The Auburn Swimming and Diving team will look to make a splash at the SEC Championships, which start Tuesday at Auburn University's Martin Aquatics Center.
Two years in as head coach and Gary Taylor has given the program a complete facelift ahead of hosting the SEC Championship meet.
The former N.C. State head coach has years of ACC experience backing his SEC resume. In his short time with the Tigers, he has been able to take the program from winning one dual meet last season to going 5-2 this year. This season, Taylor managed to coach his team to a victory over the University of Alabama, a feat not seen in over three years.
“I very much understand the pageantry, the pride and sheer emotion that go into SEC athletics,” Taylor said. “Fans of the SEC are like no other in the country. It’s been a lot of fun to be a part of it. The SEC championship meet from a swimming and diving standpoint has as much competition and excitement to it as and any meet outside of the Olympic trials in the U.S.”
Despite the excitement of having the SECs in Auburn’s home pool, there’s no slacking when it comes to preparation. Taylor is the first person to own up to his high intensity coaching philosophy. He seeks to challenge his athletes both mentally and physically each day. His ultimate goal is to create a team that is as efficient as possible in the small details.
Looking back at Auburn’s historic decade of dominance in swimming and diving and comparing it to where they are now draws some striking similarities. A new coach has come in and he’s completely changing the culture. The only question that remains — are Taylor and his athletes ready to take on the challenge?
“We have got some work to do,” Taylor said. “It’s always a process, but I definitely have high expectations for myself and the program.”
Taylor's athletes have embraced the intense training and are looking forward to making a splash at the SEC Championships. Senior swimmers David Crossland and Claire Fisch have put in work for this Tigers' team. Fisch, a transfer from Arizona State, cited Auburn Swimming and Diving’s all-around culture change as the best thing to happen to this team.
“The people, the coaches the values, that family culture everyone talks about, it’s all true,” Fisch, the 50-meter freestyle specialist, said. “There are hard days but coming to Auburn has been the best decision I’ve ever made.”
All the athletes are ready to swim their hearts out in front of Auburn’s home crowd, but for Crossland it just means more. The 2016 Olympic Trials qualifier has had this date circled on his calendar since his freshman year. The prospect of a home pool advantage is too much off an opportunity for him to ignore.
“Obviously, we swim in the pool every day,” Crossland said. “So we're used to the nicks and knacks of the pool. Stuff as little as the markings on the bottom of the pool to the wedges in the starts. It’s not an issue for someone coming in, but it’s just something we don’t have to figure out.”
According to Crossland, with all the logistics out of the way everyone can lock in and focus on swimming as fast as they can.
Opposite of Taylor stands Auburn’s 20-year diving coach Jeff Schaffer. He was here for Auburn diving’s heyday and is proud to have coached the program to a level where the divers can contribute equally to the swimmers.
“Diving is a very unique sport,” Schaffer said. “It has a number of characteristics — you have to be strong, flexible and show good body lines. You have to be able to move in and out of different shapes like a tuck or a pipe, where your legs are straight. Ultimately, it all comes down to their entry into the water, being straight and creating as little a splash as possible.”
With divers competing at anywhere from 1 to 10 meters, it’s up to Schaffer to work with them to determine where they can score the most points. Schaffer cited the tight competition in the SEC as a driving force for his divers to improve each day. Ultimately, it’s the competition that produces the best results.
On the diving side, sophomore Connor Pruitt has been making a significant impact on the team. The Opelika native holds top-five conference scores in both the 1-meter and 3-meters.
The SEC Championships kicks off on Tuesday at the James E. Martin Aquatic Center, with preliminary rounds starting at 10 a.m. and finals at 5 p.m.
“Moving forward into years three, four and five we’ll be able to take a more hardline stance on our objective for the season,” Taylor said. “Being able to say here’s where we're going to be, here’s what we’re going to do. From a competitive standpoint, I believe we have the opportunity to build a championship level program here.”