In collegiate swimming, it all comes down to a single meet in March.
“Swimming’s a sport where you’ve got to swim your fastest one week of the year,” U. California-Berkeley freshman Tom Shields said. “And we picked the right week.”
The Bears shocked the swimming community with an incredible run at the national championship, including a surge on the second day that left Cal atop the leader board. The Bears were eventually overtaken by Texas, and took a respectable second place finish after placing fourth for two consecutive years.
Cal’s performance seemed to surprise everyone but the team. Hopes for a national title may have seemed lofty after regular season losses to Arizona and Stanford.
The regular season, however, proved it wasn’t a true indicator of the Bears’ capabilities. The team’s season-long focus was preparing for NCAAs, making its training arguably more important than the actual meets.
The fall consisted mostly of experience meets and an intense training regimen, which included a 15-day training camp in Colorado Springs, Colo., during winter break.
The team’s first real test of the season came from a Wildcats team that arrived in Berkeley on the heels of beating then-No. 2 Stanford. Though they overwhelmed Arizona for the majority of the meet, a failure to maintain a lead was fatal for the Bears.
“I think it taught us not to be complacent,” junior Josh Daniels said. “You need to be racing as hard as you can throughout the entire meet.”
Cal elected to put itself at a disadvantage in the meet by not resting from its grueling training. This was a conscious decision on the part of coach David Durden, who wanted to withhold advantages until the post-season.
In individual races, the Bears again struggled to maintain their leads against Stanford, losing multiple races in the final five yards.
“The loss to Stanford taught us to get our hand on the wall, to finish strong,” Daniels said.
With lessons learned and race experienced gained, the Bears’ confidence was not shaken by the losses. Durden structured his team to succeed in the championship meet format, which allows for more swimmers to score. The head-to-head dual meets were not the team’s focal point.
“Our mentalities are not going to be faltered by a dual meet,” Daniels said. “All the dual meets do is improve your rank. And we don’t care about rank until after NCAAs.”
Despite fatigue, the Bears took home five individual and three relay titles at the Pac-10 championships. But it was not enough to deny Stanford its 29th consecutive conference title.
Finally, at the highly anticipated NCAA championships, the Bears were ready to lay their cards on the table.
“(Durden) doesn’t want anybody to know what we can do until NCAAs,” Shields said. “We were sitting on the last night, and he was almost bummed, like we’re on everyone’s radar now.”
They captured national attention by winning three individual titles behind Shields (100-yard butterfly), junior Nathan Adrian (100 freestyle) and junior Damir Dugonjic (100-yard breaststroke), and four relay crowns.
The team believes this year is the beginning of a dynasty that will vault Cal into one of the top programs in the nation.
“I don’t think we’re going to leave the top four for a while. Or top two.” Shields said.