Senior Christie Icenhower, a three-year letterman and All-Conference performer, now holds all ECU diving records.
Lapping the Competition
What is the winningest sports program in East Carolina history?
It isn’t football or baseball. It’s swimming and diving, the sport where a
7-4 season is a major slump and the coach just notched his 400th win.
By Bethany Bradsher
into Minges Natatorium and the first thing you see are the trophy cases crammed with gleaming plaques and statues—conference championships, All-American awards, three national championship ribbons. Dozens of other plaques and commemorations hang in neat rows down the long hallways outside the pool area. Apparently, the trophies do pile up when you’ve had 25 consecutive years without a losing season.
That’s the remarkable distinction achieved rather quietly this year by the swim team. The 61 men and women athletes on the team hardly slowed their strokes to celebrate. They just kept practicing in search of even more milestones. Head coach Rick Kobe, who has led the program for 26 years, is confident that even greater successes lie ahead.
“As good as we are this year—and I say this every year—I think we’re going to be better next year,” says Kobe, who has coached 29 National Collegiate Athletic Association qualifiers and four All-Americans at East Carolina. “I think we’re just going to keep on going.”
After a fall dual meet season that included competitors such as N.C. State and UNC Wilmington, the women’s team
was undefeated and the men’s team
had lost only to the Wolfpack. In the Nike Cup, a competition that included UNC Chapel Hill and other ACC schools, the Pirate swimmers qualified for 50 finals and women’s diver Christie Icenhower took first place in the 3-meter event. Diving right in
Pirate swimming began with a big splash in the 1950s when the program started under legendary coach Ray Martinez, one of the early proponents of what is now known as biomechanics. By studying swim strokes and dives on film, and applying the principles of mechanics and motion, he was able to convert wildly thrashing arms and legs into smoothly functioning windmills in the water. He was called the “stroke doctor.”
In just its third year, the program reeled off impressive showings and won the 1957 National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics national championship. It was East Carolina’s first national title in any sport. In more than two decades as the swim coach, Martinez produced two NAIA national titles, 20 championship swimmers and 45 All-Americans.
Ted Gartman, a retired professor in the ECU School of Social Work, was a member of the first team Martinez fielded; he was a junior who played a major role in bringing the national title to Greenville in ’57. In those days only men competed in swimming, and the team included only eight swimmers and two divers. Gartman became an All-American even though he was not a competitive swimmer until he arrived at East Carolina.
“They said they were going to have a swimming team, and one of my friends and I decided to try out,” said Gartman, who went on to be a survival swimming instructor in the Navy after graduation. “Coach Ray Martinez said he thought he might be able to make swimmers out of us, and we of course stuck with the team. That helped change my life in terms of finding something I really was good at and enjoyed.”
In the 1960s and ’70s the Pirates, under Martinez and later coach Ray Scharf, continued to compile winning records and defeat larger programs such as Clemson and Georgia. Kobe arrived in 1982 to begin his matchless tenure over the Pirates’ pool. In Kobe’s second season his men’s team swam to an 8-4 record. The men haven’t had a losing record since. With their victory over College of Charleston on Nov. 10 they ensured their 25th consecutive winning campaign, breaking the record set by the men’s baseball team from 1972 to 1995.
It’s a nice record, said senior Geoff Handsfield, but not enough for this team with its sights on a Conference USA title. “Our goal isn’t to be the winningest team on campus,” said Handsfield, who is carrying a 4.0 in physics while serving as the swim team captain for the past three years. “Our goal is to beat other teams.”
East Carolina first fielded a women’s swim team in 1977; in the 30 years since then, the women have failed to compile a winning record only four times and only one of those came during Kobe’s tenure. Senior Austine Enderle, who was drawn to ECU from her Delaware home by the warmer climate and the unity of the swim team, said that the high point of this fall was her team’s victory over N.C. State on Oct. 20.
Recruiting gets tougher
|THE KOBE FILE |
- ECU head coach, swimming and diving, men’s and women’s teams, since 1986.
- Overall record of 395–152. His 72 percent winning percentage is the best of any coach since ECU went Division I in the mid-1960s.
- Coached 29 NCAA qualifiers, four NCAA All-Americans, one Olympian, 138 individual event conference champions and 111 All-conference performers.
- Telling quote: “There are some schools that have reputations that their kids don’t really improve that much. And that’s not fun, because all swimmers want to get fast. That’s their number one goal, to swim faster.”
As in any college sport, recruiting is the most important aspect of keeping a winning streak alive. Kobe and his staff say they are determined to find swimmers who can add new chapters to the Pirate swimming success story. But they say that gets harder every year because swimming is becoming more attractive as a collegiate sport.
The emphasis this season was on refilling the men’s roster after a large and talented group was lost to graduation. The result of those efforts, Kobe says, was the most gifted class in ECU history—17 new members of the men’s team who made an impact right away.
“When you come in here, there’s no growing-up process,” Kobe says. “You’d better be ready to go. [New team members] should be as talented if not more talented than the upperclassmen, if we’ve done our job recruiting correctly.”
One of those newcomers, Thiago Cavalcanti, came all the way from Brazil via Roanoke, Va., where he swam with a club team in a swimmer exchange program after finishing at his Brazilian high school. A distance swimmer, Cavalcanti has quickly adjusted to the intensity of Division I training; he won first place in both the 1,000-meter and the 500-meter freestyle races in his team’s victory against UNCW.
After capping off the fall season at the highly competitive Nike Cup meet, swimmers like Cavalcanti looked to their next big challenge: the swim team’s annual 10-day training trip to Florida. The setting is a 50-meter pool in a sunny location, but the focus is on shaving precious seconds off swimmers’ times in preparation for the conference championships in February and the NCAA Tournament in March. There’s also the potential for some individual swimmers to qualify for the U.S. Olympic Trials in July.
“I’m expecting hard work, so we can do well at conference,” Cavalcanti said of the Florida trip.
Programs across the Southeast compete for the same top-level swimmers, Kobe said. But ECU often has a recruiting edge because the coaching staff has a reputation for pushing its athletes well beyond their personal bests.
“When they come in here they improve,” Kobe said. “That’s why you have a good program is that kids continue to improve. There are some schools that have reputations that their kids don’t really improve that much. And that’s not fun, because all swimmers want to get fast. That’s their number one goal, is to swim faster.”
Freshman Lauren Dufault has only been competing since August but already she has taken two seconds off both her 200 butterfly and 200 individual medley times, she said. She has been swimming hard all of her life, she said, but the Pirate regimen has stretched her work ethic and brought results. Always a family
Twelve years ago, McGee Moody had just finished his last race as a Pirate. It was the last event of the meet, and something kept him from getting out of the pool. After about 15 minutes, Kobe walked over to him and said, “You don’t want this to be done yet, do you?”
The next thing Moody knew, he was a graduate assistant under Kobe, which led to an assistant coaching job and a career path that propelled him, at the age of 33, to the head coach’s post at the University of South Carolina. He considers Kobe one of his chief mentors and the Minges Natatorium the place where he forged lifelong bonds.
“Coach Kobe, he really emphasizes the idea that you’re a family, that if you come into this program it’s not just something you’re doing for four years,” said Moody, who was the head coach at William and Mary for three seasons before he was hired by South Carolina in August. “I talked to two of the guys I swam with today. We had a reunion a few years ago, and it great. You had people from the class of ’96 sitting down with the class of ’80, and you would have thought everybody swam together.”