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January 17, 2012

Relay team out of the blocks

By: Marc Mullen

The Tech 400 medley relay men’s team anchors the men’s ACC hopes and talks about the keys to their success

The success of any relay team is determined by its synergy – the ability of the individuals on the team to be more productive as a result of their collective effort. When speaking to the current members of the Virginia Tech men’s swimming 400-meter medley relay team, there is definitely no question they have made the most of their synergy so far this season.

Greg Morgan

The relay team consists of four student-athletes who each swim a different discipline – junior Zach McGinnis (backstroke), sophomore Nathan Hoisington (breaststroke), junior Gregory Mahon (butterfly) and senior Greg Morgan (freestyle) – and cover two lengths of the pool.

“What it [the relay] comes down to is – its four individual races strung together,” Hoisington said. “But when you get up there [on the starting block], you know that your entire team is counting on you, and you will never go faster in another event because of that team aspect that we have toward each other.”

And just how fast have they’ve gone? The Tech 400 medley relay has posted the ACC’s fastest time so far this season at 3:15.62, which is .25 seconds ahead of Virginia, last year’s conference champion. The mark, which they swam at the Yellow Jacket Invitational in November, is also the 13th-fastest time in the nation this season, is an NCAA “B” standard time, and from what the guys have to say, is just a precursor of things to come.

“This has definitely been the best relay since I’ve been at Tech,” Mahon said. “We just missed NCAAs the past two years. We had a ‘B’ cut the past two years, so I think definitely this year is our best chance at making the NCAAs as a relay.

“I don’t want to guarantee anything, but it’s just a known that you swim faster when you shave and taper than when you swim in season. So the time we put up, I think, is our fastest time in season, which is everything outside the ACC Championships. That definitely means something, that we can go that fast without shaving or tapering, and it only gives us more confidence going into ACCs.”

“I think our medley relay is one of our strongest, if not the strongest, of all the relays we have, and we are looking to win an ACC title,” McGinnis added. “We will definitely drop our time once we start to taper. Then, we’ll make the transitions better from one guy to the next. I think we’ll definitely be better and be competing to win an ACC title.”

Shaving? Tapering? Transitions? These terms may seem foreign to a person who is not familiar with the sport of swimming, but are easily explained.

First, shaving is exactly what it sounds like, but it does mean the entire body, which reduces drag in the water. Morgan explained why he believes this is a factor in the team going faster.

“None of us shaved the last time we swam, and I had a pretty solid Abe Lincoln beard going, so it was pretty exciting knowing that there is so much more that we can do in order to go faster,” he said. “We’ve already gone pretty fast. So even with the fastest time we swam, we all talked about how we could have gone faster.”

Mahon added, “For the ACC Championships, we rest more, we don’t lift as much, we taper – we take it easy, which we don’t usually do throughout the year – and that helps us go faster in the water.

“But it’s also a mental thing, too. You know that you are ready to swim. You’re not tired. We don’t really practice [transitions] much during the season, but leading up to ACCs, we try to get down the timing right. The reaction times will be much faster.”

The team does realize, though, that the Hokies aren’t the only team that knows these “tricks” heading into the ACCs in mid-February, as Hoisington is quick to point out.

“Although we are first in the ACC right now, there are people that everyone knows that will go faster at ACCs,” he said. “People tend to pull things out of thin air and do amazingly well, and you never see it coming. So you kind of take it with a grain of salt. You know that you’ve earned that spot, but at the same time, people can come out of anywhere.”

The following is a quick look inside the minds of all four racers to see, in their own words, what each is thinking before, during and after each of their individual parts of the relay:

Zach McGinnis – Backstroke

The relay starts with McGinnis hitting the water, but for all the guys, they have been thinking about the start of the race for about an hour, as they warm up with the rest of their team before the meet.

“In warm-ups, I do a lot of specific things, like counting my kicks – to see how many it takes to get to 15 meters, so I don’t get disqualified – and working on my turns and my breakouts, making sure I have significant transitions into the swimming part of my race. Then it usually starts again once I get into the water – and they say, ‘Take your mark.’”

McGinnis believes that the best backstroke swimmer is one who has good leg strength and endurance, and someone who can hold his or her breath underwater for more than 15 meters.

“And I would say having speed underwater because kicking underwater is faster than swimming on top,” he added.

During the race, he doesn’t really concern himself with whom he is racing against, but is aware of where he is in case he needs to pick up his pace. It is interesting to hear what he is thinking.

“I think the whole entire lap,” McGinnis said. “I count the number of kicks I‘m doing and the number of strokes I’m doing. I keep track of that, so that I make sure I plan my finish right and so that I don’t have a long or short stroke. That way, it makes it easier for the other guy to have a good exchange. I try to count almost everything I do during a race to make sure that I don’t have a bad finish.”

And then his mindset after he’s done consists of checking to see what place he finished because he wants to give the rest of the team a chance for a win.

“I just want to make sure I gave those guys the lead,” he said. “Then afterward, I’m just getting the other guys ready for their leg of the race and congratulating them when they are getting out of the pool. I spend a lot of time just cheering on the other guys.”

Nathan Hoisington – Breaststroke

This is where the relay truly begins. With the backstroke portion, it’s just like a normal 100-meter event, but as Hoisington puts it, the breaststroke is, “really where the relay starts, so trying to get that timing right when you get off the blocks is the crucial part of a relay.”

The breaststroke is the slowest of the four strokes because it is considered the most complicated. This is also the portion of the race where teams can begin to distance themselves from the competition.

Hoisington explained, “It’s [the breaststroke] all about rhythm, timing and body motion. You have to get your pull and your kick – the timing – correct, along with your body motion. All of that has to click at the exact same time in order to get a fast stroke.

“And so when you’re on the relay, it’s really the fastest you’ll ever go in any race. It’s also the stroke that gets you the most distance between your opponents. Since it’s the slowest, the same amount of time looks like a bigger distance. So it’s kind of a mental factor there.”

After McGinnis gets the team off, Hoisington says that sometimes he checks up on the other competitors in the backstroke whom the team might be swimming against “because it’s good to know ahead of time if you may have to make up some ground. And you do that more so that you are ready mentally. It doesn’t throw you off if you are behind.

”Then, once Zach is halfway done his race, I am already up on the blocks getting ready to go, and I’m just thinking intensity and racing as fast as I can.”

Interestingly, Hoisington said that once in the water, he really has no idea what place he is in. So his first thought once he hits the wall is, “Where are we in the field? Who is ahead of us? Who is behind us? How big of a lead do we have on which people?

“Because in breaststroke, you are really just staring at the bottom of the pool the whole time, and you really don’t get a chance to see where the rest of the competition is.

“The second thought I have is ‘I’ve got to get out of the water really quick – a lot faster than I’d like. I’m usually out of breath, but I have to get out before Greg comes back 20 seconds later. Once I get out of the water, I usually can see better how the race is going overall. Then I pump up my freestyle guy on the block and make sure we are getting our job done.”

Greg Mahon – Butterfly

Transitions are the biggest difference when it comes to relays – outside of the obvious swimming aspect. Transitions are one of the reasons the guys say that a swimmer will go faster on a relay than at any other time because a performer isn’t still on the blocks before the start of the race and there are a couple different options.

“For the relay start, there’s kind of a motion, a wind-up to build up momentum so you can get a good start,” Mahon said. “The person on the block can start doing their wind-up. Usually, you kind of do a full windmill stroke – to get momentum going.

“You can also take steps up to the edge of the block. A lot of people have both of their feet are on the edge of the block in the back, and when they see the person coming, they time it so they can take like two steps forward to get a good launch.”

A racer cannot “leave the block until the person [in the water] touches the wall. They have technology now that can read that, so the computer system will actually have the reaction time – from the time the person touched the wall until the other person’s feet left the blocks – and that will be 0.1 second.”

Mahon prepares like the rest of his teammates in warm-ups, but as the third competitor of the relay, he’s got two guys in front of him. He says that he watches McGinnis and then starts to prepare once Hoisington has finished his first 50.

“I hop up onto the block and practice a relay start real quick – without actually jumping in, of course,” he said. “Just get the motion, and when he’s on his last 25, I start moving my arms to the way he’s coming in to get the motion down to time the start.”

Again, since breaststroke is the slowest of the four strokes, Mahon says he knows what place he’s in when he starts the race, and he certainly wants to know where the team is once he finishes the race.

“When I finish, I tend to look over to see if anyone has finished before me or not, just a quick look,” he said. “Then I usually don’t look up at the clock. I’m not really sure what a good time at the 300 would be. So I will finish, look around real quick, get out and join the other three guys cheering for the freestyler because that’s the most exciting part – getting to the finish.”

Greg Morgan – Freestyle

As any good closer knows, he is only as good as the people who’ve set him up, and Morgan, who swims the anchor leg of this relay, is no exception.

“Freestyle is a stroke that we train about 90 percent of the time,” Morgan said. “If we are going to swim a set, everyone just chooses freestyle. So every single swimmer can do freestyle at least marginally well.

“There are 1,000 freestylers, but to have a really special backstroker, breaststroker and butterflier like we have is really where we make it, and I’m just happy to be able to ride on their coattails. It’s an honor to be on this relay team.”

Before his portion of the relay, he echoes much the same as his teammates – preparing mentally, watching the other guys swim, and when on the blocks, getting his timing down and thinking about what he needs to do. This season, that has been simple.

“Thankfully, this year, I have to credit the other guys,” Morgan said. “I haven’t had to swim from behind at all. They usually give me a nice, comfortable lead. I’ve thought mostly about just maintaining the lead and making sure I get to the wall first.

“Then, the first thing I think about is – what place did we get? But like I said, I haven’t had to swim from behind at all, so I just check on our time. Did we go fast? Did we go slow?”

Morgan, who missed last year to injury, is truly grateful for being given the chance to swim on this relay team and is looking to leave his mark at the school. This relay team has already set the pool record in the event and has its sights set on more.

“This is my last hurrah, so that definitely motivates me, especially with missing last year,” he said. “I want to leave my mark and take advantage of this opportunity that’s been given to me.”

One more factor that might help this year’s medley relay team make that next step is its home-pool advantage. The men’s ACC Championships will be held over four days – Feb. 22-25 – at the Christiansburg Aquatic Center.

But more important will be the synergy. The Hokies’ 400-meter medley relay team has it. Now, it’s just a matter of keeping it.