‘Like a family’
Chinese swimmers form connection, friendship at Drury
INDIANAPOLIS -- Lane 3 and Lane 5.
That’s how far roommates Wen Xu and Wai Ting Yu were separated Wednesday night in the women‘s 50-yard freestyle finals at the DII Swimming and Diving Championships. Just a matter of feet.
Less than 23 seconds later, they were separated by just 18-hundredths of one second, and only a slight error in hitting the touch pad kept Xu from winning her first national championship race in a national-record time. Both finished among the top four.
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Ariel Xu and Janet Yu are from China. Janet is a senior from Shanghai who likes to cook authentic food from her homeland, dress in authentic clothes from her homeland and teach American culture and the English language to Ariel.
“We cook a lot and then we sing songs, crazy songs, in our room,” Janet says with a laugh.
They are not alone. Drury’s roster includes swimmers from Poland, Kazakhstan, Sweden, Australia, Czech Republic. And that’s just the women.
This is not just a swimming experience, but a lesson in international culture.
“We’re like a family,” Ariel Xu said. “A lot of us are from different countries. I can learn some different experiences and learn things from others.”
“Drury is such a close family,” Janet Yu said. “I’m not saying it because I’m from Drury. We are really a family We do everything together. We live together. We see each other like four hours a day. It’s just amazing the dynamic of the team.”
Brian Reynolds, head coach of the men’s and women’s teams, wouldn’t have it any other way. He recruits globally, yet says he hasn’t been to most of those countries. Instead, he uses new technology in a new world. Skype and email.
“Every one of these kids becomes part of me and my family, and it’s an extension of that,” Reynolds said. “There’s kids all over the world that are logged on [the internet] right now watching this feed. The alumni connection that we’ve made is really a tight bond.
“It’s so fun to get to experience these kids as a part of your team because they enhance the experience so much. For the kids that are from the United States, and to become friends with these kids … they really become lifelong bonds.”
Yu remembers arriving on campus four years ago from Hong Kong and not finding anybody who could speak Chinese. Now Xu, a sophomore from Shanghai, is her roommate and the swim team is their family away from home. The bond that Reynolds speaks of is rock solid.
“It kind of took me a while to get used to the training and the school,” Yu said. “I came from Hong Kong. It’s a lot different, the culture, than here. Everyone on the team helped me through this process. I’m really thankful for it.”
And because of that, Yu is the guiding force for Xu, who had DII’s fastest time in the 50 free this year until finishing runner-up Wednesday night to Nova Southeastern freshman Bryndis Hansen .
“I share with her my experience, so she won’t make the same mistakes that I made when I was an underclassman,” Yu said.
These are the lessons in culture that Reynolds enjoys seeing develop, whether it is two Chinese women rooming together, or swimmers from Missouri and Poland interacting.
“It’s so fun to watch them grow together,” he said. “I just love meeting them and finding out things the way they have lived their life and what they do. I think every kid on our team would say the same thing.”
One thing about the Chinese pair: They are really fast in the pool. Combined, they qualified for 17 events at the national championships. If the Panthers are to win their third consecutive national title, Xu and Yu will be a big part of the reason. After second- and fourth-place finishes in the 50 free, which disappointed both, Xu was part of a national-record performance in the 200 medley relay.
Four relays are still to come, and both swimmers are qualified for all of them.
“We really talked about at least breaking four of the five national relay records,” Reynolds said. “We got the first one off the books tonight, which was our record from the previous year. Looking at that, there were three brand new girls on that relay team.”
Yu sees nothing but great things for her roommate. Consider, at the time of the last Olympics in 2012 in London, Xu was winning a silver medal in the China teenage national championships.
“I’m so excited for her,” Yu said. “She has a lot of room to improve in her turns and starts. I think if she can just make some minor improvements in those areas, she’s going to be amazing. It’s going to be her world when she’s a senior.”