Swimming’s new frontier
Alaska-Fairbanks coach slowly building surprising winner
MANSFIELD, Texas -- When the 2011-12 swimming season wraps up, Scott Lemley and his Alaska-Fairbanks Nanooks will have racked up nearly 20,000 miles in air travel. That’s just one of the challenges the head coach of Alaska’s premier swimming team faces on a seasonal basis.
There is also the challenge of the elements.
The pool and the natatorium are heated – a NCAA-sanctioned pool must be heated between 79 degrees and 81 degrees for competition – it’s when you get out of the pool that can be a tad problematic to a person who spends most of their day in the water.
Temperatures in Fairbanks average a crisp 16 degrees when the swimming season starts and the mercury will dip down to an average of -11 degrees once competition is in full swing. The coldest temperature this swim season was -50 one January morning.
Lemley rarely visits ‘the lower 48,’ on recruiting trips, instead preferring to give recruits a first-hand look at America’s last frontier.
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“I usually bring them up because that first exposure is rather critical for them to come to Alaska. We try to bring them up in October, when it is not too cold, but they can see there is snow on the ground and a chill in the air. Then we tell them the rest of the story – it gets a lot colder and darker than this,” he said with a smile.
Alaska’s team is one of the youngest at the tournament. While other schools like Drury brought a field-high 15 swimmers and top-ranked UC San Diego has 14 swimmers competing, the Nanooks brought only five swimmers to the Division II Swimming and Diving Championships. Sophomore Bente Heller along with freshmen Margot Adams, Genevieve Johnson, Danielle Lyons and Gabi Summers have all qualified for the first time.
Lemley says he won’t let the pressures of championship competition have a negative impact on his team.
“I told them this year is a scouting mission. That we were going to come and learn, he said. “There were very few expectations about performance. They needed to enjoy getting to the big dance and we were just going to learn as many lessons as possible. We are going to be back year after year.”
Lemley has been leading his alma mater for six seasons and each year the team has shown steady improvement. He believes a top-10 finish will do wonders for his team’s confidence, even if he has stressed this year’s this tournament is a learning experience.
“[These girls] will all be back for the next couple of years. We are already making inroads into those elite eight positions,” he said.
Any swimmer who finishes in the top eight of an event earns All-American status.
Sophomore Bente Heller became the fourth swimmer in Alaska history to become an All-American. She broke her own varsity record in the 50-meter freestyle on Wednesday night after she won the consolation final heat in 23.39 seconds, to finish ninth. That mark, which earned her Honorable Mention All-America status, was .07 better than her preliminary time of 23.46 that placed her 10th. It also bested three individuals in the championship heat, making her time the sixth-fastest in the nation.
“It's rare to be able to go lifetime best in prelims and lifetime best in finals and it shows that she knows how to adjust and get better every time she swims,” Lemley said after Wednesday’s finals. “We'll look forward to even more swims from her where she learns from what she does in prelims and applies it in finals.”
Heller, who grew up in Germany, is expected to become one of Alaska’s marquee swimmers at future championships, and she has met the difficulties of learning a new system and being half a globe away from friends and family.
“It’s pretty challenging to go 10,000 miles from home to a place you have never been,” Lemley said. “A lot of the Europeans, their training in high school is ‘the harder you train, the faster you swim.’ That is pretty much the opposite of what I teach. I believe the more relaxed you are the faster you swim. I think it has taken her a while to believe in that philosophy. But I think she has bought in now and believes the more relaxed she is physically, the more focused she is mentally and the better she is going to perform.”
Lemley, who has called Alaska home for the past 40 years, is a strict vegetarian and doesn’t hunt or fish, and that pretty much destroys every Alaskan stereotype that’s out there. He’s built a rather large garden that he tends to in the summer and recently planted and harvested an apple orchard. Lemley’s property sits above the plains and the temperature is 15 degrees warmer that it is on the flatland. He admits having an apple orchard in Alaska is pretty rare.
“There is a guy in Alaska who has grafted apples to Serbian root stock and I planted those and ate my first homegrown apples last summer,” he said. “I like to spend as much time outside as I can – because I know the nine-month season is right around the corner.”
The five swimmers Alaska placed at this year’s championship is the second-most in school history, in 2009 the Nanooks placed six swimmers in the championship. And Lemley believes this trip to the championship will be the first of many for this core group of girls.
“One of the secrets to improving your team in the offseason is to stay fit over the summer. I’m going to preach that to the team. In order for our team to take the next step they are going to train this summer and stay in shape. The goal is to start next season where we ended the season.”