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No secret ingredient to Lady Bulldogs' success

325 days ago
John Frierson | UGAAA staff writer
Photo: Georgia Athletics

What does it take to reach 100 straight home victories, as the top-ranked Georgia women's swimming and diving team did Saturday morning? It takes, for starters, having the skill and resolve to win the 99 that preceded it.

And what does it take to do that?

Here's one of the Lady Bulldogs' all-time greats, Stefanie Williams, now one of coach Jack Bauerle's assistants, to explain: "It ultimately boils down to hard work. I think talent speaks volumes, but you don't have that unless you work really, really hard on a daily basis."

Williams should know. In her career, from 1998-2002, Williams was a 28-time All-American (yes, 28), four-time national champion and she helped Georgia win three SEC and NCAA titles.

Saturday at Gabrielsen Natatorium was mostly like any other home meet for the Lady Bulldogs in the past 20 years. They beat No. 17 Wisconsin, 172-123, on Senior Day, wrapping up the program's 14th undefeated regular season. One difference was the make-up of the spirited crowd, which included many former Georgia swimmers, among them Kristy Kowal, Kara (Manglitz) Forbis and Shannon Vreeland.

As the meet rolled on and Georgia's point total got higher, eventually passing the point when the Badgers couldn't catch the Lady Dogs, there were no big celebrations on the deck. There were no overt reactions of any kind until the final score was announced, which elicited a lot of cheers and, in perhaps the highlight of the day, the appearance of Uga X.

Capturing the program's 100th straight home win is nice, incredibly nice, but by no means was a finish line crossed Saturday. There are the SEC and NCAA championships to come and for many there are the U.S. Olympic Trials and hopefully the Summer Games in Rio.

There's much more to come, yes, but don't think the swimmers didn't feel some pressure to reach No. 100 and keep the streak alive.

"When it was [in the 80s], a win was a win and it was exciting, but when we got kind of close to 100, it was like, OK, if we can hit this barrier that's huge," said senior Brittany MacLean, who won the 200 freestyle, 500 and 1,000, as well as the 400 freestyle relay Saturday.

Talking to current and former Georgia swimmers and the coaches in the past few days, I was looking for some kind of clue as to how this program has remained extraordinarily good for an extraordinarily long time. How do you go 100 straight home meets, a Division I record, without a slip-up? How do you finish just about every season among the top three or four programs in the country?

Three things kept coming up in responses: hard work, consistency and competitiveness. The Georgia program has all three in abundance.

Bauerle is clearly a tremendous coach, with an outstanding staff that has mostly been with him here for many, many years. And they're obviously great recruiters given the talent that has logged countless miles in the pool for Georgia en route to winning what seems like enough SEC and NCAA trophies and international medals to fill up the pool.

Is there a secret ingredient here that makes this possible? Is there, to borrow a word Alabama football coach Nick Saban often uses, a "process" that makes this happen?

"I never use that word," Bauerle said Wednesday afternoon as he watched his swimmers do lap after lap in practice. "Every year is so different. You sort of adjust to the kids that you have and you don't coach them the same sometimes.

"Sometimes you have to have some meetings, but I've also had some teams where I didn't have but two team meetings all year, and I just left it up to them to figure it out."

Bauerle has been the Georgia's women's coach for 37 seasons (and the men's coach for 33). Four members of his staff have been here long enough and are valuable enough to earn associate head coach titles, led by senior associate head coach Harvey Humphries and diving coach Dan Laak, who have been at Georgia for most of Bauerle's tenure.

Consistency in the coaching staff and consistency in the training have yielded six national championships and 11 SEC titles.

"We try to make sure whatever we work on, we do it consistently," Humphries said. "We try to be very consistent on what we expect out of the athletes, so they know what they're getting when they come in. I think in a staff like ours we've been real successful because I don't think people really worry about who gets the credit or any of that stuff.

"As they say, it's amazing what gets done when no one cares who gets the credit. And we take that right down to the kids. It's amazing what gets done if you're not worried about how much attention you're getting, but just what the final result is."

The men's and women's swimming and diving programs moved from the old and antiquated Stegeman Hall to the shiny and new Gabrielsen Natatorium in the Ramsey Center 20 years ago. Two decades on, the place still looks great and the program is ranked No. 1.

In their inaugural meet in the new pool, the Lady Bulldogs beat Clemson on Nov. 3, 1995. In meet No. 2, the following day, they lost a close meet to Florida. Since then, starting Nov. 8, 1995, it has been nothing but wins.

Forbis (then Manglitz) was a sophomore on the team when Georgia moved from Stegeman to its new home. The five-time All-American said the program has never looked back from that Florida loss.

"From that meet we took it as, we are just as good as them and we can have the confidence to swim with the best of them," she said. "We won our first SEC championship in '97 and just gained a lot of confidence from that loss in a lot of ways."

In swimming, like track and field, the numbers tell the story. When you're recruiting a swimmer, you want the fastest in the land. But there's more to recruiting than that, especially in a sport that starts most days with a 5:30 a.m. swim and then the swimmers are back in the pool in the afternoon.

There's probably no daily grind like an elite swimmer's daily grind, and not everyone, even the fastest junior swimmers, is cut out for that. Bauerle said a swimmer's competitive fire is his No. 1 intangible in recruiting.

"That's the big part of recruiting for me," he said. "You talk to their coaches and when you're in their homes you get a sense of how they feel about stuff, in how they speak and how they look at you.

"I've been in homes where I've changed scholarships for the better sitting there at that table, because I knew how competitive they were after I've met with them face to face."

Georgia capped its day in a fitting way, one that might say a lot about how it got to its lofty place in collegiate swimming. In the final event, the 400 freestyle relay, an event the Badgers are very competitive in, Wisconsin built a healthy lead heading into the final leg.

Senior Hali Flickinger anchored the race for Georgia and even though win No. 100 in a row and another undefeated regular season were locked up about 30 minutes earlier, she wasn't about to lose the final race of her final meet in her home pool. Of course she'd feel the same about any other race in any other pool in the world.

Flickinger, more than a second behind at the start of the final leg, chased down Wisconsin's Marissa Berg, just touching the wall ahead of her. Georgia's squad won with a time of 3:20.36, edging Wisconsin's 3:20.53.

"I wanted to do it for my team," said Flickinger, who also won the 200 backstroke and the 100 butterfly. "It was my last race in there. I wasn't really thinking about that, but everything I do is for my team at this point and it's special to do it, every time."

Kind of says it all, doesn't it?