Head coach Matt Barany paced beside the pool as his team practiced in the Robins Center Natatorium last week.
"They'll call me lazy if I sit down," Barany said.
He wasn't joking. The University of Richmond's women's swimming and diving team is warming up for the 2010 Atlantic 10 Championship in February, and Barany does not expect speed to be an issue.
"I think everybody's confidence has improved since the beginning of the year," he said. "That's a dangerous formula for swimming fast."
In a preseason poll, the league's head coaches had predicted Richmond would place second at the A-10 Championship behind Fordham University, which finished second last season when Richmond won its eighth-straight A-10 title.
Barany was not bothered by the prediction.
"We get to operate this year as the underdog," Barany said. "We will be an extremely difficult team to beat."
The team was already using the poll as fuel during the first practices of the season.
"I like the fact that people doubt us," Barany said. "I don't doubt us. I don't think we doubt us."
Sophomore Michelle Johnson said the A-10 Championships were unlike any other meet.
"You are representing Richmond at a Division I conference meet, which instills such a sense of pride for your school, your team and the hard work that you have put in to become a part of the Richmond swimming tradition," Johnson said.
Sophomore Mary Anne Lerro agreed.
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"The A-10 championship is hands-down the funnest and most intense meet," Lerro said. "Being able to see our team perform well - at our peak after six months of grueling training - is pretty awesome."
Lerro was not the only swimmer to mention the hours of training required.
"I think the fact that we practice nine times a week, live together, eat together and often have classes together sets us apart from other teams," senior captain Alex Helland said. "The nine practices a week are bonding experiences every day. Our roster is also smaller than most so I think the small team allows us to get closer to each other."
Several of the women expressed their commitment to the team and the sport.
"The team is made up of a group of 16 incredible women who come together in the pool in hopes of winning an A-10 Championship and having some fun while doing so," Johnson said. "We are the first team to practice in the morning and sometimes the last team to practice at night. The amount of dedication, passion and determination displayed by the women on the team is like nothing I have ever seen."
Although the women said balancing academics and athletics was challenging, they scored a team GPA of 3.22 during the 2009 spring semester, the highest on record for the sport.
"Our team is truly composed of student-athletes," Johnson said. "We have learned how to budget our time."
The sport requires tremendous dedication, freshman Mina Vucic said.
One of the reasons for the team's dedication and togetherness was its training trip in Florida, where the swimmers shared personal hopes and fears.
"When people peel back layers of themselves that teams don't usually talk about, it brings us together," Barany said. "We reveal to each other a little more of who we are, and I think it's created a stronger bond."
The team baked cookies and symbolically decorated them with their greatest fears. Then they ate them.
"They like baking cookies and I like eating them," Barany said while laughing.
He said the cookie-decorating exercise was meaningful and important to the team's morale.
"We have talked about personal and athletic fear," Barany said. "We have the opportunity to control some of the things that we are actually afraid of - things that make us nervous or anxious or afraid. It was pretty motivational and inspiring."
As the team's older swimmers graduate and younger talents emerge, Barany has seen leaders surface and bonds solidify.
As a senior and team captain, Helland expressed her appreciation for the team.
"I'm so proud of everyone and the dedication and work they put into this team," she said. "It's been amazing to see everyone grow over the years and it's so rewarding to watch the team evolve and mature throughout the season."
She said her last wish before she graduates was to see the team win its ninth conference championship in a row. Barany voiced the same sentiment. Nobody seemed to be concerned about the prediction that Richmond would place second at the championships behind Fordham.
"We take every team we face - whether in regular season meets or at a conference - with the same seriousness and intensity," Johnson said.
Contact staff writer Elizabeth Hardy at firstname.lastname@example.org
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