John Lapides

Eager to dip their toes back in the water, the members of the Yale women’s swimming and diving team return to the pool this Saturday to face Brown in their first competitive meet of the season.

Although the Bulldogs did not send anyone to the NCAA Division I National Championships for swimming last year, they still topped the Ivy League and dominated throughout the season, highlighted by a 15-meet win streak. In preparation for their conference title defense, the Elis have begun the season with a series of intramural and exhibition meets against neighboring universities UConn and West Point. The matchup against the Bears is the team’s first real test.

“We want to [win the Ivy League] again,” backstroker and freestyler Bella Hindley ’19 said. “Our in-season goal is to maintain a winning streak within the Ivy League and then try to instill a positive attitude within the team that we can do it again. We need to make sure that a championship is on our radar.”

Yale lost eight seniors from last season’s roster, many of whom who were key to the squad’s achievements. Swimmers Sydney Hirschi ’17, Olivia Jameson ’17 and Kina Zhou ’17 all had podium finishes at the Ivy League Championships and helped the Bulldogs set a number of relay records. The Elis will also miss diver Lilybet MacRae ’17 who is the reigning three-meter diving champion.

In these athletes’ stead, a crop of first years will be hoping to make its mark. One diver in particular, Nikki Watters ’21, seems poised to impress. A five-time national champion in high school with an additional five gold medals in her cupboard, she has the talent to soften the blow of MacRae’s departure. The team may have lost some great leaders and competitors, but both the future and present of the program look bright.

“We graduated a phenomenal class,” head coach Jim Henry said. “We also have an incoming class that is eager to perform. The current team has stepped up their intensity in hopes of surpassing the success of last years team.”

Henry added that the team’s first years have had an immediate impact, playing a major role in the team’s early scrimmages and overall success.

“We have some freshmen and sophomores that have really been stepping up,” captain Paulina Kaminski ’18 added. “The freshmen have come in and not missed a step. Usually, you see them falter a little bit at the start of the year. They have stepped into the role and crushed everything we have asked them to do, both in training and at meets.”

As far as competition goes, Harvard and Princeton figure to be the main obstacles for the Elis this year. The Crimson finished second at the Ancient Eight championships last year, and with a returning coaching staff and impressive roster, they will be hungry to bring the title home to Cambridge. Meanwhile, the Tigers fared the worst of the three last season, limping to third in the annual Harvard-Yale-Princeton meet. But with a new coach, they could too pose a threat to the Bulldogs.

Perhaps most important of all to the Elis’ success, though, is their mental preparation. While swimming is largely an individual sport, multiple members of the team noted how important having a positive group dynamic is for the team’s performance. Although not everyone swims at the championship, creating an encouraging atmosphere is crucial to success.

“Our biggest challenge is ourselves,” associate head coach Kyle Schack said. “College athletics is about competing against other schools, but we need to figure out who we are. The  biggest challenge is deciding what is the lowest standard we can tolerate, because that’s what will define us. We can only be as good as the worst thing we accept about ourselves.”

Last season against Brown, Yale won 196–104. Repeating that type of performance and picking up steam against Ivy League opponents will prepare the Elis for meets like the Ohio State Invitational later this month, where they will face, amongst others, Stanford and its gaggle of Olympians.

Despite its grand aspirations, the team is very much — ironically for a swim team — keeping its feet on the ground.

“We have the goal of sending more people to NCAA’s this year,” Kaminski said. “We didn’t send anyone last year. We were all really close, within a tenth of a second for some people. That was heartbreaking. We have the goal of sending two relays and two individuals this year, which I really think is doable. It’s all about taking small baby steps everyday and seeing how we do at these meets.”

Yale face off against Brown at Kiphuth Exhibition Pool this Saturday at 10 a.m.

Caleb Rhodes | caleb.rhodes@yale.edu