Before the final Sunday of the 2021 Atlantic 10 Conference Swim and Dive Championship last April, members of the University of Richmond women’s team gathered together in their hotel for an unknown meeting. After a tough season dealing with COVID-19 protocols, early morning practices and tireless hours in the pool, the swimmers found themselves on the verge of winning UR’s 16th title after a three-year drought.
“We were all sitting together, and no one really knew what was happening,” junior Claire O’Shaughnessy said. “Then came in our [head] coach, Matt [Barany], and our old assistant coach, Mitch [Alters], dressed in full Ted Lasso attire. Matt was Ted Lasso, with a fake mustache, while Mitch was ‘Coach Beard,’ beard and all. They had FC Richmond shirts on and everything. It was great.”
Later that day, the team clinched the conference title.
Over the previous eight weeks, the team had made it a tradition after every Saturday practice to take the time to watch the Emmy-winning series “Ted Lasso” as a team. “Ted Lasso” highlights the fictional English Richmond Football Club, with a head coach from Texas.
For UR’s head coach Matt Barany, using "Ted Lasso" for team bonding was just one of the many ways he tinkered with his championship team.
“I feel like we are re-establishing our personality,” Barany said. “They want to look forward. They don’t want to look back and say, ‘Oh wow, Richmond won a championship when I was born.’ They don’t connect with that. When you see all the years up there together, you see there are a lot of them, but these girls really only know the girls they’re in the water with.
“Sometimes when we would win those championships, winning the next one was such a burden,” Barany said as he looked at the wall marked with the years of UR’s 16 A-10 titles. “Losing three in a row kind of allowed us to hit refresh. Nobody on this roster was on a team that won a championship.”
For the swimmers, these sentiments are very clear to see.
“We are a lot happier,” senior Jenna Carastro said. “We have less pressure on us because we are back. We are showing the first-years and sophomores that we can win again and we are a fun team, even though COVID is still a thing. We are always positive and supportive, and if you put others ahead and have each other's backs, we will be great.”
Sophomore Katelyn Pennell came into UR amidst the thick of the pandemic. With this pretext, the team's social culture was a key to her entry into college life.
“We couldn’t hang out with people who were not athletes,” Pennel said. “I didn't have an orientation group or anything, but then we started practice, and I met the half of the team I trained with. Socially, that was a big thing to connect me with campus. It was vital, really.”
For Barany, the exploits and accountability of the team did not go unnoticed.
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“The women made extreme sacrifices, and we had no interruptions to our training,” Barany said. “Not only were we able to attend our championship, but out of all the teams who attended their conference championship, we had the second highest improvement rate of teams in the country behind Kentucky, who won the SEC.”
Pennell, like many swimmers on the team, was one of the women who contributed to that improvement. And it came with the coach asking her to make a big change at a critical time.
“A week before the A-10 championship, Matt pulled me aside to tell me he was going to put me in the 500 free,” Pennell said. “At first, I was like, ‘No, I can’t do that!’ But he built me up, saying, ‘You’ll do great,’ and, ‘I believe in you.’ I ended up dropping 20 seconds off my personal best, and I made the final. The fact that he saw that potential in me was so exciting.”
While Barany may be a motivator, over the course of his 17-year career at Richmond he has also been something of an innovator.
“When we first lost in 2018, it was a chance for me to blow the whole thing up,” Barany said. “We changed the way we trained, we changed the schedule, and all of those changes were data driven about sleep and other wearable technology.”
Barany was wearing one of those devices: The Whoop band. Whoop is a strap that is placed around the wrist and gives a detailed profile of the wearer's heart rate throughout the day and night. It is typically used to track recovery, daily cardiovascular strain and – most significantly for Barany – sleep length and quality.
“The changes we made three years ago have just really made the difference,” Barany said. “When we first put on the Whoop, the swimmers averaged six hours of sleep a night. Last fall, they averaged 7 hours and 25 minutes. Subsequently, in 2018 we had a team GPA of 3.0. Now, we have a team GPA of 3.66.”
While Barany’s emphasis on sleep may yield an eye roll or two from the swimmers, it has been a tool they all have seen the benefits from.
“When I first heard it, I was skeptical,” Carasato said. “But after talking to my teammates, I realized that if you could get on top of sleep, the rest of your life, not just swimming, is more put together. With our schedule, we are the most impacted team when it comes to sleep. So freshman year, I was like ‘I only get five hours of sleep a night and I am not ok.’”
For Richmond – like their fictitious twin Richmond AFC – the team accolades are celebrated, but the true goal lies elsewhere.
“This next year is really about improving our own process,” O’Shaughnessy said. “We know what we are capable of as a team, so that is not the goal. We know if everyone can improve their own process, we are going to be in a great spot. That process is the goal.”
The Richmond Swim and Dive team will have their first meets of the season on Oct. 22 and Oct. 23 in the Weinstein Center for Recreation and Wellness. The team’s 2021-2022 schedule can be found on UR’s website.
The A-10 championship, where the Spiders will seek to win a consecutive title, will be held in Geneva, Ohio, from Feb. 16 through Feb. 19.
Contact contributor Logan Jones-Wilkins at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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