The Fifth Lap
Too often when we celebrate the accomplishments of Rice Women's Swimming, accomplishments like this year's team conference championship, their second in the last three, the focus is on what they don't have.
Namely, there's a certain emphasis placed on the fact that Rice doesn't have a diving unit, and therefore can only sit on the sidelines and watch as rivals like UH and SMU score points in the diving events. It's an emphasis used to highlight the magnitude of the accomplishment, to put into perspective the extra hurdles the team had to overcome in order to hoist the team trophy.
But in reality this championship isn't about what Rice Swimming doesn't have. It's about what they do.
What they do have is a team that swam its best when it mattered most.
On their way to victory two weeks ago, they eclipsed nine different school records. In all five relays and 44 times in individual finals and consolation finals Rice swimmers swam faster than their season's best entering the meet. They arrived at the meet featuring the highest seed in only one race, and yet came away having captured five individual titles and one relay title.
And if there was any added pressure from how close the team contest was expected to be, it didn't show. Rice entered on paper as a favorite by the narrowest of margins (24pts), but rose to the occasion securing the title before the final relay and winning by nearly 45 points. Moreover, they were the only team in the top half of the standings to score more points in the actual meet than they did based solely on seed times.
The accomplishments speak both to the performance under pressure of those in the caps and goggles, as well as to Coach Seth Huston. Having a team peak at the right time is one of the most difficult things to do as a coach, and Coach Huston had his swimmers peak perfectly.
What Rice Swimming does have is a program that has elevated itself to a new level.
This conference championship was not only their second in the last three years. It was also their second in the history of the program. When Rice won in 2011, it was seen as a Cinderella victory dethroning juggernaut SMU. This victory, however, stamps Rice not only as a consistent contender but also as the conference's most successful program over the last four years.
The strides the program has made are evident through other measures beyond simply conference placements too. For example, on the season Rice swimmers secured 10 individual NCAA 'B' standards, the provisional threshold to qualify for nationals. Last year, Rice had seven individual "B" standards. Five years ago, the tally was only two.
And what Rice Swimming does have is a squad primed to reach even greater heights.
This was a team whose success in some ways was powered by a group coming into its own. The sophomore and junior class together scored 543.5 of Rice's 739 points at the championships, nearly 75 percent. Moreover, 90 percent of the points Rice scored can be attributed to swimmers slated to return next season. With two standout recruits already signed and the added momentum that comes with two championships in three years, the program is poised to continue on its exciting trajectory.
This championship had little to do with a lack of springboards or platforms.
It was about every early morning practice. It was about all the uncountable lengths of the pool. It was about truncated winter breaks and outdoor swims on cold January days.
It was about injuries overcome, setbacks undone, previous limits far outdone.
It was about "Let's Go Blue", and senior personal bests, and watching individual accomplishments add together into a team title.
It was about earning the chance to watch the coaches take the fully-clothed celebratory plunge into the diving well, and getting to jump in to celebrate right after them.
The conference realignments set to go into place next year will dramatically change the competitive landscape for Rice Swimming. Of the six C-USA women's swimming teams who competed this year, everyone but Rice and Marshall have made arrangements to leave.
Next season will therefore feature new faces, a new conference venue, and new challenges. There will be new goals set, new records to break, new history to be made.
And Rice will take them all on, and continue to do so without a diving squad. Because that was never what it was really about anyway.
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