At 6 a.m., when most other students are still asleep, Miner swimmers are already in the pool. Their hard work in practice has paid off in a big way: Missouri S&T posted a national runner-up finish in March. Since 1997, the Miners have finished among the top 10 at the NCAA Division II Championships 11 times.
“Everyone on the team has a really good work ethic,” says sophomore David Sanchez-Turner, who earned seven All-America awards at this year’s national meet, either on an individual basis or as part of a relay team. “We’re always giving it all we have, not just in the meets but also in every practice.” “Coach (Doug) Grooms makes us work hard day in and day out,” adds sophomore Andrew Trowbridge. “It definitely pays off at the end of the season.”
The Missouri S&T swimming program has been around since 1932 and has a legacy of success. The Miners won two conference championships in the Missouri Intercollegiate Athletic Association in the late 1940s under coach Chet Bernard. Burr Van Nostrand maintained a solid program during his 18-year stint as coach in the 1950s and 1960s, and the Miners won six titles in a seven-year span under the direction of Bob Pease in the 1970s.
The MIAA dropped swimming as a championship sport shortly after the Miners’ last title in the 1980 conference, but the team’s success on the national level continued under Pease and Mark Mullin. Mullin led the team to its highest national finish prior to this season – a third-place finish in the 1998 NCAA Division II Championships.
“If you look at the leadership of the swimming team, it has been one of our most stable programs,” says Mullin, who now serves as athletics director at Missouri S&T. “Including coach Grooms, we have had a total of four coaches since 1952.
“I believe all of these coaches shared some things in common that have helped to get the swimming program where it is today,” adds Mullin. “Each one cared deeply about the program and the institution. They understood the strength and character of the university and how the swimming program was a tangible part of that and not a separate piece.”
When Mullin became full-time athletics director at the start of the 1997-98 season, Grooms took over the program. Since then he has driven the Miners to success both in the pool and in the classroom. Not only have the Miners performed well in competition – which includes three national championship relay teams – they have maintained their status as one of the top academic teams in Division II.
“I think the key to the team’s current success has been coach Grooms’ ability to recruit motivated individuals capable of balancing their academics and swimming with the rest of their life,” says senior Matt Hug, who earned a team-high seven All-America awards at the 2008 meet and a total of 18 in his four seasons as a Miner.
The Miners sent 13 swimmers to the national meet in March and each of them finished among the top eight in at least one event. The success was spread across the board, from a national runner-up performance by freshman Zlatan Hamzic in the 200-yard breaststroke to Hug’s numerous finishes among the top eight.
“Every success we enjoyed just built up more excitement,” Hug says. “Each outstanding swim would just set the bar higher – and stepping up on those blocks there was a feeling that you had to perform your absolute best so you didn’t let your teammates down.”
Grooms guided the team throughout the meet, reminding the swimmers their results would show over the course of the four days.
“We knew going in that our best days were going to be in the back half of the meet,” says Grooms. “We just had to stay patient. We were swimming extremely well and just had to stay with it.
“Our team went from sixth to fifth to fourth in the first three days and we knew our last day was our strongest,” he adds. “After we started out with two of the nine fastest swims in the 50-yard freestyle, the kids just fed off each other and followed suit.”
When Mullin presented the Miners with the national runner-up trophy on the night the swimmers wrapped up their second-place finish at the national meet, one could see that all the time they put into training – even in the early-morning hours – paid off.
“There are a lot of challenging practices every year that we must endure before we ever make it to nationals and those can be physically as well as mentally demanding,” Hug says. “It was a great feeling to have seen everyone strive so hard all year long and be rewarded for their efforts.”