AUBURN, Ala. – Before they began stretching and warming up for a dual meet at Texas A&M’s glittering Student Recreation Natatorium the second weekend of January, Auburn swimming and diving senior captains Kyle Owens and Stu Ferguson insisted the entire squad take a lap around the pool.
Not wading in the water. Walking around it … plotting.
“We said, make this your pool now,” Owens said, “because when all the other teams are here, they’re going to know this is your pool.”
That’s the ideal psychology of a perennial champion. Auburn is 16-time defending winner of the SEC Championships, and starting today it will try to make it 17 straight in College Station by the end of Saturday’s finals.
The most recent of the Tigers’ seven NCAA crowns was claimed in this very same pool, in 2009. None of the 30 men on the current roster had yet to suit up for Auburn.
In Owens’ mind, when in unfamiliar territory, it’s important to know every last detail of his surroundings – the colors of the walls, the size of the bleachers, even the location of the restrooms.
So when Auburn defeated the host Aggies 189-11 six weeks ago, it wasn’t just a routine road victory. Valuable experience was garnered for when the Tigers’ impressive streak over the better part of two decades is once again on the line.
“We’ve had 16 in a row. You know, try and beat us. It’s kind of that mentality,” Owens said. “The coaches throughout the whole season try and teach us that – don’t get nervous, but make it your baby, and say, this is ‘your’ meet.”
You’d think with a cavalcade of colossal banners hanging from the rafters at James E. Martin Aquatics Center, it’d be easy for the Tigers to constantly bear the 16-year consecutive dominance in mind.
“We’ve never really talked about winning championships,” swimming and diving head coach Brett Hawke said. “We just talk about being at our best each year, and it just happens to be that we’ve won so many championships with that. We do realize that the community at large really responds to how well we’ve done, and that’s a big part of everyday practice for us. We have an expectation to be great, so we hold the guys to that standard.
“They’re proud of the streak, but it’s certainly not something they dwell on too much.”
That weekend at Texas A&M, one of two membership additions to the SEC, was also a big one for the Auburn women, who went 7-0 in dual meets this winter.
They knocked off the prohibitive league favorite Aggies 158-141, giving them confidence they can rekindle the SEC success from 2003-08, with five conference championships in six seasons.
“Auburn’s kind of fallen off the map a little bit the past couple of years, at least for the women’s side,” senior team captain Katie Gardocki said. “So I think winning will get back to where we used to be and where we need to be in the future.”
Gardocki sets the main goal at finishing top three this week, with Texas A&M and three-time reigning champ Georgia figuring to lead the pack.
“It’s bigger than yourself. You’re fighting for your team,” senior freestyler Becca Jones said. “So I couldn’t even put into words how I would feel. You work all season long for it, and just to be able to accomplish something as a team that we set our goals for, that would give us a lot of confidence going into the NCAAs.”
The Auburn men and women each bring two 2012 Olympians with them to the postseason. Brazilian sprinter Marcelo Chierighini and Englishman mid-distance James Disney-May are a pair of male junior freestyle swimmers, while freestyle/butterfly sophomore Megan Fonteno (American Samoa) and senior breaststroke Micah Lawrence (USA) represent the women.
This is the first time the SEC meet is spread out over five days. Because of the new infrastructure of the SEC, the future of men and women competing for conference titles together in one pool on one weekend is uncertain.