Benefield: Flexibility helps SRJC swimmers qualify for state meet
Santa Rosa Junior College assistant swim coach Tyler Denize paced slowly back and forth while 13 athletes, eyes closed, laid supine around the pool deck.
He talked them through a 15-minute visualization exercise Monday — telling them to clench muscles, release them, focus on their breathing.
Then he asked them to picture the sights and sounds of their favorite places before he brought them to a bright light and a door.
The light is their energy, the door is what's next. He asked them to harness their energy, walk through the door and see the pool deck at the California Community College Swimming and Diving State Championships at De Anza College in Cupertino.
'The last thing that goes through your head is perfection. You are going to have the perfect race,' he said.
Then he brought them back to the pool deck. It was time to practice.
The visualization exercises that have been a part of the Bear Cubs' routine all season long were put to the test in a big way last weekend at the Big 8 Conference Championships because athletes were asked to have the perfect race not one, not two, not three but four, five and six times. It was that kind of weekend in that kind of conference championship meet.
'Big 8 is brutal,' head coach Jill McCormick said. 'It is definitely, by far, the fastest in the state.'
Athletes who made the state meet last year were suddenly looking at super times — faster than last year in fact — that were not guaranteeing that they were in the top 16 and would move on.
Case in point: Sophomore team captain Jack McCormick made the state meet last year in the 50-yard freestyle with 21.47 qualifying time. This year, there was no way that time would cut it — the times showing up from other conference championship meets across the state were looking just too quick.
But McCormick felt like he could compete at the state meet, he just had to get in. So he raced in the morning and touched the wall in 21.43. A lifetime best, but not good enough. In the finals that afternoon, he finished in 21.41 — again, a lifetime best that was not good enough. In the next shot at it, he raced the 50 in 21.39. Just short.
'That's three lifetime bests in a matter of five hours and it's not enough,' Jill McCormick, who is Jack's mom, said.
So the coaching staff got creative. Athletes have to make a state cut time once but that can, in some cases, allow them to race other events at the big meet. They just have to get in and sometimes that means picking a race that is outside of an athlete's wheelhouse.
'I have a brilliant coaching staff and we really just nerd out, 'What about this? What about this? Is this what I think is our best bet?'' Jill McCormick said.
'You are just trying to get these guys as many scoring opportunities as possible,' she said. 'You getting in is a scoring opportunity for your team and it's keeping somebody else out.'
So the team gambled in a couple of cases. Like putting Jack McCormick, a sprint specialist, in the water side-by-side in the 100-yard free with distance guy and Novato High grad, Julian Schiano DiCola. The goal? Get both guys into the 50-yard free by swimming a lightning fast first half of a 100-yard race.
They would try to make the cut time in the first two laps of the 100-yard freestyle race. Which takes some doing. You have to alert the officials who then alert the rest of the field that these two are essentially racing for half a race, swimming the rest.
Jack McCormick was in because his previous cascade of personal best times at the 50 free hadn't made it and he wanted another shot. Schiano DiCola was in because there was enough uncertainty about his 500-yard free and his 400-yard individual medley qualifying times that they tossed him in one more race to try to punch that ticket to state.
'California swimming is just crazy fast,' Jack McCormick, a Piner High grad, said. 'It's very tough and stressful to see I'm going my best times and it's not quite there.'
But the coaching staff asked him to try one more route – the time split in the first two laps of the 100-yard free.
'He was like, 'I can do this, I can go for the 50 one more time,'' Jill McCormick said.
And Schiano DiCola was in because, well, going hard for two laps isn't as heavy lifting mentally for a guy used to being in the pool for 20. And that part is key.
'At this point, it matters what they can wrap their heads around,' Jill McCormick said. 'It's part coaching, part witchcraft, part art. Everyone's body and mind reacts differently.'
All of the machinations and voodoo worked.
Jack McCormick touched the wall in that opening split in 21.07, yet another lifetime best, to secure his spot in the state meet. Easily.
'He got 21.07. He went from a 21.39 to that and moved from 22nd to ninth,' Jill McCormick said. 'It was crazy.'
Schiano DiCola missed the mark in that gamble, but no matter, those times he put up in the 500-yard free and 400-yard individual medley? They were both 15th best in the state. The top 16 times go. Ticket punched.
In all, 13 Bear Cubs qualified for the three-day meet starting Thursday at De Anza College.
Experience is king with the men's team, a squad that finished third in conference.
'I think a great goal for us is to try to get in the top five,' Jill McCormick said.
The women finished fifth in conference and will send five athletes to Cupertino.
'I think all of the Big 8 swimmers that advance to the state meet have the advantage of coming from intense competition,' Jill McCormick said.
For all of the Bear Cubs, the conference meet can be a bit of a meat grinder — especially when your coaches are working the puzzle pieces as frantically as do the staff at Santa Rosa. But Jill McCormick reminds her team early and often that every conference in the state is on the same schedule.
'I would say the emotional rigor of the meet, it's a lot to recover from, but I think it's more of a benefit than a disadvantage,' she said. 'It pulls the best out of your athlete. Everyone is tired, but everyone had their conference championship in the same format on the same weekend.'
And now that the puzzle pieces have stopped moving, there are no more questions.
The stress piece, the 'Who swims where?' debates are over. Everyone knows when they will line up and what they'll race. All that's left is the swimming piece. Now the coaching staff is simply asking them to stand in the light, walk through the door and race.
'You punched your ticket to the show,' Jill McCormick said. 'Now you just get to go out and race.'
You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or email@example.com, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield. Podcasting on iTunes and SoundCloud 'Overtime with Kerry Benefield.'