The Willamette University women’s swim team competed at the 2019 Bruin Invitational two weekends ago and, in the final team standings, placed fourth out of six teams. For the team, the invitational was the most important swim meet of the fall semester.
Senior Niki Kates, one of the team captains of the women’s swim team, got into swimming by way of her parents enrolling her in a water safety class at a young age. Although Kates enjoys swimming, the competition and the team are what keep her coming back. Kates said: “It was just something I enjoyed and I made a lot of really good friends throughout my swimming career and decided that swimming in college was a really good next step to continue competing and continue those friendships. Being on the Willamette swim team… has fostered both the competitive and friendship aspects of the sport.”
Kates further discussed the important team aspect. Kates said: “Swimming is an interesting sport in that it is an individual sport and you’re staring at a black line for hours on end going back and forth… It does make it a little bit isolating, but that is what makes the team element so much more important.”
The team bonds through many informal day-to-day interactions, such as spending time together in the library. They also get together for more formal team bonding: in the spring, the team hosts swim lessons for kids in the community and volunteers at a variety of events throughout the year.
Most weeks, the team practices for two hours six days a week, with all of the swimmers doing sprinting and distance training. The extent to which the team is close-knit helps the team members get through an exhausting practice. Kates said, “Seeing someone in the lane next to you and knowing that they have your back and knowing that they are pushing themselves and trying to push you makes it easier to dig deep and find that next gear.”
Practices are run by second-year Head Coach Brent Summers, entering his fifth year overall at Willamette, and second-year Assistant Coach Erin McVeigh. The coaches run both the women’s and men’s teams. They impart a team culture that consists of four pillars: camaraderie, respect, unity and grit. Kates said: “Our coaches train us really well for the events we’re racing. The practices are focused in on how we want to swim those races… The emphasis on character development is really strong, and is something that is unique to [Summers’ and McVeigh’s coaching style].”
Kates said: “Most people don’t pick their strokes as much as their strokes pick them. You swim all the events and you [find] you have a natural affinity for one.”
Other than regular prep for meets, the team draws inspiration from a mascot—not Blitz the Bearcat, though. The swim team has adopted a creation by senior Jensine Rasmussen as their own unofficial mascot: a mannequin head named Josephine. Kates said: “Josephine is a mannequin head that we have put on a mop. A head on a stake kind of thing. She really carries our team, I think, through the toughest of meets. And we are all very grateful for her presence.”
The Bruin Invitational, Willamette’s most recent and final meet of the fall semester, was approached differently than most. The meets the swim team competed in before the Bruin Invitational were all dual-performance meets, where the swimmers were getting race experience rather than trying to max out. But the Bruin Invitational is a conference meet, where the swimmers went all out trying to achieve the quickest time possible. Kates saw the invitational as successful, saying, “We had an unprecedented number of lifetime best swims at the Bruin Invitational, which bodes very well for conference championships in February.”
Now that the fall swim meets are done, the team is looking forward to winter break, when they will be prepping for spring semester swimming. They have three weeks of winter training, with some of the training taking place in San Diego. Kates said: “As we look ahead, our coaches have us on a really good training program and our job is to keep up the intensity and stay healthy. We’re all gearing up for winter training and the Oregon duel meets. We’re projected to have some really close competitions in the spring, so I’m excited to see what we do.”