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October 12, 2009

FRESH WATER - With new swimsuit regulations and a pool of young contributors, the H2Okies approach the upcoming season with optimism

By: Matt Kovatch

Erika Hajnal was an honorable mention All-American as a freshman in the 1,650 freestyle, and returns to headline the Tech women's team this season.

Those who have paid any attention at all to the sports world over the past few years are well aware of the issue of performance-enhancing drugs. Baseball has been hit the hardest with the public’s scorn, but other sports, such as cycling and track and field, have been targeted as well.

This past summer, just one year after the Beijing Olympics had made it all the rage, the sport of swimming was the latest to get involved in a heated debate. Not about performance-enhancing drugs, but rather, performance-enhancing … swimsuits?

Yes, the swimsuit had evolved so much over the years that competitors were suddenly setting records at an alarming rate. Sure, the athletes were getting faster and stronger, but a look at the numbers makes one wonder how the sport made it so far without anyone questioning what was happening.

At the FINA (International Swimming Federation) World Championships this past summer, 43 world records were broken. Seventy meet records were set at the NCAA Championships back in March. And to bring it to a more local level, of the 40 school records (20 each for the men and women) maintained at Virginia Tech, 29 of them were rewritten during the 2009 season, and that’s not counting those that may have been broken multiple times throughout the year.

“We certainly had a great year,” Tech head coach Ned Skinner prefaced. “But who are we kidding? A lot of it [the records] had something to do with the suits.”

But that’s not to take away from what the Hokies accomplished last year, with the women placing a program-best third at the ACC Championships and the men finishing fifth. It’s just that, as a whole, the sport was seeing times clocked across the board that seemed too good to be true.

According to Skinner, the straw that broke the camel’s back was when Speedo introduced the LZR Racer prior to the 2008 Olympics, a high-tech suit composed of elastane (or spandex), nylon and polyurethane. It was essentially a rubber wetsuit that mimicked the skin of a marine animal, which, for the swimmer, added buoyancy and reduced resistance. The impermeable, body-conforming suits were a far cry from the guy who shaved his legs to decrease drag, and coaches across the country felt it threatened the integrity of the sport.

“Those suits were allowing people to stay on top of the water artificially,” Skinner said. “Once the LZR came into play, other companies were then able to copy it and improve upon it. It was a Pandora’s box, if you will.”

Charlie Higgins hopes to build on a freshman year in which he broke three school backstroke records and qualified for the NCAA Championships.
The onslaught on the record books prompted FINA to look into suit limitations, but the NCAA was a step ahead, adopting a rules change at the end of July that will be effective for the upcoming season.

“The NCAA has completely abolished performance suits,” Skinner said. “So we are back to the way life was about 10 years ago.”

All suits must now be permeable to air and water, and can only cover a specified area of the body. Men must wear either briefs or jammers (from the hips to the knees), and women can only wear suits that go from the shoulders to the knees. Skinner said he is thrilled with the change.

“It’s great in so many ways,” he said. “For one, now it’s just the swimmer. It’s the way life should be. Whoever is truly the best athlete and the person who has earned it through hard work and talent is the one who will come to the forefront.

“But the other thing that will be huge is the savings. We spent thousands of dollars on those performance suits last year, which was very difficult at Virginia Tech, but in some programs, it was devastating to their budget. The last thing we need is swimming and diving programs living outside of their budget in this economy. I really feel like it was a great move by the NCAA to abolish those suits.”

Will the rate of setting records go down this year?

“I’d like to say no,” Skinner joked. “But more than likely, yes. It’s going to be challenging for a person who went, for example, 55 seconds in a performance suit last year to go that time again without the suit. But it’s going to be an interesting year in our sport to see what happens.”

Although the downgraded suits have leveled the playing field, the majority of the field was wearing them anyway, and it’s a field in which Tech was very competitive. A large group of freshmen debuted for the men last season and will be joined by a new incoming class that was ranked 20th in the nation by The women will be looking to do the same this season, as they will welcome the country’s 14th-ranked recruiting class.

“We’re very optimistic about both teams,” Skinner said. “We are not looking at this as a rebuilding year. We are looking at this as a reloading year. We’ve got some really strong freshmen whom we hope can impact this program immediately.”

And don’t look now, but a major strength for both teams this season could be the diving squads, especially now that the NCAA-qualifying zones have been realigned. Up until this year, schools in the state of Virginia competed in zone ‘B,’ which comprised most of the Southeast and teams from the ACC and SEC, conferences that traditionally have strong diving programs. Seeking to create more balance, the NCAA moved everyone from Virginia up into the weaker Northeast’s zone ‘A.’ The change should give the Hokies a little more wiggle room in getting more divers qualified for the NCAA Championships.

“Ron Piemonte, our head diving coach, has done a magnificent job at building this diving team,” Skinner said. “We went from close to the bottom of the conference three years ago, to now, one of the top three diving programs in our conference along with Miami and Florida State.”

The women’s team returns three divers who scored last year at the ACC Championships in junior Sarah Milton, redshirt sophomore Natalie West and sophomore Cara Murnan. Freshmen Sara Mokhtari and Carissa Santora will also join the mix and either could make some noise at the conference meet.

On the men’s side, there is Mikey McDonald, who returns for his senior year as arguably the best diver in team history. He has scored in two events at the national championships in each of the past two seasons, and he is joined by junior Daniel Martin, who finished the ACC meet last year among the top eight. Then there is freshman Logan Shinholser – a “stud,” as Skinner called him – who was one of the top high school divers in the country last year.

Put it all together and Virginia Tech should once again field one of the more balanced teams in the ACC.

“After losing some of the seniors that we’ve lost over the past couple of years, it’s easy to think that it was the close of a chapter,” Skinner said. “But we feel like the new chapter of the H2Okies is a really bright one.”

Here’s a closer look at some of the Hokies to keep an eye on this season:


Erika Hajnal – The freestyler from Hungary made a splash in her freshman year, earning honorable mention All-America status after placing 13th in the 1,650 free at the NCAA Championships. She also placed third in three events at the ACC Championships.

Steffi Drechsel – The current junior joins Hajnal as the other returning NCAA competitor. Drechsel scored points at the national meet as part of the 400 free relay team, but also placed fifth in the 100 back at the ACC meet.

Laura Simon – Of all the freshmen, Simon is probably the most likely to make an immediate impact. According to Skinner, the distance freestyler posted a time in the mile last year during high school that would’ve qualified her for the NCAA Championships.

Kelly deMarrais and Sara Shapiro – They are a pair of senior captains whom Skinner thinks are poised for huge years. They lead both in and out of the water, and Skinner thinks the world of what they are capable of achieving. Both compete in the backstroke and freestyle and could very likely finish their careers at the NCAA Championships.


Charlie Higgins – Higgins was arguably the most valuable men’s swimmer as a freshman last year, breaking three school records at the ACC Championships. In addition to diver Mikey McDonald, he was the lone male to compete at the NCAA Championships, placing 20th in the 100 backstroke.

Stephen Hawkins – This freestyler was a major contributor as a sophomore, scoring points in multiple events at the ACC Championships and helping to break school records in various relays. The coaches feel like he has what it takes to make the NCAA meet.

Rich Ulatowski – This junior is a freestyle sprinter who is another member of the relay teams. He spent some time training in Blacksburg this past summer and is hungry to become a great swimmer.

Greg Mahon – Like Simon on the women’s side, this newcomer out of New Jersey might be the strongest of the freshmen. He was very highly touted coming out of high school and was strongly recruited by teams from all over the country.