Asked about the composition of the 2016-17 Tech swimming and diving team, Coach Courtney Hart does not hesitate to respond.
“We’ve really been pushing a culture of, ‘Everybody plays a role’,” Hart said. “Everybody has to be on top of their game, top to bottom. We’re only as good as all of us combined. Everybody has a role, and we all move forward and get better together.”
With the ACC Championships quickly approaching on the horizon, Coach Hart’s group will be expected to do just that.
After a slow start to the season, including a sweep at the hands of rival Georgia, the men’s and women’s teams rode respective two-game winning streaks to close out 2016 and could have added to that tally but for weather that cancelled a meet held at Virginia Tech. With a young corps of swimmers and the training of Hart, an Olympic Gold Medalist and former UGA standout, the Jackets may return to their winning ways in the high-stakes conference tournament.
That tournament comes with an extra twist this season: thanks to the ACC’s opposition to the North Carolina legislature’s controversial HB2, which bans transgender individuals from using the bathrooms of their choice, the Swimming and Diving Championships will be held at McAuley Aquatic Center on Tech campus.
Views on this development vary in the team. Coach Hart describes it as a blessing and a curse.
“It’s our pool; it’s our starting blocks; it’s our flip-turns. We do it every day. But at the same time, sometimes when you don’t travel, you don’t get that sense of, ‘You’re going away.’ So we do go to a hotel. We do try to make it a championship environment, but it’s just a little different when you travel. The pros definitely outweigh the cons.”
To sophomore Iris Wang, competing in Atlanta is a positive.
“I think it’s easier because you’re used to the pool, … the temperature, the air conditioning, everything. And you don’t need to take an eight-hour drive to Greensboro. It’s like a home game. The people you know — your classmates, your friends, your old coaches and family — they can come.”
Wang is no stranger to traveling long distances to pursue her dream. Competing with a relay group that set China team records at the 2012 London Olympics, Wang left her home in Xiamen to attend Tech.
The results have been spectacular. The dynamo sophomore was named an All-Academic ACC pick last season and already holds six school records, courtesy of ramblinwreck.com. That has not been lost on her fellow Olympian coach.
“I think freshman year for anybody can be a big transition year. She [came] from China. I think she’s settled in. She knows what it means to be at Georgia Tech; she has the academics down, so it’s a little bit easier to relax and focus on getting better in the pool, too,” Hart said.
Like Wang, the rest of Tech’s swim and dive team has had to balance academics with the increasing demands of their competition season.
“We have a program called Excel@Tech through the athletics department, so all of our freshmen are required to meet with them and make sure they’re staying on top of things. And making sure they use the resources, not just within the Athletic Association but on campus,” Hart said.
Flying under the radar for much of the season, Tech swimming and diving nears the postseason in solid form. They round out the regular season with contests against Alabama, Florida and the Savannah College of Art & Design, the latter two of which serve as the team’s Senior Day.
Swimming aside, a few members of the team made national news after the cancelled Virginia Tech meet by filming a viral video. The video shows Tech swimmers Aidan Pastel, Matt Casillas, Colt Williamson and Brad Oberg mimicking a relay race in the snow. The video has been replayed more than 80,000 times and shared by media outlets from BuzzFeed to SportsCenter, courtesy of ramblinwreck.com.
The video also served as a reminder of Tech swimming’s youth. With the exception of Orberg, a junior, all participants in the video are freshmen and sophomores. Even though 13 seniors are scheduled to graduate at the conclusion of this season, there is more than enough young talent for Hart to mold into a consistent conference force.
If Tech’s swimming and diving team has a positive showing at the ACC Championships, the narrative will be a fascinating one indeed. One Olympian passing the torch to another, a young group better known for their viral videos than their times, a program historically not even the best in its own state suddenly fighting for national relevance. If there is any combination of coaches and athletes that can bring about that result, this may well be the one.
Tech fans will not have to go far to watch the conference championships. If the Jackets advance to nationals in Indianapolis, it will be well worth it.