By: Sean Cartell
SEC Digital Network
FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – Sean Schimmel is enjoying each and every day of his new job, and with good reason. In his first season as Arkansas’ head swimming coach, the Razorbacks have made great strides and consistently broken records.
“It’s just been a blast,” said Schimmel, hired in July 2012 after four seasons as Maryland’s head coach. “You can’t show up to practice every day if it’s not going to be fun and you aren’t going to be fully engaged in what you’re doing. You have to engage and be extremely excited for practice or a meet. The way the women have encountered that and engaged back with me, that’s why they have been able to accomplish some of their early goals.”
Schimmel, a former Southern Cal swimmer who spent time as an associate head coach at LSU, was interested in getting back to the Southeastern Conference and, when he set foot on the Arkansas campus, he was sold on the job.
“When we first started talking, it was about the opportunity to get back in the SEC, with the conference being the best in the country in a lot of sports and, in particular, swimming,” Schimmel said. “That’s obviously very appealing to me. When I came down here and started talking to people in the department about the opportunities and resources we would have to try to accomplish our goals, I knew it was a great opportunity. I’m blessed and grateful to have been given this and I’m trying to make strides to make us better each day.”
The Razorbacks – who next compete Feb. 2 at Kansas - have improved in a number of ways since their new coach’s arrival, allowing the swimmers to accomplish things they never knew possible.
“Last year, we had a pretty solid team, were pretty cohesive and our training was intense,” said sophomore Nikki Daniels. “But we didn’t know what we were missing. Sean came in and changed everything. We got a real strength program, and a new coaching staff. Our team dynamic has changed – we’ve gotten a lot more cohesive, we are doing a lot more as a team and things like volunteering are at the top of our priorities.”
That team chemistry has been a major factor in Arkansas’ success, which has led to a 9-1 record and a No. 18 national ranking. The Razorbacks’ resume includes wins against No. 12 Penn State and No. 21 Florida State.
“The level of excitement that we have at meets is really exciting,” said sophomore Susanna White, the SEC Swimmer of the Week for Jan. 22. “I feel like the team chemistry has really changed from last year. We have a lot of new freshmen who have come in and stepped up right away.”
The Razorbacks have broken six school records this season as part of a memorable year of firsts in 2012-13.
“It is so fun,” said White, who was part of three school-record-setting relays at the Houston Cougar Swimming and Diving Invitational in November. “Just to see how much we had done at midseason was just phenomenal. It is always great to be part of a relay that breaks a record to have a personal best on your own. It is the best feeling ever to see your hard work pay off.”
In fact, it was an early-season 187-113 loss to Georgia, a program that has won nine SEC titles and four NCAA Championships, that helped give the Arkansas swimmers confidence that they could compete with anyone in the country.
“We didn’t expect to be so close to them,” Daniels said. “I think it was just the fact that we could race with them. The SEC is very tough, but we’re learning to keep up with them slowly but surely.”
Schimmel agreed that the meet against the Bulldogs, ranked among the nation’s top-three teams the entire season, helped give his squad the motivation they needed to reach new heights.
“We learned to compete with them for the entire meet,” Schimmel said. “We don’t have the depth right now, but we wanted our top people to be competitive with Georgia’s top people. A team like Georgia is a great eye-opener with their depth and level of talent, and it was a good gut check of where we were in October of a long season.”
Members of the Arkansas team have been setting their own goals for the SEC and NCAA Championships and are working hard to put themselves in a position to achieve those aspirations.
“We really want to shoot for more top-eight finishes at SECs and getting a lot more qualifiers to NCAAs, which has already been happening,” Daniels said. “In the SEC, just getting top 16 is great, but we want to be in the top-eight, which is tough because you’re up there with Olympians and future Olympians, and people who have done this before.”
White believes the Razorbacks are capable of continuing their record-setting season when they reach the postseason.
“Things are really looking up,” she said. “I know that we want to get people up on the podium at SECs and get people and relays to NCAAs. My teammates and I also want to get the 400 IM record; that would be a very good accomplishment for us.”
While the swimmers have set concrete goals for themselves for the remainder of the year, Schimmel has broader goals of consistent improvement and growth.
“We want individuals and our team to do things they have never done before,” he said. “We want to attack the conference – we’re making headway there – and at the national level. We want to score better than we’ve ever scored before at the conference and national level. I also have goals to give these women a great collegiate experience as student-athletes at Arkansas. That is really important to me – the development of the student-athletes for four years here, so they can go out in the world post-graduation and make an impact.”
The Razorbacks, who will compete on the road for the remainder of the season, are looking forward to carrying the positive momentum of a strong start to the year into the upcoming championship meets.
“We’re just taking one thing at a time and building on the foundation,” Schimmel said. “When we have some good things happen here or there, we just try to take it and put it in the bank and step forward. We welcome the opportunity to get out on the road and get things done at a high level. We are trying to keep our heads in the right place and stay on task; whether it’s a short trip for dual meets or a week-long event like SECs or NCAAs, we never want to get too far ahead. We’re only as good as our next performance.”