CHICAGO – When the University of Chicago swimming and diving teams begin their competitive seasons each October, there is one month that they are striving towards. At the end of it all, March is when the Maroons want to be at peak performance.
The NCAA Division III Championships have served as the measuring stick that has demonstrated UChicago's continual growth and evolution in recent years. The Maroons have become one of the top programs in the country thanks to consistent showings on the biggest stage. For six-straight years, the men's and women's squads have finished in the top 15 in the team standings at the NCAAs.
The Maroons submitted their highest placements ever at last year's NCAA Championships as the women finished in sixth place and the men took eighth place. The group included a school-record 30 national qualifiers and 24 All-Americans. Head Coach Jason Weber envisions another similarly accomplished season in the works for 2019-20.
"Both teams have the potential to place as high or higher than we did last year," Weber said. "If we can continue to work hard and stay healthy, I know our returners will be able to be as good, if not better, this year. Our freshmen have been very impressive so far this season and will play a big role in our post-season success, especially on the men's side where we will be adding some very talented divers to the mix."
The men's team graduated seven members, including All-Americans Alexander Farrell and Lance Culjat. The women graduated four All-Americans in Hannah Eastman, Anna Girlich, Simone Stover and Daria Wick.
Weber embarks on his 14th season at the helm of the Maroons. In his tenure, Weber's swimmers and divers hold all 48 UChicago school records while submitting 293 All-American performances.
The Maroons return much of last year's talent to the pool this season. A total 16 All-American athletes (eight men, eight women) from 2018-19 will be looking compete on the national level for UChicago again this year. Senior men's swimmer Byrne Litschgi headlines the returning stars after winning the national title in the men's 200-yard backstroke. He was the third swimmer in UChicago history to earn an individual national title.
"Byrne an extremely gifted athlete and has a great feel for the water," said Weber. "He is also extremely confident in his abilities and knows that there aren't many other swimmers in Division III who can match his talent and confidence. So if he puts in the work and stays healthy, he's going to contend for multiple national titles."
The returning All-Americans from last year feature plenty of diversity in events, from the freestyle, backstroke, breaststroke, diving, freestyle relays and medley relays. The men's All-Americans include senior Taye Baldinazzo, sophomore Nick Ding, Litschgi, junior Jonathan Mendley, senior George Reuter, junior Keda Song, sophomore Julian Spencer and senior Reona Yamaguchi. The women's All-Americans feature junior Hadley Ackerman, sophomore Elizabeth Cron, junior Gillian Gagnard, senior Nicole Garcia, junior Nicole Lin, senior Agnes Lo, sophomore Tyler Mandrell and sophomore Alice Saparov.
The women's diving contingent made a name for themselves at nationals as Lo, Cron, Saparov and Girlich each reeled in All-American honors on the one-meter and three-meter boards. Lo capped her dominating season by finishing second in the three-meter and third in the one-meter. Head Diving Coach Becky Benson was subsequently selected as the Women's Division III Diving Coach of the Year by the College Swimming & Diving Coaches' Association (CSCAA).
With the addition of two first-year men's divers, Weber thinks the group will continue to build on their previous success.
"That group of women really pushed each other to new heights last season and the arrival of Logan Sherwin and Andrew Chen will only serve to increase that competition and team spirit," he said. "This group knows they have the potential to be the best diving team in Division III and do something special at NCAAs, which really motivates them to work hard and support and push each other."
UChicago will look to challenge perennial national champion Emory University once again in the University Athletic Association (UAA). Last year, the Maroon women finished second and the men placed third at the UAA Championship meet.
Weber believes the overall depth and talent level on both teams is probably the best they've had in his tenure as coach. He anticipates top event strength in diving, the 100 and 200 butterfly, the sprint and medley relays, and the men's 100 and 200 backstroke.
"Divers on both sides will provide a huge performance boost for the team," said Weber. "Byrne and the rest of our backstroke group on the men's side is very talented and deep and could dominate those events this year. Our two international first-year swimmers – Filippa Kolokotsa and Arthur Kiselnikov – will make huge impacts on our team and at UAAs and NCAAs. Our entire first-year classes on both sides are extremely talented as well, and with excellent leadership from our upperclassmen and captains, I think we can have another record-setting year."