CHICAGO – A cursory look at the 2018-19 competition schedule shows the high-quality opposition that the University of Chicago swimming & diving teams are testing themselves against. There are Division I squads like Northwestern University, University of Illinois and University of Illinois – Chicago; regular Division III postseason participants like Washington University – St. Louis and Claremont-Mudd-Scripps; and perennial national champions Emory University. Last season, the Maroon men clinched their first-ever dual win against an NCAA Division I institution, defeating University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee 152-134.
The stacked schedule is all part of the preparation to excel when the stakes are highest – at the 2019 NCAA Championships in March.
"We've had the talent to compete with the top teams in Division III over the last few years and now it's about making sure we're doing everything we can during the season to put ourselves in the best position possible to perform at NCAAs," said Head Coach Jason Weber. "Both teams can break into the top eight this year if we can remain focused, work hard and stay healthy.
"I also believe that competing again Division I teams and being part of the University Athletic Association helps when it comes to competing at NCAAs," he added. "I don't think anyone is scared or nervous to face the best at nationals when they've done it all year long and know that they are one of the top teams and belong there as well."
Weber embarks on his 13th year at the helm of UChicago swimming & diving, with both squads experiencing the most success in program history in recent seasons. The 2018 Maroons totaled 14 All-Americans who earned 31 All-American honors. The men's (12th) and women's (14th) squads finished in the top 15 at the NCAA Championships for the fifth-straight year.
UChicago graduated five men and five women, including former school record holder Alex Lin (200-yard backstroke and 100-yard IM), 100-yard backstroke record-holder Melissa Bischoff and NCAA regional diver Natalie DeMuro.
Once again, the Maroons bring back plenty of firepower. The Maroon men have five returning All-Americans from last year, including First Team juniors Taye Baldinazzo and Lance Culjat. Junior Reona Yamaguchi, senior Keenan Novis and sophomore Keda Song all received Honorable Mention All-America status. On the women's team, nine swimmers – seniors Hannah Eastman, Simone Stover and Daria Wick; junior Nicole Garcia; and sophomores Hadley Ackerman, Gillian Gagnard, Nicole Lin, Nadia Redza, and Margaret Wolfson – garnered Honorable Mention All-American status.
"As usual, we'll be relying on our captains, seniors, and upper-class swimmers and divers to lead this team and show our newcomers how we operate and the expectations we have for them," Weber said. "We have a fairly versatile and deep roster, so we'll be relying on a number of swimmers and divers from all classes to contribute and compete for event wins in dual meets and at UAAs."
One particular area of strength is the group of women's divers, led by junior Agnes Lo and senior Anna Girlich. Maroons divers have qualified seven times for NCAA Regional zones over the past three years. Lo owns all four school records between the one-meter and three-meter boards. They add two newcomers this season to fill out the group of four.
"We have extremely high expectations for our female divers and are just as excited," Weber said. "I don't think there's another Division III school that has a group of more talented and hard-working divers than we do. Don't be surprised if we have all four female divers qualify and score at NCAAs. It's not going to be easy, especially since we have a very competitive diving region."
Baldinazzo and Culjat put together the best performances on the team at NCAAs last season. Baldinazzo set a new school record in the 500-yard freestyle (4:25.76) and finished in third place overall. Culjat was similarly successful with a fourth-place showing in the 200-yard breaststroke. Song produced a breakout rookie campaign and was named UAA Men's Rookie of the Year. Yamaguchi added a third school record to his resume in the 100-yard IM to go with his past marks in the 100-yard and 200-yard breaststrokes. Junior Byrne Litschgi also set new school records in the 100-yard and 200-yard backstrokes during the season.
For the women, Redza's debut campaign saw her break the school records in the 100-yard and 400-yard IM. Wolfson set new marks in the 100-yard and 200-yard breaststrokes on consecutive days last November. Gagnard was a four-time All-American last March while Eastman and Wolfson garnered three All-American honors each.
"Women's diving will be a strength as will any stroke events for both the men and the women," said Weber. "We've got a lot of talent and depth in all the stroke events (Fly, Back, Breast, IM) and some new additions in the freestyle events – we're looking to see who could provide some boosts in those events and relays."
The UAA will once again be stacked with some of the top talent in the nation, headlined by Emory. Weber is confident in his teams' abilities to push the defending champions in the four-day conference meet scheduled for February 13-16 at UChicago's Myers-McLoraine Pool.
"We have the talent and depth to compete for the top spot on the men's side and get back to top two on the women's side," he said. "There will be three to four other teams on both sides that will also challenge for those spots, so it's looking like it's going to be another close conference championships."