Mesa Ridge's and Widefield’s boys' swimming and diving coach Susan Wickberg may let out a nervous gasp or gesture watching her inexperienced athletes practice diving, but she enjoys coaching a team again.
The past two seasons, the District 3 high schools failed to draw enough interest to field a team. Wickberg would host organizational meetings that were attended by eight to 10 boys. This year, she got some help from the girls' swimming team, which she also coaches during the winter, to spread the word to the guys about how cool swimming and diving is. The campaign worked and 23 boys make up this year’s roster. Just three, however, have experience as competitive swimmers.
“It’s different because there is a huge learning curve,” Wickberg said of this season compared to the past 16 which she’s coached. “We had a couple of preseason practices where we just talked about what it means when we say a 25 (meters) or what it means to say a 50. They have no idea.”
Wickberg is focused on fostering a creating a community built on tradition. It’s why she incorporates some traditions from the girls team, such as having a swimmer who had a great practice break out the huddle at the end, and making sure the boys shake the hand of each coach as they walk into the locker room.
With the team’s first meet happening Tuesday at Pueblo East, Wickberg likes the progress and camaraderie she’s seen so far, even though she works her team hard.
“It’s a lot harder than they thought it was going to be,” she said. “I promised them, ‘You're gonna hurt, you’re gonna be sore and you’re gonna be tired. If you’re not, I'm not doing my job. But I also promise you that whatever you come to me with, we will make you faster, we will make you better, we will make you stronger.’ We’re going to race against ourselves.
"I have no idea what kind of times or diving scores we’re gonna get because we haven’t done it for three years.”
A couple of those athletes working to get better are Mesa Ridge juniors Dax Wilson and Zion Dean. Dean and Wilson are two of the more adept divers among a group that hasn’t had any experience diving competitively. Tennis players in the fall, the two decided to try a new sport this spring.
“I’ve always had a passion for diving but I’ve never actually tried it out so I just thought might as well come and try it, and also it’s a great way to stay in shape,” Wilson said.
“It feels fresh to learn something new, make mistakes and learn from them,” Dean said. “It’s always more rewarding when you do something wrong to then do (it) right.
“It’s very tiring, it kicks your butt, I’m out of breath every time we do our warm-up, but it’s fun, it’s a great workout and I like it.”
Right now, there’s not a lot of focus at Mesa Ridge on boys' swimming and diving given that the team has been gone for a couple of years, Wilson said. The boys hope to change the culture.
To do that Dean and Wilson will need to stay with the program and to that end, retaining a majority of her roster is Wickberg’s top priority for the season. She’d love to see them all stay but realistically she’d like to keep at least 18 swimmers and divers. Apart from that, she hopes to see her team be legal in all four strokes and doing flip turns by the time May rolls around.
One might think it might be difficult for the few swimmers with competitive experience to have to start from the beginning again with different teammates. For Widefield sophomore Josh McDuffee, that isn’t the case.
“I was actually really eager to start a team here,” he said. “It would have been cool to go over to Fountain Fort-Carson again because I have a lot of friends over there, but it’s really cool and it’s easier too because the school’s (closer).”
Wickberg said swimming is something her athletes can do for life that will keep them in shape, with or without a team, but she says the bond is special.
“The bonding that goes on with swimming and diving I think is very unique because you are competing against somebody else, but you’re not necessarily fighting for a spot because we’ve got four entries on an individual event and there are four spaces on relay. So you can be supporting each other and still competing against each other, you don't have to try to take something away from somebody else to have your own success."
That bond brings students, who normally are bitter rivals on the gridiron, on the court, and everywhere else, together as a bunch of guys learning the sport and having fun.
“We don’t really think too much about being different schools, we’re all swimming and we’re all just trying to have a good time,” Wilson said.
Maybe it’s one of reasons the team has decided to go with a blending of their two school mascots, the Grizziliators.