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Yellow Jacket Year in Review: Swimming and Diving

Easily the most baffling team on the Flats.

Diving at the Senior Day meet against Emory.
Georgia Tech Athletics/Danny Karnik

SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA, USA - Since we here at From the Rumble Seat are hip with the times, I was trying to come up with a good pop culture reference to describe what the Georgia Tech swimming and diving teams were like. But, that’s the problem. They’re so puzzling, it was harder to find a simple way to explain it than to just sit down and explain what I mean when I say they baffle me on a regular basis, on almost every level.

The Georgia Tech football program just opened their new locker room. It’s beautiful. It brings Tech squarely onto the leading edge in the facilities arms race. Complemented by the relatively new indoor practice facility, there’s been a lot of investment into the physical plant of one of our top programs lately. Of course, up and down Fowler Street, again and again Tech has some of the newest and finest facilities in the nation, especially looking at gorgeous Mewborn Field, the effective Byers Tennis Complex, or the re-invented and sleek Thrillerdome 2.0, also known as McCamish Pavilion. Notably, a new swimming pool isn’t on that list, and, after all, this is an article about swimming. There’s a reason for that.

Since 1996, Tech has had the finest swimming pool in college sports. Only a handful even come close to the elegance and effectiveness of the McAuley Aquatic Center. Georgia Tech is blessed to be in such high demand that other conferences use our facilities to host their championship meets, when they aren’t in use by any other number of prestigious invitationals, the professional circuit, or club swimming nationals. Tech’s pool hosts the most important meets in the region and some of the largest, by both stature and sheer number of swimmers, in the nation. There’s nothing one can ask more from a pool than it doesn’t break down and can effectively host meets and practices. The Olympic pool does that in spades. Swimming and diving does not suffer from a facilities problem.

Yet there are plenty of other facets of the team that leaves one at least a little perplexed.

Tech is a team with some fine talent, make no mistake. As I wrote in March,

“Four Jackets had their tickets punched to NCAA Championship meets. Freshman Christian Ferraro recorded the 12th-fastest time in the country this year in the 200 butterfly last weekend, earning him an automatic bid to nationals. He will swim the 100 fly and 200 individual medley as well. Fellow first year Caio Pumpitis will join him after his B-cut in the 200 breaststroke placed him within the margin for the meet, and he will swim the 100 breast and 200 IM, which he also has B-cuts in, at the meet. Additionally, senior Moises Loschi returns to Nationals in the 100 and 200 breast, where he has competed three times for Tech, after withdrawing in 2016 when Tech hosted in order to compete for a spot on the Italian Olympic team. Finally, this week in Indianapolis, Iris Wang will swim the 50, 100, and 200 freestyle for the Yellow Jackets at the women’s NCAAs.”

The men were joined by diver Matt Casillas, rounding out a squad that wasn’t huge but fairly strong, and, significantly, not all seniors. The men, for their part, finished ranked No. 25 in the final poll. A ranked finish is not too shabby, indeed. Noticeably, however, only one woman made it to the national meet. Iris Wang, by all means talented and deserving of the honor, was not joined by any of her teammates.

Though it’s less noticeable on the men’s side, the depth of both teams is certainly its biggest shortcoming. That is almost certainly a result of coaching, recruiting, and, to some extent, scheduling.

The problem with the coaching isn’t so much that it hasn’t resulted in success - it has. Look at Ferraro coming out of pretty much unknown status during the year to produce one of the top regular season times in the country in the 200 Butterfly. That’s training up good talent and leading it to success. But we don’t see that with most others. There hasn’t been a legitimately surprising story on the women’s side in years. Iris Wang has been a tremendous swimmer for some time now. Getting her to come to Tech was certainly a recruiting success. What Tech needs is more hits and less misses once kids get on campus. Problem is, getting the right kids on campus, both with proven success and those who will improve once they get to college, is pretty much the entire ethos of recruiting in any sport.

The North Carolina State Wolfpack is an interesting case study. For the longest time, they were absolute cellar dwellers in the Atlantic Coast Conference. They were bad. Their facilities, unlike the Institute’s, were subpar. It wasn’t a swimming destination school. But, all it took was one good coaching hire for them to turn the entire program around in less than four seasons. They have legitimate Olympic-level talent up in the Triangle now, headlined by former Illinois high school swimming sensation Ryan Held. They got fourth in the country this year in arguably sort of an underwhelming year for the Wolfpack. When a source close to that coaching staff asked if they could pull that off anywhere else, they asked for an example. When he offered Tech, they say they could have done it in just three.

That’s because kids want to come to Tech to swim. The Institute is blessed with said fantastic pool. Critically, swimmers in general are also usually pretty bright. They want to take advantage of what the school has to offer. Balancing school and life is hard enough, let alone being a varsity athlete. But swimmers are driven. That’s why there are plenty of engineering majors on the Tech varsity swim team. And that’s also why Tech has the reigning national championship club team. Kids want to come swim at Georgia Tech.

That club team is an interesting dilemma in its own right. For the sake of full disclosure, I’m a dues-paying distance freestyler and currently its representative to the national governing body. But, the point I’m getting at is the reigning national champion club swim team is almost unfairly blessed with varsity-level talent. For years, all of our coaching staffs have had at least one former varsity swimmer on them. We get some former swimmers on the roster as well. They choose to go to Tech because they want to swim in this pool and take advantage of this school.

That paragraph belies what I believe are the two biggest issues with the current staff - retention and recruiting. The small amount of seniors honored in the meet against Emory last year, as well as the presence of former varsity swimmers on the rosters of a handful different club sports around campus, belies that truth. Why aren’t kids staying in the program the full length of their eligibility? It’s a legitimately important question. Earlier, it was noted that Tech’s coaching ability wasn’t an issue. They’ve had great success, especially on the men’s side. Determining whether the real issue is personality-based or just that swimmers, who are ever-committed in the classroom, needed to make a choice for their own sakes, is really just base-less conjecture.

Tech’s recruiting, on the whole, isn’t all bad. Remember NC State’s aforementioned stud Illinois swimmer? Tech went out and got one of their own last season, funny enough. The 2018-19 roster is yet to be posted and I’ve heard conflicting reports on his status for next season, but, the fact of the matter is the Tech staff did successfully recruit a three-time state champion from one of the top swimming states in the nation. Notably, two of the four Tech men at the national meet this year were freshmen. The team, especially the men, is bringing in some talent on a yearly basis. And I feel like that condition, “especially the men,” has been used a lot in this article. That’s because they’ve been a fairly good team. The peculiar gap in recruiting top talent between men and women is probably the biggest difference between the two teams.

The hope is that these two issues can be solved. They’re tricky, no doubt, especially the strange recruiting gap between the men and women, but they aren’t systematic and unsolvable. Remember, varsity-caliber swimmers want to come to Tech. Sure the recruiting gap has widened of late, but that’s more of a testament to the absolutely stacked group of young men the coaching staff accrued in the freshman class last year. Will they figure out how to bring their recent success to women as well?

Tech has one more key issue, but the good news is that its certainly a solvable problem. Much like the men’s basketball team, the Yellow Jackets non-conference schedule has reliably been odd. Recently, Tech faced off against Division II Delta State, Division III Emory, and NAIA SCAD. Oh, yeah, those were all last year. Sure, Emory was the Division III national champion, but Tech won 25 of the 26 events and switched to exhibition scoring so as to not run up the points too much on the crosstown Eagles. Teams that are competing for ACC Championships, let alone national titles, don’t swim almost half of their non-conference schedule against blatantly inferior teams. The most important way to get better and to reap the fruits of your hard work is to race. Racing off-events against unfairly outmatched kids from lower divisions isn’t the way to do that. It’d be like replacing South Florida and the school in Athens on this year’s football schedule with North Georgia and Cumberland. We all know how well the whole Cumberland thing worked out the last time we played them. Sure, the ACC conference schedule leaves a fair bit to be desired as well, but, in Tech’s defense, there’s not really a conference-wide standard on that, from what casually perusing team schedules yields.

The schedule isn’t released for the upcoming school year yet, however, based on past years, it is probably wise to assume it will be similar. However, it is known that this year will feature the first ACC-B1G Challenge, swimming edition, selecting three to five swimmers from each team to represent their conferences in a head-to-head showdown at the fine facility in Purdue. At the very least, it will be a good chance for the top few Tech swimmers race against some of the top competition in the country.

There’s a lot of great things that the swimming and diving program has going for it. The facilities are excellent. The men’s recruiting lately has been on the upswing. It’s in a strong conference, when it actually does compete against them. The annual waxing by the Athenians meet against the school out East and Georgia Tech Invitational are great opportunities to race against quality competition. Kids want to swim on the Flats. Yet, in the same breadth, the retention is questionable, the women’s recruiting hasn’t seen the same success as the men, and too much of the non-conference schedule’s flavor could be best described as “cupcake.”

The Jackets will compete again this year. Hopefully the men will continue to build on that success and that postseason recognition. And hopefully the women will give Iris Wang a teammate this year at the national championship. But, in the water, things change fast. We are left with just having to wait and see what this season yields.

Coming up next week: Women’s Tennis

Stay tuned for more investigation into the state of non-revenue sports, mild soapbox editorializing, and, hopefully, some productive discourse to get us through the summer. As always, fell free to leave any questions, comments, and feedback below.