Fresh off a strong showing at nationals a year ago, during which the women finished 4th and the men were 5th, the Darton College swimming and diving teams head back to Fort Pierce, Fla., today not only looking to improve on their team standing, but with hopes of bringing back multiple individual national championships. (Darton College/Special to The Herald)
FORT PIERCE, Fla. — Molly Gilbert knows her Darton swimmers have the talent to bring home a few national championships.
Now it’s all about handling the nerves.
The Darton men’s and women’s swimming and diving teams will compete in today’s NJCAA National Championship at Indian River State College — where they showed up Monday with several Top 5-ranked swimmers and soaring expectations.
Gilbert, the head coach of both Darton teams, is a former swimmer at both Westover and Darton, and she knows that much of the battle is in a swimmer’s head.
“A lot of it is mental,” Gilbert said. “They just have to go in there knowing that they are going to swim fast. They have put in the work and done the physical part. They just have to keep it in their heads that they are going to win. It really helps to have a team to support them, too.”
Darton might be taking its most talented teams ever to nationals, where the women finished fourth and the men finished fifth last year. Before practice Sunday morning, Gilbert said her teams should finish even better this season.
“The women’s group is just so strong. They came in fast, and we have been training really hard,” she said. “And the men have just as good of a shot as the women.”
Several Darton swimmers enter the meet seeded in the Top 5, but no one has higher expectations than freshman Anna Macht, who is ranked No. 1 in the nation in the 400-meter Individual Medley and has set seven different school records this season.
“We are all practicing really good, and we are all really excited,” Macht, a native of Germany, said earlier this week during one of the team’s final practices. “We all got really close this whole year, and we are all good friends. We are all cheering for each other, and we are there for each other. That makes the team really good.”
Other Top 5 swimmers are Nicole Hawkins, Karina Malmquist, Emily Mitchell, Deniss Jariga and T.J. Bland. Jariga, a native of Latvia, is seeded No. 1 in the 200 backstroke — an event the freshman set the school record in this season.
Darton will also compete in the 400 medley relay and 800 free relay, as well as the women’s 1-meter and men’s 3-meter diving preliminaries.
Cody Spradlin, a sophomore from Newnan, will represent Darton College in the men’s 3-meter dive competition, while sophomore and Leesburg native Kali Eigenberg will compete in the women’s 1-meter dive.
Macht, who is destined for a Division I scholarship after her stint at Darton, agreed with her coach that success will come down to whether she can calm her nerves before she gets into the pool.
That’s why she slips on her headphones before her races.
“I have to put my music on and focus,” said Macht, who added that she either listens to hip-hop or rap. “It pumps me up.”
She isn’t the only one who will use music to focus before the four-day national championships.
“I put music in, and I focus all the stress and the energy and it helps me do so much better,” said Bland, who is seeded No. 3 in the 100 breaststroke and No. 4 in the 200 breaststroke. “It actually calms me down. You are nervous, but when you hit the water you are a totally different person. It makes you do so much better.”
Bland said that most of his teammates will put on headphones and listen to music before their big races today, but others take a non-traditional route.
“My friend Wally always takes water and splashes it up,” Bland said with a laugh about Darton sophomore Wally Senter. “I don’t know what it does.”
All that matters to Gilbert is that her swimmers get focused before their races, because she said they have the skill to bring home the school’s first individual national championship since Aviv Sela’s title in 2009 in the 200 breaststroke.
“They are all hyped up and feeling really good,” Gilbert said. “I’m excited to see what is going to happen. They are going to swim fast. I know they are.”