On Sports: Johnson Leads Team To NCAAs Leslie Rice ----------------------------------- Homewood News and Information There isn't much glory in college swimming. At major competitions, often the only fans in the stands are the athletes' parents and a handful of close friends. It's a team sport, but in the end it is a race between each swimmer and the clock. And yet, on dark winter mornings some 49 swimmers on the Hopkins men's and women's swim teams trudge to the Athletic Center for an hour's worth of practice before classes, only to return there that evening after classes to swim for two more hours. They give up their January vacations and their spring breaks for a sport that has little of the glamour of, say, Hopkins lacrosse. "These are not students motivated by the roar of the crowd," said Blue Jays swim coach George Kennedy. "They are motivated internally. They are people who thrive on doing something well and push themselves to reach their peak." Last month, the Blue Jays gave their University Athletic Association conference rivals a sampling of that intense motivation. The men's team dominated the 1996 UAA championships, held at Washington University in St. Louis. They captured their 10th consecutive UAA title, winning 10 of 20 events. Hopkins women also made a strong showing there, placing second behind Emory University. The performances of both teams earned Coach Kennedy, assistant coaches Ellen Hays and Pat Underwood, and diving coach Vince Wroblewski honors as UAA Coaching Staff of the Year. Beginning next week, the four men and eight women who qualified will compete in the NCAA Division III Championships in Atlanta. The women's team competes from March 14 through March 16, and the men swim the following weekend, March 21 through March 23. Last year, the unarguable star of the Hopkins team was Matt Johnson who, as a freshman, won the 100-yard butterfly at the NCAAs. This year, he's aiming for the 200-yard butterfly championship as well. Unruffled by the pressure to swim even better than he did last year, the 20-year-old former Illinois high school state champ says he's learned that the key to avoiding pre-meet jitters is simply to train hard. "My dad was an athlete, and he taught me about having confidence through practice," said Johnson, now a sophomore. "You practice well and try your hardest. Then no matter what happens, you'll walk away with a feeling of satisfaction." That isn't to imply, however, that Johnson takes a laid-back approach to winning. "I'd like to say that I try to find ways to keep Matt motivated but he'd probably be angry at me for saying that," Kennedy said. "Matt is naturally very intensely motivated. You can't teach someone the kind of competitive desire he has." While Johnson was far and away the star of the Blue Jays team last season, this year several other swimmers also had standout seasons and will join him at the NCAAs. Senior Ann Girvin leads the women's team, qualifying in seven events. She will be joined in Atlanta by junior teammates Shayn Pierce and Lori Starowitz, and sophomores Rocio Lopez and Kelly Vikstrom. On the men's team, junior Peter Schauer and sophomore Devin Balkcom were both named UAA co-swimmers of the year and are heading to Atlanta, as will Matt Johnson's roommate, Brian Murphy. Watching Murphy break the conference 200-yard breaststroke record by 3 1/2 seconds in February reminded Kennedy why he loves to coach. Last year, Murphy had a disappointing season. This year, everything fell into place, and his talent has begun to shine. "Brian has worked really hard this year," Kennedy said. "He's become stronger, bigger, and this year things came together for him. He is a truly great swimmer with a beautiful breaststroke." Earning that distinction does not come easily. Typically, Kennedy will spend two to three hours designing a day's training regimen for each individual swimmer. During the first half of training season, he and his staff design practices that build endurance. Each athlete will swim daily 12,000 yards (nearly 7 miles, or 480 lengths of the Athletic Center's 25-yard pool). Then he tapers off the yardage--a lot for the sprinters, less so for long-distance swimmers--and focuses their efforts more on technique and speed. The coaching staff has to make sure each swimmer gets precisely the right balance of rest and aerobic workout because one bad day can really cost a swimmer. "There's no free lunch in college swimming; it's a very objective sport," Kennedy said. "It's not the kind of sport where if you're having trouble, you can let the rest of the team support you during a game. It's a sport where if you're off 1/100th of a second during a meet, it can mean the difference between finishing first and finishing sixth." In his 11 years of coaching at Hopkins, Kennedy said he has also learned that the quality of his swimmers' lives has an enormous impact on how well they do in the pool. "I've found that if first the students get their educational life in order, then their social lives, then their swimming will fall into place. Because if those things are not OK with them, it will carry into their swimming almost every time." As a result, the coaching staff realizes that sometimes they have to fit the practices around the students' timetables rather than the other way around. "There is no future in swimming for me after college," explained Matt Johnson. "The only thing out there after this is the Olympics, but I'm not in that level. So I--probably all of us on the team--chose Hopkins for its academics. We put our academics first, and the coaches respect that. They're very flexible when it comes to exams and tests and things, and they let us make up practices when we can." While at many universities the men's and women's teams don't practice together, Kennedy has found that it can improve both teams' overall performances. "Men and women practicing together makes them better athletes," Kennedy said. "For example, Ann Girvin is one of our top swimmers and is only eight seconds slower than Matt in butterfly. He does not like to lose to her in practice, and so he never lets up during practice. And she swims faster when she's pacing herself against him. Also, having the two sexes practice together gives them that additional interaction that I think adds something to their lives." The result is a healthy, competitive bond between the teams, Johnson said. "It's refreshing not to be totally immersed in a male-oriented attitude," Johnson said. "The guys see how hard the women work, and we have a lot of respect for them. We're really excited for them when they do well. And it's nice to be able to have women friends to talk to about whatever." But there are sacrifices too. Johnson knew that to compete at a college level and do well in school, he would have to give up some of the activities he enjoyed in high school, like the choir and theater. "There's a vacancy there, but it hasn't brought me down," he said. "I need to be swimming competitively for my mental health. It's a great balance against the rigors of the academics. And it's fun. The team is like a gigantic extended family for me."
Go to Gazette Homepage