Few places are better suited for a relaxing winter break than San Juan, Puerto Rico. That is, unless you are an Eli swimmer.

Enviously eyeing the resort’s sandy beaches, the Bulldogs woke every morning before sunrise to practice in preparation for the upcoming league season, which will begin in earnest this weekend with Cornell for the women (3-1, 0-1 Ivy) and Cornell and Navy for the men (3-1, 0-1 EISL).

The winter trip is infamous among the Bulldogs. It looms every year as a week of torturous practices with a cruel backdrop of paradise. The swimmers rise before five and head to the pool for the first of two practices, shuttling back and forth between the resort hotel and the pool.

For veterans, Puerto Rico is about getting in shape, both physically and mentally.

“With no school you can really focus in and do your training,” captain and breaststroker Holly Mazar ’06 said. “I thought it was very successful.”

But for freshmen who are still adjusting to the elevated expectations of collegiate swimming, the trip pushed their limits. Emma Chapman ’09 said everyone agreed it was the hardest week of training so far.

“It gets you mentally tougher, without a doubt,” she said. “It gives you a new perspective on your swimming — you do things you never thought you could do before. The key was taking it one practice at a time so you didn’t get overwhelmed.”

The swimmers returned to New Haven with immediately noticeable results: slimmer waists, wider shoulders, and an assortment of tan lines after training outside for over four hours a day. Several Elis said the trip may have battered their bodies, leaving them scrambling to recover and gear up for the grind of January, February and March.

Morgan Locke ’08 said the real benefits will emerge during the season’s home stretch when the swimmers will be able to tap the reserve of stamina built in December.

“The hard work we did there — we trained really hard in Puerto Rico — we won’t see it immediately,” he said. “But when we get to the first week in March, to EISLs, it will really show up.”

Divers were treated to a slightly less glamorous but equally demanding winter break in Indianapolis. Traveling to diving coach Ryan Moehnke’s hometown, the Elis worked out at the US Diving Team’s facility, considered the best in the country. After four hours of diving and two hours of dry land training a day, Pat Hayden ’08 said the trip certainly felt like a success.

The Elis will kick off the league season in earnest this weekend in Ithaca against the Big Red and the Midshipmen. After both the men and women lost in their league debuts against Columbia on November 11th, each wants to start the New Year off on the right foot.

“I think the first meet will set the tone as we really get into the Ivy League,” Chapman said.

Luckily for the women, a thumping of Cornell seems likely.

Mazar said she expects little competition from the Big Red, who are perennial Ivy League basement-dwellers and are 1-4 this season.

“In the past, it hasn’t been a hard meet,” she said. “But we want to win by as many points as possible. We want to send a message to Harvard and Princeton. We’re going to put up fast times.”

For the men, this weekend may be a different story. The Midshipmen are ranked as the second best mid-major team in the nation, trailing only Harvard, and are 9-1. Cornell enters at 3-2 after convincing wins over Dartmouth and Penn. Last season, both Navy and Cornell defeated the Bulldogs in head-to-head competition.

Hayden said Navy has one of the strongest diving corps in the league, and both teams will be formidable challengers. But as winter training reinforced, a short-term memory and a sharpened focus on the here and now will be critical.

“I’m not going to be scouting out who my competitor is going to be too much,” Hayden said. “I’ll try to focus on what I am doing.”