Courage and Focus
Pioneer Women's Swimming finds the depth to push against the pain, the distance and the clock
BY JEFF BLISSSwimming is a sport where competitors not only race against each other in a unique and foreign arena, but also against the most unforgiving of opponents — time. As a swimmer tries to beat her foe in the next lane, she must also chase the ticking numbers on a stopwatch.
Like any high-level activity, swimming exacts things like commitment, determination, courage and resilience. It is a jealous thing, swimming. It demands faithful attention to detail, passion and, above all, focus.
For members of Cal State East Bay’s women’s team, swimming — serious, competitive swimming — is always at the forefront of their lives. From their daily 5 a.m. wake-ups, until they go to bed at 10 or 11 p.m. (after a day filled with studies, swim practice, weightlifting/exercise/stretching, more swimming, and sometimes working at a job), it is all-consuming. It demands their focus.
“They eat, sleep and breathe it,” according to their coach, Ben Loorz. “Each one is as competitive as the next and they’re always looking to improve — as individuals and as a team — so they naturally approach it that way.”
This season, Loorz’s squad has benefited from that focus, as Pioneer swimmers chalked up wins and set records. At the 2014 NCAA Championships, the CSUEB swimmers notched an impressive finish out of more than other 40 teams competing (many of them larger). In addition, the CSUEB team boasted three All-America performances, and all six Pioneers who qualified for the final meet — All-America Honorable Mentions.
Senior Caitlin DeNise, junior Alyssa Tenney, junior Brittany Rojo and freshman Madison Hauanio earned All-America honors as they qualified for the championship finals. DeNise also became the first Pioneer since the early 1990s to earn individual All-American honors, and she recorded an automatic qualifying time with her lifetime best set at the Pacific Collegiate Swim Conference Championships. She was the first Pioneer to earn PCSC titles since CSUEB joined the conference in the early 1990s.
In addition, both medley relay teams earned All-America Honorable Mention status after qualifying for the consolation final of the NCAA Championships. Notably, Rojo, DeNise and Hauanio each earned individual All-American Honorable Mentions.
For Loorz, whose watchword is “expectations,” the Pioneers’ performance surpassed his preseason hopes.
“My vision for this program is three-part,” Loorz said. “First, the immediate priority is to grow our numbers – the size of the team. Second, we will continue to improve. I took this job with the belief we could be a Top 10 team. A new facility will move us toward that goal and additional support in the way of funding for scholarships will be necessary if we are going to contend. The third goal is to turn Cal State East Bay into an aquatics destination. We want to grow our reputation so that people are increasingly drawn here.”
“To be honest, I’m in my fourth season of coaching at East Bay and I’ve believed our program was situated to do great things,” he says. “But I have to admit that my preseason expectations were modest. We had a number of challenges we had to overcome, but the team really went beyond what I thought they were capable of.
“You only need to watch our team swim and work together to see the potential here,” Loorz added. “These are people who want to be here. None of them are being paid to swim at Cal State East Bay. Their impressive work ethic really is the heart and soul of our blue collar team. We have very little in the way of scholarships, so we have to share that money with every recipient on the team. We’re not like some of the neighboring swimming powerhouses [like Cal and Stanford] that are swimming in money — so to speak. There’s no paid-for room and board for any of them, and some of the women even have jobs outside of their swimming and classroom responsibilities.
“It’s pretty remarkable to see what Coach Loorz has been able to do with very limited resources,” says CSUEB Athletics Director Sara Judd. “Ben is extremely knowledgeable about his sport and he is a gifted teacher. He is genuine and sincere. His work ethic is unparalleled. He is a communicator and he is insightful.
“Given what Ben has accomplished with minimal athletic aid and a nonregulation-size pool, it is exciting to imagine what the Pioneers could do with a regulation pool and an athletic aid budget anywhere near the Division II limit,” Judd adds. “With similar resources to the regulars in the top 10, I have no doubt we could compete for an NCAA Division II National Championship in swimming. That says, Ben has truly maximized his scholarship dollars and his recruiting budget to find high-quality student-athletes who have then gone on to grow and improve under his tutelage.
“The bottom line: Our team’s success has been built on believing in a vision for where we could go — an expectation,” Loorz says. “We have been able to do that this season because they have been willing to sacrifice, continuously worked to improve, and they held each other accountable.”
According to Loorz, the CSUEB squad made significant advances as a team precisely because they bought into his philosophy that they would have to swim and stand shoulder to shoulder if they were going to excel.
“It’s really too bad the NCAA categorizes swimming as an individual rather than a team sport,” he says. “We’ve been improving and winning because we swim as a team, in practices and in meets. We have leaders in the pool, like Caitlin, who push through the pain and are transformed, often dropping significant time off personal bests. And we have leaders, like senior Rachel Knowles who, even though she didn’t swim at Nationals and saw each of her nine CSUEB records fall to teammates, played a crucial role in shaping the team’s attitude and culture. And that’s what made our season so successful.”
But just because the season ended on a high note, it does not mean the returning swimmers now get to ease up. The work continues.
“The life of a competitive swimmer is a never-ending quest for improvement,” Loorz says. “Our goal is to be great every day, and the only way to do that is to set high expectations for yourself and those around you. I ask my swimmers, ‘Do you have the depth to push against it — the pain, the distance, the clock? Do you have the courage?’ I can say I was fortunate enough to see our team pull together as one and do just that.
“And that makes me feel great, as a coach and as an educator,” he adds. “As a team, we all witness the payoff — the growth — that comes from their commitment and focus in the pool. But, more importantly, we see how that dedication and focus allow them to succeed out of the water, and how that will carry on with them after they leave Cal State East Bay.”