usually only view these heats during the Summer Olympics while watching them on television. In person, that intensity is enhanced tenfold at a swim meet and even more so if one is at the Big West Conference Championships.
As the returning Big West Conference Champs from last year, the pressure was very high for the swimming and diving program of UC Irvine. The expectations at the beginning of the year were for the team to finish in a respectable second as the loss of six core seniors left the door slightly open. UC Santa Barbara was the team expected to take the top spot with UC Irvine not far behind.
However, with the team substantially losing 12 guys from the roster midseason, it made the task of defending their title even more out of reach. The results of the Big West Conference Championships reflected this setback as men’s swimming finished third behind highly touted UCSB and UC Davis. When asked about the results, David Lefstein, a third-year swimmer, said, ‘Coming back as Conference Champs, there is a lot of responsibility, and with the loss of so many guys and seniors it was difficult. So, coming back and getting third was not that bad. We still held our own.’
The UCI program as a whole was actually very good at the Big West Conference Championships. They won a total of 14 events and set meet records in five of those events. ‘It was the fastest conference ever,’ said Will Wollam, the captain of the men’s squad. ‘There were so many records. To get into the finals, the times were the fastest I have ever seen.’
It is so important to swim one’s fastest at the Conference Championships because it is the only meet that really counts. The standings at the Big West Conference Championships are the only standings for the whole year. UCI had not even faced UCSB until the Big West Championships, yet each school’s performance during this three day meet would determine how it finished its season. At the Big West Championships, the men’s team was represented by 16 swimmers and 6 divers. One of those swimmers was senior Eddie Erazo, the only men’s swimmer to make it to the NCAA Championships. Erazo won the 100 and 200 fly, as well as the 100 back. A key component missing from the roster was Randall Tom, who red-shirted this year. He and Erazo are going to Nationals and will be competing against America’s top swimmers.
The return of Tom next year and a few other promising recruits gives the men’s swimming team a good chance at returning to top of the conference next year, and with slight rivalry brewing between UCI and UCSB, it should be exciting. UCI set important records in the relay events last year that were expected to hold up for quite some time. However, UCSB challenged those records this year and actually broke one only for it to be taken away by a disqualification. The relays are especially important because they build up the most amount of team morale. Every member of each team gets behind the starting blocks and yells out their support. UCSB actually has a little cheer that the UCI squad rags on every moment possible. The relay in one event really represents the amount of talent the team has as a whole. With UCSB stepping it up this year and expecting five seniors back for next year, UCI is anxious to put UCSB back in its place in 2009.
The expectations for next season are high with some good recruits coming in to add to both the speed and distance aspects of the team. Recruiting is a challenge for the team as the coaches often have to go out of state in order to find recruits. The heavily stacked Big West Conference creates this dependency on out-of-state recruits making it a big challenge for the coaching staff to bring in quality recruits.
However, with the core group of swimmers still intact and returning ready to win, next year is looking up. The team is looking back at this year as a transition year and is satisfied with finishing third behind two really good programs. The team leaders are confident that the core group that stayed with the team will be able to turn the slight disappointment of a third-place finish into a motivational tool to hopefully take the team back to the top next year.