Speeding in the Lanes

Harvard's undefeated women swimmers move sleekly through the water -- and past all opponents.

Last February, the powerhouse Harvard women’s swimming and diving squad rolled into Princeton for the three-day Ivy championship meet, hoping to seize its first Ivy conference title since 1992. (The meets alternate between Harvard and Princeton, the only colleges with suitable facilities; the host institution supplies the officials.) Princeton had won five consecutive times, starting in 2000. The Crimson came in second in 2003, and in 2004 finished only 16.5 points behind the Tigers (1,361 to 1,344.5). But in 2005, Harvard entered the meet with an undefeated 10-0 record.

Yet on the first day of competition, the Crimson dug itself a hole. Its 400-yard medley relay team, which was cruising to victory by a wide margin, was disqualified when an official said Harvard’s last swimmer entered the water before her teammate had touched. The Princeton crowd cheered the disqualification, which meant that, instead of 64 points for the win, Harvard scored nothing. Princeton finished the day in the lead by 17.5 points.

Harvard women’s relay teams have been disqualified at three of the last four championship meets at Princeton’s DiNunzio Pool, though nowhere else. So last winter’s disqualification in a won race could have been disheartening. It wasn’t. Swimming meets are won or lost in the preliminary heats, and on the morning of day two, Harvard women dominated them.

World-class aquawomen: butterfly specialist Noelle Bassi (left) and breaststroker Jaclyn Pangilinan, wearing their Harvard team swimsuits at Blodgett Pool.

Photograph by Stu Rosner

The Ivy championships score points for the top 24 swimmers in the heats: the fastest eight make the finals, the next group (places 9 through 16) swim the consolation, and the third group (places 17 through 24) swim the “bonus.” “If you make the [evening] finals, then you can’t score lower than eighth place,” says Stephanie Wriede Morawski ’92, Ed.M. ’99, head coach of women’s swimming and diving. “The big thing is doing it in the morning; you’ve got to get into the finals.” Get in they did—in droves, and in all four swimming strokes: freestyle, backstroke, breaststroke, and butterfly (or ’fly). Harvard did win the championship, drowning the Tigers by 226 points, 1,615 to 1,389; Brown, in third place, was more than 600 points back.

The undefeated season and dominance at the Ivy meet spotlighted a deep Harvard squad that boasts a few superstars. This year they again went undefeated (10-0) and, by January, ranked twenty-third in the nation after edging out a powerful Rutgers squad, 150-149. “We have tons of talent,” says Morawski, now in her ninth year as head coach, noting that Harvard had three sophomores at the 2004 Olympic trials: breaststroker Jaclyn Pangilinan (pan-jill-E-nan), freestyle and butterfly specialist Bridget O’Connor, and backstroker Lindsay Hart. Junior Noelle Bassi was also there in the butterfly.

 “It’s not just about the clock and the times they go, it’s about racing,” says Morawski. “It doesn’t matter what it takes; their goal is to beat the person in the next lane. I’ve seen women who are absolutely shocked at how fast they went. It’s a lot more enjoyable to race someone than to race the clock.” At meets, Morawski usually places swimmers in lanes alongside their major rivals, though on occasion she likes to put someone in an outside lane, she says, so “she won’t be noticed.”

Swimming is unique among sports because the 80-degree water provides a constant cooling effect. Consequently, “We can train at higher levels and over longer periods of time than any other sport,” says Morawski, who was a two-time all-American herself and went to the 1988 and 1992 Olympic trials in breaststroke. The Harvard women do train exceptionally hard, working on different energy systems every day and using props like paddles or buoys to isolate arm or leg motions in the water. “Every [regular season] meet they swim, they swim tired,” Morawski says. “We don’t back off on training in order to race, because the only way to build endurance and power is to train uninterruptedly.”

That changes toward the end of the season, when the team targets peak performance; then, the swimmers take an extended “taper” of reduced workouts—perhaps 10 days of taper for distance swimmers, or as much as six weeks for 50- and 100-yard sprinters. The reduced workload builds a reserve of energy that explodes from the starting blocks in a big competition like the Ivy championships, the NCAAs, or the world’s fastest swimming meet, the U.S. Olympic trials. (Overall, heats at the U.S. trials are even faster than those at the Olympic Games, reflecting the unusual depth of swimming talent in the States.)

Before big meets, male and female swimmers also shave their bodies, which does more than decrease drag through the water. “When you fully shave, you’re exfoliating the top layer of your skin, and exposing the pores,” Morawski explains. “The feeling you get when you dive in is fantastic, as if you’re smooth and gliding through the water effortlessly.” The advent of swimsuits that reach the ankles—“fast suits”—is “sort of taking away the need for the shave,” she notes, but can’t replace its psychological effect.

Two of the fastest Crimson aquawomen grew up only a few miles apart in New Jersey. Noelle Bassi ’07 of Franklin Lakes had a swimming pool in her backyard; a YMCA teacher gave her lessons there when she was only three years old. Bassi was a decisive child. “I don’t want to dance anymore,” she told her mother on the day of her dance recital at the age of four. “I want to swim.” Bassi did twice-daily workouts in middle school and made her first national cut as a freshman at Mercersburg Academy in Pennsylvania. The next year she was fast enough to make the U.S. trials cut for the Sydney Olympics. She matriculated at the University of Tennessee on a full athletic scholarship, but transferred to Harvard after one year: “It was too far from home,” she says, “and not the place for me.”

Pangilinan (left) and Bassi take a lap together. Both women also compete in individual medley for the Crimson squad, which is 20-0 for the past two seasons.
Photograph by Stu Rosner

Tennessee did not release Bassi to compete in her sophomore year, so even though she trained with the team, she couldn’t race for Harvard. But she did win gold in her best event, the 200-meter butterfly, at the 2004 U.S. nationals. With additional qualifying times in the 100-meter fly and the 400-meter individual medley, she went to the 2004 Olympic trials, finishing sixth in the 200-meter fly. (Only the top two swimmers went to Athens.)

Jaclyn Pangilinan did swim at Athens, for the Philippines’ Olympic squad, finishing twentieth overall in the 200-meter breaststroke and thirty-third in the 100-meter breaststroke; she holds the Philippines’ national records in those events. Although her hometown is Clifton, New Jersey, Pangilinan established dual citizenship with the Philippines early in 2004; her father, a native Filipino, emigrated to the United States in his twenties.

Pangilinan took an entourage of 14 relatives to Athens, but she herself enjoyed living with 15,000 other athletes in the Olympic Village. “It was an amazing feeling, to go into this huge cafeteria and be surrounded by some of the greatest athletes in the world,” she recalls. “Everyone is on the same level—LeBron James and Andy Roddick were right there; you could walk up and talk to them.”

Pangilinan danced longer than Bassi: she studied tap and jazz for nine years. She started swimming at nine (“kind of old,” she says) and once beat a friend at a country-club lap race. “I liked it!” she says. By the age of 10, she was at the top of her age group for all YMCA swimmers in the country. At 14 she found coach Ilan Noach of the White Plains, New York, “Middies” swim club, and has worked with him ever since. In high school, that meant driving nearly an hour each way to practices from 4 to 6 p.m. on weekdays, plus a Sunday workout from 6 to 8 a.m.

“Jackie has great feel for the water,” says Morawski, “and tremendous strength in her legs, a powerful kick. Her turns are very strong.” Pangilinan swims the 200-yard individual medley for Harvard as well as her breaststroke specialties. Last year she was undefeated in the 100-yard breaststroke in dual meets, and lost only once in the 200—to teammate LeeAnn Chang ’07. At the H-Y-P meet, freshman Pangilinan handed Princeton’s all-Ivy senior Stephanie Hsiao the only defeat of the latter’s four-year career in the 100-yard breaststroke. “She was ahead the whole race, but I came from behind in the last five yards,” Pangilinan recalls. At the NCAA meet in 2005, she finished fifteenth and lowered Harvard’s previous record (set by Morawski) with a 2:13.98 time in the 200-yard breaststroke. Pangilinan and her teammates wouldn’t mind setting a few more records this season, and repeating as Ivy champions at the season-ending meet in Blodgett Pool. 

~Craig Lambert

Read more articles by: Craig Lambert

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