“When in doubt, just win.” This is the ubiquitous mantra of sports culture—and the Dalhousie Tigers swim team may be its most loyal adherents.
The women’s squad, for example, currently holds Atlantic University Sport (AUS) banners from every year since 2001, while the men’s championship streak extends all the way back to 1999. With both sides favoured to replicate that startling rate of success this year, it’s worth wondering how it was achieved in the first place.
According to those involved in the program, geography is the main reason behind Dal’s continued dominance. Third-year swimmer Molly Wedge, who hails from Prince Edward Island, says that “in Atlantic Canada, everyone knows that if you’re a swimmer, Dal is the best school to go to [and] that Dal has the fastest swimmers. I know I’ve wanted to come to Dal since I was 11— it was the only school I applied to.”
Joe Ur, a veteran of the men’s squad now in his fifth year, agrees that a strong reputation has been essential to the team’s success—adding that recognition of the Dalhousie swim program’s stature extends beyond the borders of the Atlantic region. At national championships, he notes, the Tigers “always have been competitive… people know that Dal’s a good school.”
Meanwhile, the rest of the conference is struggling to keep pace. Not only do the Tigers possess the only Atlantic swim program that consistently ranks among the top 10 in Canada, but the women finished 368 points ahead of the next-closest competitor—the University of New Brunswick— at the 2012-13 AUS championship meet.
However, weaker opposition and a concentration of top talent are not the only reasons for the swim team’s extended winning streak. In the view of the team’s members, the tight-knit nature of the program also plays a major role in shaping the Tigers’ fortunes.
“Other people have their societies and their classmates and their best friends—we have the team,” says Ur. “That’s who we talk about, that’s who we talk to, that’s who we’re with all the time… People look at it as an individual sport, and you’re alone and you’re in the water, but it’s completely a team sport.”
Though this kind of solidarity provides much-needed support during high-stress competitions, it risks intensifying negative feelings as well. “We just feed off each other’s energy,” Wedge explains. “That’s the team aspect, but it does rely on the individual—because if you have a bad race, you can’t go up to someone and be like, ‘Oh man, that sucked.’ You have to be like, ‘OK, I’m going to do better next time.”
In addition, as with any other family, people occasionally get on one another’s nerves. “Being around the same people day in and day out, sometimes people get annoyed with each other,” Ur remarks. “It has its ups and downs.”
One benefit of this closeness is that it fosters intra-team competition, helping to spur individual improvement in the absence of heated regional rivalries. “There is a problem with becoming complacent, especially in our conference,” says Ur. “So we end up racing both ourselves and our teammates—that’s essentially what we have to do year-round, throughout workouts and training.”
Heading into the AUS and Canadian Interuniversity Sport (CIS) championship season, Ur hopes this kind of preparation aids in atoning for the men’s disappointing, injury-plagued experience at last season’s national meet.
“I broke my leg, so I didn’t get to go,” he recalls, adding that David Sharpe’s battle with mono and an outbreak of shingles on the team contributed to a sub-par showing, as the team finished in 11th place.
Wedge, who recently broke an AUS and Nova Scotian record in the 100m freestyle, also believes this season holds promise. “I think this year, the work we’ve put in is exponentially better than last year,” she says. “I think that if we can keep it up, we could place really well at CIS.”