Much to the satisfaction of head swimming and diving coach Chris Ip, Clemson’s swan song had a perfect coda.
With the 83-year-old swimming program set to be discontinued at the end of the current campaign, Ip’s men and women rose to the occasion of their last-ever dual meet at home by sweeping Emory. In the bargain, the Tigers broke five pool records in what was to be their first and only appearance of 2011-12 at McHugh Natatorium.
That regular season-ending performance came as no surprise to Ip, who praised the character of the swimmers who chose to stay at Clemson, and their conquering of obstacle-after-obstacle in giving the program the kind of send-off it deserved.
“These guys won’t stop,” said Ip, marveling at a numerically-disadvantaged group which was forced to train and compete off-campus for a year-and-a-half while a leak at McHugh was being repaired. “They’ve taught us a lot about keeping promises and just wanting to honor a program. They’re going full-steam. You try to coach in cycles, and can’t go one-hundred-percent all the time. At some point, it’s going to give. But not with these guys.
“Whether it’s their last ACC meet, or final away dual meet, or the final home meet, they want to represent the program at the highest level, and they’re pushing themselves to the limit. That culminated in the final dual meet at McHugh Natatorium, which is something that I’ll always remember. There were over a hundred alumni in the stands, cheering, coming back to the Tiger den.”
And there was no denying the rafter-ringing effect of that support, as the Tigers’ Eric Bruck set new pool records in both the 50 free (19.64), and the 100 free (44.03). Likewise, the relay team of Chris Dart, Chris Reinke, Seth Broster, and Bruck posted new pool records in both the 200 medley relay (1:30.07) and the 200 free relay (1:21.44), while diver Brooke George set a new pool standard in the one-meter with her winning-score of 300.75.
“The alumni were on deck, there were cheers, and the Alma Mater at the end,” said Ip. “It was just a first-class way to honor the program in its final time, and as a coach I just stood back and let it happen. That’s a tribute to our alumni, and to our student-athletes, who are very proud of the program here.
“The swimmers were pushing back as hard as they could, breaking five pool records. These were pool records set by people who had been to the Olympics, and have been NCAA champions. This pool’s fast, and to go into a dual meet and knock off those records, some of which went back to when we held the ACCs here when people were fully prepared for their championship meet…well, here we were in a dual meet, and these guys were breaking records left and right.”
The sort of loyalty and resolve displayed this season by Clemson’s swimmers isn’t necessarily the norm in situations where programs are drawing-down and can’t replenish their numbers through recruiting.
“I told the team the other day that of all the years I’ve coached, this is the team that I will remember the most and respect the most, because of the situation they were placed in,” said Ip. “I wouldn’t have wanted any other group of young men and women in terms of putting the program away as they’ve done.
“I’ve talked with a few of my fellow-coaches out there who have gone through phase-outs, and they’ve told me horror stories about that final year of the program’s existence. Students weren’t showing up, and the apathy was evident in going from a solid program of twenty-five or thirty swimmers down to one swimmer at the end of the year who was representing the program.”
Ip hopes that some of the electricity of that final dual meet at McHugh will carry into the postseason, though he’s clearly elated at how successfully his teams have already secured their program’s legacy.
“After all these years, sometimes as a coach, you can get a little cynical and you might think that the athletes don’t care about their sport anymore, or their passion has changed,” he reflected. “This year, I came to practice every day charged-up, because those guys were ready to go. It’s been fun that way.
“It’s a very good tribute, and I’m very proud of what they’ve done. They haven’t turned their back on the university and they haven’t turned their back on the program. They just want to leave here in style and honor the program the way we wanted to. It’s made me a happy coach.”