Swimming and diving is one of a handful of East Carolina sports that have split seasons. For the aquatic Pirate athletes the portion of the schedule before the new year is distinctly different from the stretch that kicks off with the new year.
The squad, led by coach Matt Jabs in his third season at the helm, is in the midst of five dual or quad meets, the last three at ECU’s home pool.
With the most intense part of the schedule — the buildup to the American Athletic Conference meet in February and the NCAA competition after — coming in 2020, the fall gives the swimmers and divers a chance to experiment in the water, teach the newcomers how to thrive at the Division I level and develop team camaraderie.
“I definitely feel comfortable at this time in the season, because it’s still very early on,” said sophomore Shannon Stott. “I think now it’s fun, just to see what you can do. Sometimes you can experiment with different ways of swimming, different underwater turns. I do a lot of stuff, and if I have a really good race, I’ll think back to what I did before and I want to do the same thing every time.”
Jabs expects that approach from his athletes, but he was surprised, at the season opener at Old Dominion, to see so many newcomers swimming unexpected times right off the blocks.
They might be ramping up, and the events might have a laidback feel, but none of these Pirates seem willing to sit back and wait to excel. That first victory on the road set the tone, Jabs said, for a group that seems determined to overachieve.
“It was an impressive showing across the board,” Jabs said. “There wasn’t a downside on any event we had. It was good to see a lot of our newcomers, our freshmen and our transfers, show up and see what they could do in a team environment. None of them looked intimidated; they just stepped up and did their thing and performed, which was awesome.”
After both the men and women soundly beat the Monarchs, they fell to North Carolina on the road and then opened their home stretch with a double drubbing of William & Mary. As of this week, the men’s team is ranked 16th in the nation and the women’s team is 33rd in the latest CollegeSwimming.com Division I Team Rankings.
It’s a relatively young squad. With 22 international swimmers from every region of the world, it would seem that the freshman from overseas would need to ramp up with care. The international athletes have language and cultural barriers to scale in addition to the acceleration of their competition in the pool.
Stott is from St. Albans, Great Britain and had never seen races marked in yards before she came to East Carolina last year.
“The first race, when I saw my time I didn’t even know if it was good or bad,” she said.
After a year or two, though, swimmers like Stott are acclimated and ready to serve as guides for their new teammates.
Sophomore Marek Osina, who won the 200-yard backstroke and the 200-yard individual medley and helped set a pool record as part of the at the ODU meet, said that he has taken that responsibility seriously because the close-knit team was intentional about smoothing the way for him last year.
“I was so lucky because all of my teammates supported me and the hard work incredibly easier with their positive energy, patience, motivation, kindness, and humanity since the day I got to the ECU,” said Osina, who came to ECU from the Czech Republic. “I am doing my best to do the same for the freshmen as a sophomore now. I know it is hard for international newcomers, especially to switch the language, meet entirely new people in a country they have never been to.”
Senior Catherine Johnson said that she knows an adjustment period is important, but since college swimming provides an opportunity to contribute immediately to the team’s success those freshmen are also coming in and proving why they were courted — both because they can score points right away and because their presence helps push even the most experienced Pirate swimmers to new lengths.
“There’s no buildup,” Johnson said. “Some people think that there is, but we have so many really talented swimmers from the get-go. They’ve been making me work really hard. It really does motivate you to go harder, and go faster.”
With one of the richest winning traditions in the Pirate Nation, the swimming and diving team has developed a culture that is sustained and augmented through years of success and unity in and out of the pool. It isn’t something the coaching staff needs to push, Jabs said, because the older swimmers know exactly how to transmit the key Pirate values to their younger teammates.
So far this season the athletes have made it a priority to keep their energy and their encouragement of each other at a high level, even if many of them practice at different times throughout the day and the divers compete in a different pool.
“At the meets, there’s a big team feeling,” said senior diver Gavrilo Blijden, who came to ECU last season from Curacao by way of Indian River State College in Florida. “Anytime we’re not diving we go over to the swimmers and cheer for them, and when they aren’t swimming they come over and cheer for us.”
Fans have two upcoming opportunities to see the Pirates compete at home — Saturday in a quad meet against Campbell (women only), Lenoir-Rhyne and Catawba, and a dual meet against visiting UNC-Wilmington on October 25.
They compete in a 51-year-old pool complex that doesn’t always accommodate the type of practice schedule Jabs would like to employ for his large and varied team, but there is no better place to be the home team when fans and family members fill the bleachers, he said.
“Dual meetwise,” Jabs said, “it is a great environment.”