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Women's Aquatics: Making Waves

By Wendy Soderburg '82

Published Jan 1, 2014 8:00 AM

Women’s Swimming and Diving may be one of UCLA's lesser-known sports, but it springs into the new season with plenty of promise.

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A view from the top: Freshman Annika Lenz prepares to dive off the platform.
Photo by David Black

Watching the 34 members of UCLA’s women’s swimming and diving team go through their afternoon practice at Spieker Aquatics Center is quite different from watching most other sports’ practices.

For one thing, there are no whistles, grunts or shoes squeaking — just the sound of soft splashing as the swimmers slice effortlessly through the water, completing lap after lap. Or the reverberation of the springboards as the divers execute graceful somersaults, pikes and tucks. The only sounds interrupting this peaceful scene are occasional shouts of encouragement or instruction from Head Swimming Coach Cyndi Gallagher ’83 and Head Diving Coach Tom Stebbins.

Don’t let the tranquility fool you, though. On this gorgeous October afternoon at Dirks Pool, there’s a feeling of anticipation in the air, heightened by the news that UCLA’s 2013 recruiting class was ranked among the top 12 classes in the country by SwimSwam.com, a popular swimming website.

Late last summer, SwimSwam.com reported that UCLA had earned the No. 9 ranking for its recruiting class by fighting off perennial California powerhouses Stanford, UC Berkeley and USC and grabbing not just one, but two, of the top five recruits in the state. One is Linnea Mack, an elite-level sprinter in freestyle, backstroke and butterfly; the other, Madison White, will most likely take over as UCLA’s No. 1 backstroker. The two young women are part of a large and talented freshman class.

The two diving signees, Danni Repper and Annika Lenz, also will add quality to the group, SwimSwam.com added. Stebbins has called Lenz “probably the most accomplished diving athlete we’ve ever brought into the program.”

Getting Better All the Time

Bruin Swimmers and Divers in Motion



Watch these talented athletes perform.

Video by Aaron Proctor '05

UCLA last won the Pac-12 Conference Championship in 2002-2003 and has since then remained mostly in the middle of the pack. The new recruits should help UCLA improve on its 17th-place finish at last season’s NCAA Championship (which already was a vast improvement over the season before, in which the Bruins tied for 37th place).

“It’s very easy to recruit to UCLA because of the academics, because it’s L.A., and because of the traditions and the support that I have from the Athletic Department,” says Gallagher, who is starting her 26th year as UCLA’s head swimming coach. “I honestly believe that this is the best place to go to school if you’re a student-athlete.”

Beating Stanford, Cal and USC for the top California recruits was wonderful, she says, even though Cal managed to sign swimming phenom Missy Franklin, one of the breakout stars of the 2012 London Olympic Games. (Cal’s head coach, Teri McKeever, had coached Franklin as head of the women’s 2012 Olympic team.) The Bruins, however, have their own ways of attracting the top swimmers and divers to UCLA.

“This is L.A., so we have a lot of Californians who are very welcoming. We have this family culture,” says Gallagher. “It’s a close bond, and we work hard at it. The swimmers and divers are one team, which is good for the swimmers and good for the divers. And Tom and I have worked together for 15 years.”

You’ve Got to Like Water

UCLA’s swimmers seem to spend half their waking hours in the pool. The young women rise at the crack of dawn for their 6–8 a.m. practice four days a week, then swim from 2–4 p.m. Mondays through Fridays. On Saturdays, they practice from 7:30–10 a.m. If NCAA rules didn’t limit them to 20 hours per week, they’d probably spend even more time in the water.

Gallagher isn’t crazy about morning practices, but she says it’s all part of the sport. She herself had an illustrious swimming career as a former UCLA All-American, school record-holder and U.S. National Team member. As a coach, she has led the Bruins to two Pac-12 team titles (2001 and 2003) and nine top-10 NCAA finishes.

Known for her strong work ethic, positive attitude and inspirational ways, Gallagher has produced several Olympians through the years, including Annette Salmeen ’97 (United States, 1996); Marilyn Chua (Malaysia, 2000); Malin Svahnstrom ’06 (Sweden, 2000 and 2004); Kim Vandenberg ’08 (United States, 2008); and Nicolette Teo ’09 (Singapore, 2008). Gallagher also trained Amanda Beard for her fourth and final Olympics in Beijing (United States, 2008).

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Senior team captain Ting Quah reflects for a moment before entering the pool.
Photo by David Black

“Cyndi is the first woman coach I’ve trained under,” says Ting Quah, a senior captain of the swimming team who represented her home country, Singapore, at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. “What I really like is that she tries to develop us, and not just as swimmers. Your future after swimming is really important, and she teaches us how to be good people through integrity, honesty and hard work. It’s very interesting, because I’ve been with different coaches and they were all guys — their whole emphasis was on how to be faster in the water.”

A freestyle specialist, Quah remembers her first experience with the UCLA coach. “I was like, ‘Wow, this lady talks a lot about school and being good people, and telling us stories.’ But I’ve gotten used to it and I’m really enjoying it right now. When I go home [to Singapore] during the summer, my coach says, ‘All right, get into the water, warm up.’ And I think, ‘Oh, OK. No stories?’ ”

Katie Kinnear, a sophomore swimmer whose events are the 100-meter and 200-meter butterfly and backstroke, was recruited by Gallagher out of Skyline High School in Issaquah, Wash. Kinnear had considered Duke, Tennessee, Indiana and Virginia before choosing UCLA for its balance of academics and athletics.

“I really like the coaches. Cyndi and [Assistant Coach] Naya [Higashijima] are very different, so they balance each other out,” Kinnear says. “They both have a lot of good experiences and explain things in different ways. And even though she’s been here so long, Cyndi’s always trying to find new ways to keep things fun and new. We tried swimming with shoes the other day.”

Gallagher admits that not having a men’s team makes recruiting a little tricky, because female swimmers are used to training, traveling and competing on national teams with their male counterparts. Male swimmers will use social media to try and convince female recruits to come to their school, the UCLA coach says.

“I think we get the best of the best, because they’re not influenced by a men’s team Facebooking them,” Gallagher says. “Seventeen-year-old boys are not making decisions about where to go to school based on the girls’ team. That’s the difference between men and women. ... I still think it’s special to have a separate women’s team and a separate men’s team, because Pac-12s are separate and NCAA championships are separate. And that’s really the only time in your life you can have just women, you know?”

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Quah shows excellent form in the water.
Photo by David Black

Somersaulting Into Success

The diving team is much smaller than the swimming team, but Stebbins prefers it that way. “Once we get a little bit bigger than eight, that’s when I feel like I start to lose some ability to anticipate what their next need might be,” he says. “So six is a really good number.”

The team’s two seniors — Haley McNamara and Paulina Guzman — are both coming off severe injuries that occurred during freak accidents in practice. McNamara, the diving team’s captain, broke a bone and shredded three ligaments in her knee in May 2012 while attempting a normal approach, or “hurdle.” Eighteen months, three surgeries and a lot of rehab later, she has returned to the team and is working hard to regain her form.

“She has done nothing short of an amazing job of giving herself an opportunity to get back into the pool and to compete in her senior year,” Stebbins says.

Unbeknownst to her coach, however, McNamara had decided after the accident never to dive again. “Mentally, I was a mess,” she says. “I didn't let anyone know that, because I didn't want to let my team down.”

Just nine months after the injury, though, McNamara decided that she was ready to compete again. “I texted my best friend on the team, Paulina, and said, ‘You know, I really miss diving today. I feel like I could get back on the boards and do it,’ ” she says. “Tom always believed in me, but he just wanted to hear me admit that I was ready to come back.”

Stebbins — a graduate of Yale University (1996) and a former member of the Bulldog diving team — is in his 16th year as UCLA's head coach. Along with McNamara and Guzman, his team includes sophomores Montana Monahan and Maggie Denison (whose status at publication time was uncertain), and the two promising freshmen, Danni Repper and Annika Lenz.

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Diver Montana Monahan looks like she’s flying.
Photo by David Black

He describes Lenz, a former gymnast whose three sisters also dive, as “a gametime kid.”

The versatile diver is equally comfortable on springboard or platform. “It’s pretty scary when you get up [on the 10-meter platform], but it’s a mentally challenging sport,” Lenz says. “It’s cool because not very many people do it. It’s really exciting when you get the dive off and you get it right.”

With McNamara and Guzman still recovering from their injuries, Stebbins downplays the importance of UCLA's No. 9 ranking in recruiting.

“All of that stuff is just potential, and potential is great, but it means absolutely nothing on Saturday. When the lights come on and you have to race or dive against the kid next to you, that’s your reality,” he says. “Even at No. 9 — I don’t think our goal is to be ninth in the country. That would be a nice step up from where we've been, but I think we have aspirations to do things at a higher level.”

Rising to the Top

The women of UCLA's swimming and diving team are extremely close-knit, which should benefit them when they travel to the NC AA Championship at the University of Minnesota in March. But no matter how they finish, it’s clear that they believe they are part of something very special.

“I love being around people who have such a passion for what they do and are committed to each other, to themselves and to their own improvement,” says senior captain Anna Senko, a mid-distance swimmer. “It’s a great environment that I feel so privileged to be a part of every day. We’re all very similar, but we’re also very different, and I’ve learned so much from everyone else on the team. Everyone brings something different, and how it all comes together is just really cool to see.”