Strong senior leadership and mental toughness contributes to winning record and state qualifications

Photo by: Nicole Bastian

Junior Jake Sazgari seizes a final gasp of air as he finishes his one hundred yard freestyle race during the Groves v. Oxford duel meet on January 23. “My lungs were on fire towards the end of the race,” Sazgari said. “I barely choked down any air during that breath”.

Scorching pain infiltrated senior swimmer Brody Hiipakka’s fractured ankle in early December as he pumped his legs underwater, struggling to finish a two-hour swim after an hour weight room session.

He wasn’t even supposed to be there.

After rupturing his ligament in July while playing basketball, Hiipakka had to cope with physical therapy while balancing twice a day practices. His sports therapist had many objections, saying that the swim season may be too intense for his ankle to tolerate.

“My legs were already exhausted from the set we did, and I tried a backstroke start at the very end of practice,” Hiipakka said, “I did one strong kick underwater and there was a shot of excruciating pain in my ankle. I continued to swim to the other end, and by the time I reached it my ankle felt shredded.”

Even with healthy ligaments, the Groves men’s swim team members are accustomed to intense pain at the end of practice sessions. The Emerald Tide swimmers endure 5:50 am weight room sessions followed by a full day of school, topped off with a two and a half hour practice three times a week. This leaves them riddled with sore muscles, cramped calves, and intense fatigue.

With the ultimate goal of claiming the Division II State Championship title this season, the swim team has developed new leadership, practices, and motivation to secure a win. Both the coaches and the captains worked to tweak flaws from previous seasons and formulate new workouts to foster mental and physical toughness in the swimmers.

Senior captain Jackson Gugni experienced one of these sets firsthand. Even with his experience in year-round swimming, Gugni felt the heat at practice.

“We did an intense aerobic set where you start doing 100s freestyle on a certain interval. The challenge is that it keeps getting faster and faster, so you essentially end up getting knocked out when the interval gets too fast and you can’t make it. It’s like a competition set,” Gugni said. “At the end, you’re really out of breath and wheezing, and ultimately it’s up to you to choose when to get out of the pool by missing the interval. You really see who's tough.”

Toughness has been the key element of the men’s swim and dive season. Head swim coach Ricky Forrest knows that the path to a State Championship victory is forged through excruciating sets.

“Our primary focus has always been our championship meets, like league meet and states. We have swimmers that are killing themselves every day in practice in preparation for that moment.”

Photo by: Nikki Barnas

Senior David Littlefield plunders down the pool in the 500 freestyle on January 23 during the Groves v. Oxford duel meet, despite not being a traditional distance swimmer. “If I went to CVS, found the closest cyanide pill, and swallowed it, that would’ve felt better than swimming that race,” Littlefield said. “It was like I had the Coronavirus mixed with two doses of Ebola”.

Forrest, who has been coaching the men’s swim team for over six years, has seen a plethora of talented swimmers throughout his time with The Emerald Tide. He is grateful for the returning classes and anticipates new leaders to emerge.

“Last year we graduated a lot of really good swimmers, but luckily we returned the juniors who are now our senior class. They were great leaders at the time last year, and as upperclassmen, they have really stepped into that role,” Forrest said.

Senior captains AJ Zako, Nick Johns, Nolan Kamoo, and Gugni are a major component of that senior leadership.

All four seniors have been members of The Emerald Tide for four years. Throughout their time on the team, each has grown as swimmers and matured as individuals. Sophomore Ben Rosenthal has witnessed this growth in senior captain Kamoo.

“Nolan really stepped up this year. I think that being a captain changed his mentality and overall attitude on the pool deck. Last year, he was still maturing and growing, but now he always makes sure everyone is on point and doing their stretches,” Rosenthal said. “He will make sure you are doing all the little things correctly, like getting your time at the wall. Nolan helps keep everyone on track. He wasn’t like that last year.”

Like Kamoo, the captains are adamant that everybody is maximizing every minute spent on the pool deck and working to their fullest potential. To minimize the frequent tardiness that occurred on the team last year, they created a late board.

Despite what the name may imply, being late doesn’t mean showing up after the start time; anyone who is not at practice fifteen minutes early and stretching with the team is deemed late.

Senior captain Jackson Gugni knows these strict measures are necessary to capture the DII State Championship title.

“I think there should be a punishment for being late. The captains feel we need to go above and beyond, especially compared to the years past. It’s just another little thing necessary to achieve the goals we strive to accomplish.” Gugni said. “Stretching is essential before practice, and the reason we start early is that our sets usually push us past our time limit, so we want to make sure we are in the water exactly when we need to be. If you’re late, you miss out on stretching and it’s not fair to the rest of the team.”

Despite the intentions of the late board, it has sparked controversy on the team, according to Hiipakka.

“If you're not doing the stretches before the practice, that is your own fault. You should be accountable for your own goals. I don't think you should be punished.” Hiipakka said.

Despite some backlash, the stricter measures have statistically been effective. Heading into their championship meets, the Emerald Tide lost one meet, ending their dual meet season 9-1. While this stays consistent to last year, their approach to these meets was much more effective, swimming smart, not just hard.

Photo by: Nicole Bastian

Senior Charlie Seidel gasped for air for the milliseconds that his head was above water during his turn in the 100-yard breaststroke on January 23 during the Groves v. Oxford duel meet. “As my head came above the water while I was turning into the last lap of the race, I could hear my teammates screaming for me to catch the guy to my left,” Seidel said.

New and innovative practice sets have also contributed to the team’s swimming success.

Johns, traditionally a distance swimmer and a state qualifier his junior year in the 500 freestyle, frequently experienced grueling practices to build endurance for distance events. Forrest notices Johns’ commitment to the sport.

“Our assistant coach Jacob created a new set for swimmers like Nick. Nick had to do some 150s at 500 pace, and then he finished with a 500 all out for time. He went through the entire thing three times, and although he was exhausted it was impressive to watch,” Forrest said. “He was out of breath when he stepped up to the blocks to swim his last 500 all out, but he attacked it, and I know that afterward, he took a huge ice bath. Nick was someone that I’m expecting fast times out of at states.”

Gugni also noticed Johns’ improvement and dedication to the team at the Groves Quad meet on January 11.

“Nick really stepped up. We were missing a sprinter for our 200 freestyle relay, and we desperately needed a solid leg to win the meet,” Gugni said. “Nick, who is not typically a 50 freestyle sprinter, really helped us out by having an amazing relay split.”

The Emerald Tide ended the Quad meet with a victory on January 11 against Brother Rice, Dexter, and U of D.

Rosenthal believes this victory is a result of the maturity boon that the new captains brought to the team

“I think the team, in general, has gotten a lot more serious, and we owe a lot of our meet victories to their attitudes towards hard work” Rosenthal said. “The captains have really stepped it up this year and made it a serious environment so that we can accomplish our goals.”

Gugni shares the same sentiments as Rosenthal, emphasizing the importance of good role models and the chain effect they have throughout the classes. Gugni and the other captains have made a conscientious effort to be those role models for the rest of the team.

“The maturity level on the team has definitely grown, and I firmly believe it starts from the top down,” Gugni said.

While juggling the task of co-leading the team, Gugni has shown success in the pool, shattering the pool record in the 50-yard freestyle, going a 20.53 at the OAA Red League Meet on February 26. This was one of the rare, ‘Goldilocks’ moments Gugni where every aspect of his swim felt ‘just right’.

“I was pretty hyped up for this race, especially after the medley relay before it, and a 50 free is one of those races when it is rare that everything goes right, so that was a pretty lucky race. Even our assistant coach Bill said so because everything went right,” Gugni said. “I didn’t even look at the clock at first because, for some reason, I just thought I had it. I heard people screaming, then I got excited. Overcome with joy, I could only imagine how exciting states are going to be.”

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