Story by CORY NEALON
Perched atop a starting block at the pool inside Alumni Arena, Brittney Kuras, a junior-to-be from Canandaigua, dives into the water at the command of Graduate Assistant Coach Jeff Kilner. She is flanked by teammate Mallory Morrell, and the pair swim half the pool at top speed before slowing to a leisurely pace. Upon reaching the opposite end, the swimmers dart underwater and push off the wall with their legs. Another mad dash ends at the pool’s center, where they ease up and return to Kilner.
“Nice job,” he says. “Let’s go again in 20 seconds.”
Elsewhere in the pool, former Bulls standout diver and UB alumna Meili Carpenter bobs up and down on a trampoline practicing her tucks and spins. Matt Schwippert, a senior-to-be from East Aurora, N.Y., kicks through the water while his arms lock around a bodyboard. Assistant Coach Will Bernhardt, a backstroke specialist from Indiana, rolls up his sweatpants as if he just noticed the sweltering heat and humidity.
The purpose of the practice? To ready the Bulls for what Head Coach Andy Bashor describes as an event they’ll remember for the rest of their lives—the U.S. Olympic trials.
The swimming portion of the trials, which take place June 25-July 2 in Omaha, Neb., will feature roughly 1,800 athletes. (The diving trials are scheduled June 17-24 near Seattle, Wash.) A typical race includes several heats that feature up to 140 competitors.
“This is really a big deal,” Bashor says. “It’s hard to beat, as far as individual achievements go.”
The Bulls who qualified for the trials—Phil Aronica, Mike Dugan, Matt Hogan and Alie Schirmers are the others—did so at events held in Western New York and beyond since 2010. To stay in shape, they practice six days a week, routinely arriving at the pool before the sun rises.
“It’s kind of like a part-time job,” Bashor says of the training, adding that “it takes a very dedicated person to do this and succeed at both” academics and athletics.
PHYSICAL AND MENTAL PREPARATION
Because the season began in October, the swimmers are in peak physical shape. Practices focus on technique and mental preparation, such as getting good starts and keeping a steady pace. Swimmers use snorkels to breathe, a device that enables them to keep their faces underwater and focus entirely on stroke mechanics. They also practice starting races with 45- to 90-pound buckets of water (part of a lever system on the pool deck) strapped to their waists.
Some of the women, like Kuras, have even stopped shaving their legs. The hair creates drag, which slows her progress through the water; the practice is akin to a baseball player swinging two bats while waiting for his turn at the plate.
It's attention to detail like this that has helped UB swimmers and divers set 20 university records during the last three seasons. It also led the men’s team in 2011 to its first MAC championship. UB is the first university other than Eastern Michigan and Miami (Ohio) to claim the honor since 1979, according to the UB athletics department. The accolades are testament to a growing program that now includes eight Olympic hopefuls, a record for UB, Bashor says.
BUILDING THE PROGRAM
The eight Bulls competing in the trials will help UB build a stronger swimming and diving program, says Bashor, who led recruiting efforts and coached at Rutgers and UC Santa Barbara before arriving in Buffalo six years ago. His presence and strategy appear to be paying dividends; recent workouts at Alumni Arena include not only the eight qualifiers but also teammates eager to keep pace with them.
“With the success we’ve had, there’s definitely an incentive to stay here and train with your teammates,” Bernhardt says.
As for the eight Olympic hopefuls, they're continuing to exploit any advantage they can to achieve their goals.
Kuras will shave her legs just before the trials to eliminate the drag and, the theory goes, give her a small but significant boost as she swims through water. Other swimmers will do the same; the practice, which tends to fascinate outsiders, is routine to those involved in the sport.
“Shaving is just shaving,” Kuras said. “You just have to deal with it when you’re not shaving.”
“It’s kind of like a part-time job,” UB Head Coach Andy Bashor said. “To add in their coursework and everything, it takes a very dedicated person to do this and succeed at both.”
Seven University at Buffalo swimmers and one diver qualified for the U.S. Olympic trials. Head Coach Andy Bashor explains how they prepare to face the nation's best.
Meili Carpenter, EdM ’11 & BA ’09, leaps off the springboard, tucks her legs together and spins in a circle before landing headfirst in the water below.
The dive lasts less than two seconds, yet University at Buffalo Diving Coach Karla Helder, sitting poolside, had this to say afterward: “That was a little bit heavy on the alignment. And it was a little too arched. But the two dives before were good.”
A frustrated Carpenter pulled herself out of the pool, climbed up the springboard and repeated the dive with much better results.
“You’re jumping to the moon,” Helder says, as Carpenter, a former standout UB diver, emerged from underwater.
The exchange was one of thousands between the two, who have worked together since Carpenter arrived at UB six years ago. Graduated and now coaching at Canisius College in Buffalo, Carpenter still relies on Helder, especially as she prepares for the U.S. Olympic trials.
Held in June near Seattle, Wash., the trials will bring together the sport’s best for eight days of competition. For some, like three-time Olympian Troy Dumais, the event will likely amount to little more than a tune-up for London. But for some athletes, such as Carpenter, it’s the culmination of years of training.
Helder, a former two-time NCAA national champion on the three-meter board, explains diving by contrasting it with its sometimes better-known sibling.
“It’s a lot more mental,” she says. “It’s a different kind of toughness compared to swimming. When you do something wrong, you know it immediately.”
That appeared to be the case as Carpenter came to the surface following another dive. Helder sat quietly as Carpenter treaded water and watched a replay from a video-monitor attached to the wall above the pool.
Carpenter repeated the dive, this time exiting the pool with a more satisfied look that matched Helder’s.
“We know each other,” Helder says quietly, “almost too much.”
None of the athletes profiled in this story qualified for the 2012 Summer Olympics. Regardless, they put forth impressive performances, notably three top 35 finishes by Kuras.
Kuras finished 28th out of 154 swimmers in the 50-meter freestyle. She placed 29th among 131 swimmers in the 100-meter freestyle. And she was 34th among 99 swimmers in the 200-meter freestyle.
Not far behind her was Morrell, who placed 37th in the 50-meter freestyle.
On the men’s side, Schwippert placed 34th among 107 swimmers in the 200-meter backstroke. Meanwhile, Hogan finished 63rd among 165 swimmers in the 100-meter freestyle.
Carpenter placed 8th among 31 divers in the 3-meter springboard.
“We were competing against the best in the country and in some respects the best in the world and I am so proud of our kids for the way they competed. It was such a spectacular event and an experience that we will remember forever,” Bashor told UB athletics after the event.
For more information on the event, visit the Olympic trials time results page.
Hometown: Orchard Park, N.Y.
Event: 100-meter backstroke
Hometown: Canadaigua, N.Y.
Event: 50-meter, 100-meter and 200-meter freestyle, 200-meter individual medley
Hometown: Boulder, Colo.
Major: MS in science education (UB ’11)
Event: 3-meter individual
Hometown: Rush-Henrietta, N.Y.
Major: Hearing science
Hometown: 50-meter freestyle
Hometown: Rotterdam, N.Y.
Event: 100-meter butterfly, 50-meter and 100-meter freestyle
Hometown: Coon Rapids, Minn.
Major: B.S. Psychology '12
Event: 200-meter breaststroke
Hometown: Birmingham, Mich.
Event: 50 100, and 200-meter freestyle, 400-meter medley relay
Hometown: East Aurora, N.Y.
Major: Chemical engineering
Event: 100-meter and 200-meter backstroke